Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Titanic! By Clifford Goldstein

Benny Beeman told the story like this: In 1912, he was coming over on a ship to America. He was a child, about 10 years old, leaving the Old World, where life for Jews wasn’t so good. He was heading for the New World, where he and his family hoped it would be better.

As they steamed west, word circulated on the decks about a ship in the area that had gone down. His vessel veered off course in order to help. In the morning, as the sun rose on the calm sea, young Benny and hundreds of others stood on the chilly deck. In the calm water below, debris floated silently—furniture, clothing, packing boxes, and, worst of all, bodies—as far as the eye could see. 

“Even now,” Benny said in a conversation during the 1990s, “I will never forget it. It was the wreckage of the Titanic.”

Other people have not forgotten either—even those who were not there the morning after. In fact, this year—the centennial anniversary of the disaster—the sinking of the Titanic still hovers in our collective memory as, perhaps, the greatest symbol of the foibles and frailties of anything that humans do. It still reminds us how even our greatest technological accomplishments come laden with the weaknesses of the humans who make them. 

But, we ask, even now, a hundred years later: What can we learn from the Titanic? 

Bon Voyage 

When it left on its maiden voyage, bound for New York City on April 10, 1912, the Titanic was the largest luxury liner ever made. The numbers, even by today’s standards, are impressive. The Titanic was 882 feet long, about the size of the Empire State Building. Twenty horses were needed to deliver its main anchor. The ship burned 822 tons of coal per day; ten thousand light bulbs illuminated the ship. It took the energy from 29 boilers to push the 45,400 tons of ship and cargo across the Atlantic. Fourteen thousand gallons of drinking water were on board. Forty thousand fresh eggs were in the ship’s provisions. There were four restaurants, two barbershops, two libraries, and a swimming pool. 

Aside from the size and luxury of the ship, the Titanic was a very sturdy vessel. Regardless of the unconfirmed story about a deckhand boasting, “Even God couldn’t sink this boat,” it was an incredibly well built and seaworthy craft. In fact, when reports started coming in about the disaster, a White Star Line vice-president stated publicly, “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe that the boat is unsinkable.” 

Many others did, as well. That is why, despite the 2,228 passengers on board, there were only enough life boats for 1,178 of them—a presumptuous decision that would prove tragic. 

Terrible Truth 

The facts about the sinking are largely undisputed. On Sunday, April 14, the temperature had dropped to near freezing; the ocean, about four hundred miles south of Newfoundland, was flat calm. Warned over the wireless about icebergs, Captain Edward Smith had drawn up a new course that took the ship southward. That evening, the steamer Amerika warned that large icebergs lay in the Titanic’s path. Those messages, however, never reached the bridge. They rest, as they say, is history. 

At 11:40 p.m., two crewmembers, Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee, spotted an iceberg directly ahead of the ship. Sounding the ship’s bell three times, Fleet telephoned the bridge. “Iceberg, dead ahead,” he shouted. An officer gave the order for “hard-a-starboard.” 

The course correction was made but it was too late. A little more than half a minute later the ship ground into the iceberg. The hull started to give way, opening the first of what would soon be six compartments to the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The boat was designed to stay afloat if no more than four compartments were flooded. The impact had lasted ten seconds. 

“When the Titanic struck the iceberg,” recounted then-eight-year-old Marshall Drew, “I was in bed. However, for whatever reason I was awake, and I remember the jolt and cessation of motion. A steward knocked on the stateroom door and directed us to get dressed, put on life preservers, and go to the deck, which we did.” 

At first, just some of the crew—as they assessed the damage—came to understand the terrible truth: the ship would not survive. Lifeboats were ordered readied, and a distress call was sent out over the airwaves. A few officers knew that the ship would probably go down within an hour to an hour and a half; the pumps, working furiously, would provide only a few extra minutes. 

Passengers did not realize the extent of the danger. Only when they were told to get into lifeboats did many understand the deadly peril before them. 

“As I dressed,” English schoolmaster Lawrence Beesley said later, “I heard the order shouted, ‘All the passengers on deck with life belts on.’ We all walked up slowly with the life belts tied on over our clothing, but even then we presumed that this was merely a wise precaution the captain was taking. The ship was absolutely still, and except for the gentle, almost unnoticeable, tilt downward, there were no visible signs of the approaching disaster. But, in a few moments, we saw the covers being lifted from the boats and the crews allotted to them standing by and uncoiling the ropes, which were to lower them. We then began to realize that it was a more serious matter than we had at first supposed.” 

Women and Children 

“Women and children first,” was the order to the crew. Indeed, mostly women and children were saved, though in some cases women refused to leave their husbands and were forcibly dragged into the lifeboats. There were lifeboats for more than eleven hundred people, but not all were filled due to the confusion. In the end, only 713 people (and two dogs) were rescued. 

The 1,522 others drowned with the ship. 

Another survivor, Paul Chevre, described what it was like, in a lifeboat, watching the ship sink: “When our boat had rowed about half a mile from the vessel, the spectacle was quite fairylike. The Titanic, which was fully illuminated, was stationary, like some fantastic piece of stage scenery. The night was clear and the sea smooth, but it was intensely cold. Presently the gigantic ship began to sink by the bow, and then those who had remained on board realized the horror of their situation. Suddenly the lights went out, and an immense clamor filled the air in one supreme cry for help. Little by little the Titanic settled down, and for three hours cries of anguish were heard.” 

Clear Lessons 

Even though it wasn’t the worst sea disaster of the century (for example, during World War II, the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff left almost seven thousand dead), the sinking of the Titanic has remained in our consciousness, even a hundred years later. 

The lessons should be clear. First and foremost, nothing in this world is a sure thing. Death and taxes, perhaps. Everything else is contingent. In a world where even the ground beneath our feet might not be stable, the words of the apostle James are relevant: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit,’ whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:13-14). 

Second, everything human is fallible, error-prone, and less than perfect. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are all damaged, fallen. Everything we accomplish will bear the mark of that damage. 

The Titanic was touted as a wonder of engineering, luxury, and class. Nevertheless, it didn’t even survive its maiden voyage. It is a powerful reminder of the limits of everything human. 

Finally, the Titanic disaster makes one think of the apostle Paul’s declaration: “When they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). No one expected anything bad to happen to the Titanic. Certainly no one dreamed it could sink to the bottom of the sea with more than two-thirds of the passengers and crew perishing! It is a good example of the end times, the times that we are living in. People, maintaining a false sense of security, may think that all is well, not knowing that disaster may be dead ahead. 

A hundred years ago, the Titanic sank, yet its memory endures. One British tourist agency has arranged for people to take submarine trips to view the wreckage more than two miles below the surface. For a mere $30,000, a view of the wreckage is available. Apparently, there are plenty of takers. 

Most folks won’t get as close to the wreckage as young Benny Beeman did that fateful night on the North Sea. Nevertheless, it seems the Titanic will always remain in our consciousness, lurking there to remind us of life’s uncertainties and ultimate priorities.

Source: ConnectedChristian Record Services for the Blind
Author: Clifford Goldstein, editor of the Sabbath School Quarterly since 1999, has had a long and distinguished writing career. He has written 16 books and numerous magazine articles. He has been the editor of Liberty magazine and Shabbat Shalom magazine. Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Florida and a master’s degree in Ancient Semitic Languages from John Hopkins University... ► more

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