Transfixed by the Titanic

The SS 'Titanic', leaving Belfast to start her trials, pulled by tugs, shortly before her disastrous maiden voyage of April 1912.
The SS 'Titanic', leaving Belfast to start her trials, pulled by tugs, shortly before her disastrous maiden voyage of April 1912. (Topical Press Agency, Getty Images)

There is nothing more evocative than looking at or touching an object from, or meeting someone associated with, a dramatic historical event. Simply said, it puts you there.

And that has been my good fortune throughout my life when it came to people and things associated with the RMS Titanic, which sank April 15, 1912, on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, after colliding with an iceberg off the Grand Banks.

My first encounter with the Titanic came on Christmas morning in 1955, when my mother gave my father a copy of the recently published "A Night to Remember," by Baltimore-born and -raised author Walter Lord, whom I would get to know years later.

I was 8 years old and had never heard of the Titanic. But I do remember being hypnotized by the illustration on the book's black, blue and yellow dust jacket, wondering what this was all about.

Here was the great White Star liner, ablaze in light, steaming full speed ahead under a canopy of stars on a chill Atlantic night as smoke streamed from three of the ship's four buff-colored funnels.

The ill-fated liner was plowing ahead into an enormous and ominous iceberg that rose from North Atlantic waters on the left side of the dust jacket, and even though I hadn't read a word of the book, I could surmise this was a story that was not going to end very happily.

Our neighbors, Enid and James Gilbert, who had immigrated to central New Jersey from Cardiff, Wales, in the 1920s, had no children. The neighborhood children, to whom they were very kind, were like the children they never had.

They seemed ancient to us but were probably only in their early 60s. And their beautifully furnished home was extremely English in style, with crocheted doilies here and antimacassars there. Each afternoon at 4, Enid sat in her bay window sipping a cup of tea.

And each summer, they would close the house and sail to Southampton from New York aboard either the RMS Queen Mary, or her sister ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, and return to Cardiff.

I was so eager to tell them about the Titanic that I raced across the yard one frigid late-December afternoon. As I munched a cookie in Enid's dining room and sipped a glass of milk, I babbled on endlessly about the Titanic and this new book we were all fighting over to read.

She seemed very interested and patiently listened. And then she said four words that stopped me:

"I was on Titanic," she said.

"What?" I asked.

"I was on Titanic."

She explained that she and her family had gone up to Southampton on April 10, 1912, to see off her uncle, Samuel James Rule. He had been a White Star steward for nearly 40 years and had been selected as part of Titanic's crew.

She and her family went aboard for a tour of the ship, she said, and she recalled running down a long hallway redolent with the smell of fresh flowers and furniture polish. She even had a big bowl of vanilla ice cream from Titanic's galley and remembered it was the best she'd every had.

I was dumbstruck.

She continued, saying that after the Titanic sank, there was hardly a home in Cardiff that didn't have a black mourning wreath on the door. Her uncle, she said, survived but lost many friends."

He later testified at the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry into the loss of the ship, and eventually returned to the sea.

He died when his ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic during World War I — on the anniversary of the Titanic sinking, she said.

I was transfixed and raced home to blurt out this previously unknown neighborhood tale to my family, who were equally amazed.

And that is how I became hooked on the Titanic.

In 1991, I attended a meeting of the Titanic International Society in Rochelle Park, N.J., with Ernest F. Imhoff, a newsroom colleague and a fellow ship and disaster buff.

One of the mega-star guests at the weekend convention was Louise Kink Pope, 83, of Milwaukee, who was traveling with her Swiss parents and an aunt and uncle on the Titanic.

She also brought along several relics from that night when she was placed in Lifeboat D, the next-to-last boat launched from the doomed liner.

Pope, who was 4 years old at the time, had the leather shoes she wore into the lifeboat and the cotton blanket in which her mother had wrapped her as a precaution against the frigid night.

She told those who pressed that she had no memory of the night and only knew what her parents, who also survived, told her. Her aunt and uncle went down with the ship.

I was enveloped again by Titanic fever in 1998 when I visited Lord's home on Manhattan's Upper East Side, which was a virtual museum devoted to the memory of the ship.

Lord loved showing his Titanic memorabilia, asking only that "you don't portray me as some kind of nut."

In a frame was displayed the wire bulletin that came into the newsroom of The New York Times on April 15, 1912, announcing the ship's sinking.

How could it possibly get any better than this? But it did, and I would never, ever get closer to the Titanic.

There was a framed second-class menu of the last lunch served on the liner. (The fare included curried chicken and "cocoanut sandwiches".)

But it was the framed silver whistle, engraved with the word "Scout" on its top, that was truly heart-stopping. It was the whistle that was blown all through the night — remember the scene in James Cameron's "Titanic"? — by 2nd Officer Charles H. Lightoller as he tried to keep the lifeboats together.

Lord told me he blew it once or twice, and it was very "shrill."

Edith Russell, a noted fashion writer, had been returning aboard Titanic from Paris where she had been covering the lines unveiled for the coming season.

After her death in 1975, she willed her musical pig, a music box she had carried into Lifeboat 11 and used to help calm a terrified child, to Lord.

I held it in my hands, along with the evening slippers with embroidered roses that were on her feet when she stepped off the Titanic, and a haunting feeling swept over me.

Russell once said, "I'm accident-prone. ... I've had every disaster but bubonic plague and a husband."