Getting that sinking feeling

December 22, 1997

When I was a boy, someone gave me a tattered, brown-covered copy of a book about the wreck of the Titanic. I was fascinated.

Tragedies play differently on small minds than on grown-up minds and I found the fact that so many people lost their lives under dark, icy circumstances to be really neat. On reflection, it's probably not that the mind changes all that much as it matures, but that civilization allows youngsters to me enthralled by senseless death, under the false assumption they will grow up to know better.

I believe what attracted me was the idea that there could have been a boat so big, carrying so many passengers, so many years ago. I was a firm believer in the notions of progress and bigger is better, and it didn't register that back in 1912 there could have been a passenger liner bigger and better than any produced 60 years later.


If you believe mass transportation has progressed, keep in mind the Titanic had a gymnasium with rowing machines, a stationary bicycle and an electric horse, a swimming pool, squash court, Turkish bath, two barber shops, smoking rooms, a 10,488 square foot dining salon and an authentic Parisian cafe with French waiters.

The menu the night she went down included consommi olga, salmon, cucumber sauti of chicken, lyonnaise lamb with mint sauce, striploin of beef, forestiere sauce and chocolate and vanilla eclairs.

Think about that next time you're on some hapless U.S. Airways 727 redeye from BWI to Miami with your knees wedged up in your nostrils and nothing to eat but deboned chicken thighs ground up with celery and served in a Jell-O mold.

Progress? Humph. Granted we no longer have to suffer the French waiters, but save that we have declined in every respect. Oh yes, in today's dollars a first-class ticket would have cost $50,000, but at the age of 12 I had no concept that "Steerage" was the olden-day word for "Coach" so the class differences meant nothing.

But my fascination remained over the years, so when the film "Titanic" was released last week and I had the choice of doing my Christmas shopping or watching people die, it was an easy call.

I can't say how fitting I believe it is to release a disaster movie right before Christmas, although it was likely only a coincidence.

The movie lasts three hours and change, which is almost exactly an hour longer than it took the actual boat to sink.

"Titanic" could just as easily been named "Poseidon Adventure XVII," or "Why You Should Always Carry a Hacksaw" (I swear, those poor people came face to face with more metal grates than the homeless in Adams-Morgan).

The main conclusion "Titanic" leads you to, is that every person worth saving downed and every person who seriously needed to die was saved. There was no justice in this wreck. Had I been in charge the boat would have sunk top down so as to wipe out all the pretentious, cigar chomping jerks and giving the poor human rats below decks a chance. No, come to think of it, I would have had it sink all over - movie directors always have the bad habit of over-romanticizing the destitute.

Still, it was a good movie, even if they did turn it into an - ahem - a romance. The 12-year-old boy in my was terribly disappointed they focused on a woman and her true love and not the scientific stress capacities of the hull and whether Stack 3 really came down before Stack 2, causing a shift in ballast that forced the ole girl to break apart.

But things are never what they're advertised, be they films or unsinkable boats. As the worried ship-designer said: "She's made of iron; she'll sink."

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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