Nothing in recent history defines the spectrum of human drama in so clear and compact a story as the sinking of Titanic. Like the great epics of Greek tragedy, Titanic represents so precisely the folly of man driven by the classic sin of hubris – excessive pride. Titanic is a historical magnet and timeless tale, deeply rooted in human experience. In every generation, the story resonates with a fresh perspective and important lessons. Imagine you are on the journey of your life, exhausted and stimulated from three months of touring Europe with your family. You have just finished eating an exquisite dinner and excuse yourself to step out onto the deck to get some air. The First-class dining saloon is crowded with the movers and shakers of the Edwardian elite in fine tuxedos, indulging in provocative conversation and the clinking of crystal glassware. Couples are dancing in splendid evening gowns and sweeping tailcoats to the rhythm of ragtime standards. You make your way up the grand staircase, the sultry touch of the curving oak rails and soft light reflect dreamy orbs against the rich oak walls and glittering gold fixtures. Out on the deck, you look down the length of the enormous vessel. The lights of the great ship melt into the darkness beyond. The cold meets your breath and drifts like the steam escaping from one of the funnels towering above you. Memories float through your mind as you peer up at the millions of stars; Father feeding pigeons in Venice and sipping tea on a terrace in Cairo. You are witnessing the close of an era, a door in the vault of history locks in place. Your thoughts flutter about this incredible adventure, your future and this magnificent ship. The temperature drops. You go back inside to escape the cold and say goodnight to all the wonderful people you have met. Upon reaching your stateroom on C-Deck, you lie down in your comfortable bed and fall into a peaceful sleep when a steward knocks at the door. In the next few hours, your life will change forever. You are loaded into a lifeboat, thinking it only a drill. You'll see Father in the morning once the drill is over, he says and disappears into the crowd. The activity on deck is calm as the men load the women and children into the small white boats. Tired of the shenanigans, you are just about to stand up and leave, when the blinding flares of rockets fire overhead. The steam escapes from the funnels like the blast of a million teapots all at once. You can't hear what anyone is saying. 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller, yells orders for several crewmen to lower the boat. 1 In several frightening jerks, the lifeboat descends, passing the many decks while you grasp your mother's hands. Someone throws a baby from above and as the boat descends faster, a third class passenger leaps in and falls on top of you, crushing your arms against your stomach.
He huddles close to the floor in a fetal position. Soon, you watch in horror as the Titanic disappears in a last epic adieu, exposing its large propellers into the starry sky, then plunging under the chilly Atlantic. After the crashing of thousands of countless objects give way to the dramatic tilt and final exit of the stern, you hear the screaming of thousands mixed in with those in the lifeboats calling out to the others. As the ship plunges to its dark grave, the echo of many voices in the ears of the living send chills, ever colder than the freezing temperatures they'll endure this night. Nothing in your life will ever be the same, again. The demise of Titanic read like the greatest novel ever written, but the kicker is – it really happened. A great story never dies and is, therefore, impossible to ignore as it appeals to that which is inherent within each of us – the common thread of humanity. Since her fatal voyage, we have seen other such examples: the Hindenburg, Pearl Harbor, 9-11 and the present tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Mark Twain said it best when he declared, “History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes,” and as the wreck of Titanic lies 2.5 miles below the ocean’s surface, her story calls attention to “what lies beneath,” the collective unconscious in each of us reaching back to ancient oral stories around primitive fires. Titanic is connected to the source of primal human nature. Her story strips away all the needless things that bog us down: the fruitlessness of war, the illusion of money, the illusion of class and materialism. The solitary message that Titanic left for us as she slipped below the surface was – sustain the living. 2 If we put hubris aside, we look at several other reasons the legend of Titanic persists. Its secrets are still unfolding in the irony that man is willing to go down into the depths of its haunting graveyard. Underwater travel to the sight is not only possible, it's happening on a frequent basis. A company known as RMS Titanic Inc. (RMST), is actively exploring the area, recovering nearly 6,000 pieces since 1987 from the debris field where the bow and stern lie 1,970 feet apart.
In 1912, the average first-class passenger carried 16 trunks on a normal transatlantic trip. My own ancestors, first-class passengers, Mark and Mary (McDougald) Fortune, had purchased wedding gowns for two of their daughters. Will the RMST recover the jewels that Mary and her daughters handed their father and brother as they got into Lifeboat 10? Or, perhaps they might find a wedding trousseau with the label, “Worth, 7. Rue de la Paix, Paris,” packed neatly in a steamer trunk? You can be sure that our family will be watching. Newly discovered artifacts are open to the public in seven traveling exhibits around the world. In the years to come, the wreck of Titanic will deteriorate and every piece brought up, will reveal another angle, another document, another heirloom; making history as it recovers history. When I was 10 years old, Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of Titanic in 1985. I remember reading the article in the December issue of National Geographic. For my generation, it was the closest thing to landing on the moon. Our family had learned about my Titanic ancestors in the early 1980s through letters my mother had written to my grandfather’s sisters, Lillian and Doris Sambrook and Verla Ballard. In 1990, my Aunt Linda (McDougald) Watson and I had the opportunity to meet my grandfather’s sisters; all three were in their late 70s, out of a family of seven. Doris Sambrook, the last of my grandfather’s siblings died in 2007. She was 95 years old. Those I tell the story to, always want to learn more. I often chuckle when I get the response, “Did they survive?” Although our family is related through my great-grandfather, Alexander McDougald, Mary Fortune’s brother, I find that many people have little knowledge of ancestry and how it connects with our collective history. When tragedies occur, we often lose connection to family and identity. My grandfather, Ivan McDougald, committed suicide in 1946 and it was not talked about, even years later. As a result, we knew very little of my grandfather other than photographs, until my mother began writing his sisters. As a result, my Aunt Linda and I began to fill in the missing information to honor his life and heal our own. I encourage everyone to learn more about their own history. Having a family connection to an important event in history solidifies our human experience and honors those who died so they are not forgotten. For the generation who experienced Titanic's tragedy, it was too much to bear, too painful for the full impact of Titanic to reveal itself. Those who lived through it could not speak of it. As the next generation became entrenched in the first and second World Wars, perspective eluded them as well. Perhaps in my generation, it is our duty to revisit the sins of hubris – to reevaluate all that came after that pivotal moment in 1912 – for its wake is felt today and we must drift back to go forward.