With the death of Lillian Asplund at the age of 99, there is no one left in the world with living memory of what happened on The Titanic in the early morning of April 15, 1912. Asplund, who lost her father and three of her brothers, did not care to talk about the Titanic disaster, even when offered money to tell the story. Yet later in life, she told a friend how as a five year old girl she still recalled the moment when the great ship -- the unsinkable Titanic -- had slipped into the icy waters of the north Atlantic.
Oddly enough, I was the same age as Lillian Asplund when I watched The Titanic's dramatic last moments when the stern of the great ship reared up and up, until it was almost vertical, and I held my breathe as I saw its final dizzying plunge. Unlike Lillian, however, I was not sitting shivering in a life-boat, but in a warm and comfortable seat in a movie-house in a suburb of Chicago.
The version I first watched in 1953 was the Hollywood movie called The Titanic; five years later in 1958, the British made what is generally considered the finest movie ever made about the sinking, and it took its title from Walter Lord's famous book on the disaster, called A Night to Remember. Yet the night I saw the 1953 version was, for me, not only a night to remember, but a night I could not forget. Looking back on my childhood, I find that I have few memories as vivid as those associated with my father taking me to see The Titanic. (I was out playing somewhere when my father asked me if I would like to see the movie.) Since I had never heard of The Titanic then, I asked him to tell me about the story, and his short explanation sufficed to arouse my curiosity; yet nothing he said had prepared me for the shock of seeing the events unfold on the huge screen right in front of my eyes, and at that twilight time in our childhood where the difference between the real and the reel is considerably blurred -- I felt as if I were living through the events depicted on the screen.
From that time on, I remained obsessed by The Titanic disaster. At home, I used to take my crayons and draw the same scene over and over; and, in grade school, whenever we were given the opportunity to draw whatever we wanted to draw, I would revert back to the same image -- or perhaps I should say icon. For the picture I drew was always the same: it showed the stern of The Titanic in mid-air, surrounded by life-boats, posed eternally at the exact moment before its final descent.
Somewhere deep down inside of me, I had quickly grasped the moral of the story. I knew that The Titanic had been proclaimed unsinkable; I knew about the water-tight compartments that, in theory, would keep it afloat virtually under any contingency; I knew that here was a story of how pride went before the fall -- as the Bible puts it -- or how nemesis always hunts down hubris, as the ancient Greeks cautioned. I knew that human beings could never count absolutely on anything -- if the unsinkable Titanic could sink, then nothing human was safe. In short, from an early age I developed an instinctive aversion amounting almost to a superstition against those whose attitude was, "Don't worry about it -- what can possibly go wrong?" To me, anything could go wrong, and an essential element of wisdom was to recognize this stark and pessimistic truth. Why else had The Titanic sunk, except to reveal this lesson to us?
Yet, as I continued over the course of decades to reflect on The Titanic disaster, I began to see in the story something more than merely a cautionary tale about human arrogance. For it also contained stories of heroism -- the willing sacrifice that many of the men aboard made in order to save those they loved, their wives and children. But, in particular, I found myself reflecting on the role played by two of the outstanding characters in the saga. First, the realistic heroism of Thomas Andrews, the perfectionist and logical Scotsman who had designed and built the great ship; and, second, the optimistic heroism of one of its most famous passengers, the woman whose real name was Maggie Brown, though she is now better known to the world as the "unsinkable Molly Brown."
Both were heroes, and yet they displayed their heroism in what, superficially, might seem to be diametrically opposite ways. Andrews was a hero because he refused to be seduced by optimism at a moment when optimism would have proved fatal; Maggie Brown was a hero because she insisted on being optimistic when optimism alone could save the day.
Shortly after The Titanic struck the iceberg, Thomas Andrews went below decks to see for himself what damage the hull had suffered in the collision. Six of the watertight compartments were flooding, and no one knew better than Thomas Andrews that his ship could stay afloat with four flooded compartment, but not with six. He immediately consulted with the captain of the ship, rapidly made the cold-blooded calculations required in the emergency, and informed the captain that The Titanic would sink within an hour and a half, and two hours at the most. For both Andrews and the captain, this was a virtual announcement of their death-sentences; neither man could possibly abandon the ship. Both would in fact go down with her, with Andrews heroically struggling to save as many of the passengers as he could in the little time that remained. Yet surely his most heroic act was his refusal to entertain any illusions about how long his ship would stay afloat; his determination to face the worst case scenario without flinching from its implications, and to face it immediately and without a moment's hesitation. In short, his heroism was that of the realist who knows that there are times when optimism is not an option, and when reality must be faced with grim fortitude.
"Molly" Brown showed her heroism in a different way. Stuck in a freezing life-boat full of hysterical women, (and hysterical with good cause), Brown was horrified to discover that the one steersman manning the boat thought their situation was hopeless. They could not possibly get their boat far enough away from the great vessel before it sank, and their tiny boat would be pulled down along with it. But Maggie Brown refused to accept the death sentence to which the oarsman's pessimism had condemned both her and the other women in the boat. Unlike her boat-mates, she had been born on the American frontier and was as tough as nails; her millions had came to her only after she struggled through the school of hard knocks, and she was not the type to simply roll over and die. Instead, she grabbed an oar and made the other ladies do the same; she rallied them, encouraged them, and gave them hope. She transformed a boat full of hysterical fatalists into a crew intent on saving themselves through their own efforts -- and she succeeded.
Her heroism consisted in the refusal of fatalism -- it was the heroism of hope against hope. So what if the steersman knew more about boats than she did? She knew she wanted to live, and that was all that mattered to her -- she would find a way to survive, and by her determination to find a way, she rescued not only herself, but all who were inspired by her unsinkable optimism.
With the death of Lillian Asplund, no one now alive remembers that night to remember; yet it remains a night that we must never forget. It is a vivid parable of what happens when men think that they can create a world that is safe from catastrophic failure -- for they cannot. But it is also the story of how, in the face of disaster, it is urgently necessary that there be men among us who, like Thomas Andrews, are willing to face up squarely to the failure of their deepest and most cherished designs, while it is no less necessary for there to be Maggie Browns, who, having accepted the worst, still do their damnedest to make the best of it.