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Titanic: Death of a fantasyBY: Dan Rottenberg 04.03.2012
Of all my ridiculous fantasies from the ‘50s, the most ludicrous was this: that the sunken hull of the Titanic still harbored a living passenger, and that some day I would meet him.
The Titanic’s last survivor
Back in the ’50s, I harbored several teenage fantasies that were so ridiculous that I never mentioned them to anyone.
— I imagined myself a great operatic baritone like Robert Merrill.
— I dreamed that my modest talent as a football place-kicker would lead to a career in college and then the pros, where— somewhat like this year’s basketball sensation Jeremy Lin— I would demonstrate awesome talents that had previously gone unnoticed.
—I fantasized about sneaking down to South America to track down and capture my very own Nazi, Simon Wiesenthal-style.
I did achieve my first two fantasies, albeit with some small concessions to reality. In 1983 I made it to the front and center of the Academy of Music stage in a production of Carmen— not as Escamillo the Toreador, but as a non-singing super charged with refreshing Escamillo’s champagne glass after each verse of the Toreador Song.
Woody Allen’s dictum
As a would-be football player at Penn in the early ’60s, I demonstrated the wisdom of Woody Allen’s dictum: “90% of life is just showing up.” Having tried and failed to make the freshman team (too small), the lightweight team (too big) and the junior varsity (disbanded before its first game), I somehow wound up on the varsity, where I actually started three games as a kickoff man and even tackled a Division I All-America on one of my kickoffs. But I got no offers from the pros, at least not yet.
Nor have I yet captured a Nazi, but surely time is on my side: How much resistance will a toothless nonagenarian storm trooper put up when I finally confront him in his Paraguayan jungle hideout?
But the most ridiculous of my teen fantasies had nothing to do with me. I imagined that a salvage crew would raise the Titanic nearly half a century after it sank, only to discover a passenger on board who was still alive. As I conceived it, the force of the ship’s final plunge beneath the surface in 1912 would have caused the ship’s massive iron superstructure to collapse inward upon itself in such a manner as to create an air pocket deep within the heart of the ship— specifically, in the precise section where both the ship’s kitchen and the ship’s library were located.
My fantasy passenger— a 12-year-old American boy born in the mathematically convenient year of 1900— was trapped alone inside this air pocket. The Titanic’s kitchen, I calculated, was stocked with enough food to feed 2,200 people lavishly for ten days, so that even after three days at sea it still contained enough to feed one person adequately for 22,000 days, or slightly more than 60 years. The icy North Atlantic temperatures could preserve this food indefinitely, and the kitchen’s ample supply of candles and matches would enable to boy to light rooms and build fires for cooking and warmth.
He would have been deprived of human companionship, to be sure. But the library would have provided companionship of another sort. Here he would have discovered all the world’s great writers and thinkers— up to 1912, of course: Tolstoy and Balzac but not Hemingway or Faulkner; Nietzsche and Spinoza but not Heidegger or Bertrand Russell. And so the boy would have grown to manhood, feasting daily on chateaubriand and oysters and crème brulée and feasting his mind on Dickens and Brontë and Rousseau and Voltaire. The kitchen would have nourished his stomach while the library nourished his soul.
Thus (in my fantasy) he summoned the moral strength to persist and endure, in total ignorance of the changes taking place in the world around him. World Wars I and II would have come and gone without his knowledge; so would the Bolshevik Revolution, the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression, the Third Reich, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the discovery of antibiotics, Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis, not to mention Gershwin and Stokowski.
So when (in my fantasy) the Titanic was finally raised from the ocean floor in 1959, the salvagers would find this 59-year-old fellow inside— well fed and literate, if a bit oozy from the sudden decompression. And since he lacked a family or any formal education beyond the seventh grade, he would be sent to join my high school class in New York.
This fellow wouldn’t have been that much older than my parents and actually would have been younger than my grandparents, who were then very much alive; but unlike them, his mind wasn’t cluttered with the world’s experiences after 1912. In effect he would have been the walking embodiment of a world I never knew— the Belle Epoque, or the “Proud Tower,” as Barbara Tuchman dubbed the generation before the First World War.
What a uniquely wonderful experience for a high school kid in the ’50s to be exposed to such a person! Imagine rubbing elbows with this latter-day Rip Van Winkle, who could tell us firsthand how he managed to live without radio, television, computers, the Internet, cell phones, freezers and microwave ovens, and who could testify authoritatively that the good old days of 60-hour work weeks, diphtheria epidemics, racial segregation, pogroms and lynch mobs weren’t all we’ve cracked them up to be.
Of course, I never got to meet such a fellow. By my calculation he would have exhausted his food supply around 1972. More to the point, when actual divers located the actual Titanic in 1985, they found not a perfectly preserved museum of the Gilded Age but a hull that had been split into at least two pieces and whose insides had been ripped to shreds by seven decades of erosion. Nothing survived down there except fish.
The Titanic’s last survivor died three years ago. The night of April 14-15 will mark the disaster’s centennial. High time to discard this most ludicrous of my childhood fantasies once and for all, yes?
On the other hand, my fantasy friend from the Titanic never witnessed (as I did) the defeat of Nazism and Fascism, the rise of Gandhian passive resistance, the demise of apartheid, the global embrace of democracy, the civil rights revolution, the feminist revolution and the gay dignity moment, not to mention a Jewish State of Israel, or the collapse of the Soviet Union without the firing of a single shot, or a black man in the White House, or the Arab spring.
So if I had it to do over again, which would I choose: my childish fantasies, or the reality that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams?
Answer that as you choose, depending on your temperament. I’ve got to catch a plane to Buenos Aires, where my Nazi awaits me.♦
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