‘Titanic’ movie just the tip of the iceberg

By now, it may seem to you as if we have been commemorating the centennial of the Titanic’s epic sinking for, well, a hundred years. Perhaps you feel like Kate Winslet does when she hears Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”

“Actually, I do feel like throwing up,” Winslet – a.k.a., Rose DeWitt Bukater in James Cameron’s 1997 movie – told MTV News. MTV, of course, is the third most trusted news source in the world, after TMZ and Perez Hilton.

Anyhow, it was exactly one-hundred years today, April 15, 1912, that the massive ocean liner disappeared beneath the frigid waters 350 miles southeast of Newfoundland. As I confessed last week, I am a serious Titanic geek. This week alone I have seen the re-release of Cameron’s movie in 3-D, Lyric Theatre’s presentation of the musical at the Flynn Center, and spent way too much time watching clips of Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 movie, “A Night to Remember,” on Youtube. I do not feel like throwing up when I hear “My Heart Will Go On” – though I do roll my eyes when the Kate Winslet character in Cameron’s movie says about the Picasso “finger paintings” she has purchased, “They’re fascinating. It’s like being inside a dream or something. There’s truth but no logic.”

And I have found myself staring at the small paper program that was passed out at the memorial service seven years ago for Betsey Rice Lovejoy Schaefer. Betsey was my wife’s great aunt and she died in late 2004 at the age of 103. One hundred years ago today, she was an eleven-year-old girl on the deck of the RMS Carpathia, watching as the shell-shocked survivors of the Titanic huddled on the decks. The Carpathia was the transatlantic passenger ship that arrived at the approximate site of the Titanic sinking about four in the morning on April 15 and picked up the roughly 700 passengers and crew who survived the iceberg.

This is, obviously, a pretty tenuous connection I have to the maritime tragedy. I married a woman whose great aunt happened to have been on the rescue vessel. But history is like that. It is how all of us are reminded as people that often we are separated by far fewer than six degrees. I feel the same way when I look at old black and white photographs of my uncle, a paratrooper, who jumped both in the Normandy invasion and Operation Market Garden in 1944. I get the same sense of how we are always living in history when I come across photos of another of my uncles – and, again, a soldier – who happened to escort Marilyn Monroe when she was entertaining the troops in Korea in 1954.

My wife’s and my daughter, Grace, had just turned four when Cameron’s “Titanic” was released, and she would not see it for years. My parents had allowed me to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” when I was a little boy, and for months afterward I would dive under the nearest table whenever my older brother would sidle up behind me and call out, “Caw! Caw!” I had learned a valuable lesson. Nevertheless, my daughter was one of at least three or four girls in her small preschool who spent that winter and spring insisting that her middle name was Rose. That was how pervasive the movie – and the “Titanic” story – was. When my wife’s great aunt wrote Grace a short note explaining her link to the real Titanic, for weeks Grace was a minor celebrity among her friends.

Incidentally, Great Aunt Betsey would last a lot longer than the Carpathia: The ship would be torpedoed and sink in the summer of 1918. Unlike the Titanic, almost everyone would survive, which perhaps may explain why no one remembers it. The Carpathia had plenty of lifeboats.

In any case, as we commemorate the centennial of the Titanic tragedy, it is important to recall the 1,500 souls who perished on April 15, 1912 and their place in history. After all, just like Betsey Rice Lovejoy Schaefer, none of them – none of us – is really a footnote.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on April 15, 2012. Chris’s new novel, ‘The Sandcastle Girls,’ arrives on July 17.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.