David and I collected our boarding passes, and took a moment to look them over. “I’m sixty-seven,” David said. “First class. My name’s Isidor Strauss.”
“I’m fourteen, third class,” I said. “Name’s Jamila.”
We lowered our cards and continued on to the “ship.” It was a cool, sunny Thursday morning, and David and I had driven over to Balboa Park to enjoy the weather and visit the San Diego Natural History Museum (recently redubbed theNAT) to check out their new, temporary attraction, “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition.”
Nothing shines the light of attention on a major historical event quite so bright as a centennial. As a teen, I’d watched the blockbuster movie, Titanic, but my interest at the time didn’t go beyond how piercing I found Leonardo’s eyes. Now, as a grown-up in the year 2012 -- a hundred years after the unsinkable ship sank -- I was more curious about the real people who were on board that horrific night.
“This makes me think of the Concordia ship that just crashed,” I said.
“Yeah, but fifteen hundred people died on the Titanic,” David said. “The Concordia crash only killed around twenty. And they were in warm water, not freezing cold water. Plus, that ship didn’t sink.”
“Doesn’t mean it wasn’t scary,” I said. “People were trapped. People died. Think about it -- you’re going on a cruise, you’re enjoying the scenery and the vacation, and then BOOM. I can’t imagine how horrific it would be to go from ‘Isn’t this great?’ to ‘Oh my God, we’re all going to die.’”
We turned our attention to the exhibit. David spent his time reading all of the stories posted on the walls. Occasionally he’d find me and share some tidbit about a particular person or a factoid about the perfect storm that contributed to the ship’s demise. I was more fascinated by the artifacts themselves, particularly the personal effects – a comb, a wallet, a bath towel, a dollar bill. Somehow, the mundane, unremarkable nature of these items conveyed more humanity to me than any of the stories or photographs of actual passengers.
I spent many minutes staring at a gold-plated chandelier that had once hung in the First Class Smoking Room. The written description included, “Differing from similar fixtures on shore, these chandeliers hung rigidly from the ceiling to make the gentle sway of Titanic less noticeable to the gentlemen enjoying their after dinner drinks.” As I gazed at the shiny relic, I imagined the men who’d once been gathered beneath it, carrying on in a room that stank of smoke and brandy, not one of them the wiser that within a day or two, they’d be scrambling for their lives in the arctic night air, and that a number of them would end up freezing to death in the black ocean water on a moonless night.
“Did you see the champagne bottle?” David was beside me. We were taking in an array of au gratin dishes arranged in a case of sand positioned beneath a giant photo of how they’d appeared when discovered on the ocean floor. I nodded. “Still has liquid in it,” he said.
“Yeah, but it’s really dark -- probably a mixture of ocean water and whatever was in there originally,” I said. “Did you see the engine room?”
“Yeah, I thought it was incredible. Did you know that even though it’s a traveling exhibition, they built that mock up of the engine room and the watertight door here? They hope that when the show leaves in September, the next museum will want it. They’d be crazy not to. I’m really impressed by it.” I shook my head; I didn’t know that, but then I hadn’t paid much attention in the engine room. Engines don’t usually interest me, which is why I sometimes ask David to explain their inner workings when I can’t fall asleep. I’d only mentioned it because I thought he’d think it was cool.
In the last room, the one that spit us out into the gift shop, there was a roster on the wall that listed all of the passengers, segregated by class, and whether or not they survived or perished. There was an echo in the room, the same question being murmured over and over as people inquired after their companions: “Did you live or die?”
Upon leaving the museum, David and I walked in silence to the Botanical Garden (I never visit Balboa Park without checking for turtles and frogs in the Koi Pond). After watching the fish through the water, crystal clear after a recent cleaning, I asked David, “So? Did you live or die?”
“Died,” David said. “What about you?”
“I didn’t check,” I said.
“What? Why?” David looked surprised.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just didn’t want to know.”
David continued to look perplexed as we finished our loop around the pond. We turned toward the main path to make our way back to the car. When we reached theNAT again, David broke the silence. “It’s a sweet story. Sad, but sweet, what happened to my guy.” His voice was soft. He reached out his hand and I took it as we continued walking.
With a lift of my brow, I urged him to continue. “Strauss was from New York, he was the co-founder of Macy’s. He was traveling with his wife, and when the ship started to sink, he put her on a lifeboat. He refused to go with her, even though he could have, because there were still women and children on board the ship. But his wife wouldn’t get on the lifeboat. She said, ‘We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.’” David choked up and turned his head away from me.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey, stop it. Now you’re going to make me cry too.” I squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back as he turned around and showed me his reddening eyes. “You’re right, love,” I said. “It is sad. And sweet. And I get it.” Now we were both wiping at our cheeks. “How could she go on living knowing that she left her love behind? I could never have left you there.”