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Some dates just stick with you. All you have to do is hear a certain year, no matter how that year is mentioned, and thoughts will always return to an unforgettable event that is forever linked to it. A year by which all other happenings are measured.
For me such a year was not only before my lifetime but prior to my grandparents as well, their parents, who had left this world long before I had entered it being the only ones in our family who could’ve possibly remembered hearing the biggest news of 1912 by either word-of-mouth or seeing it splashed across a newspaper. Of how the grandest ship ever to set sail would never complete its maiden voyage, its grand staircase, opulent chandeliers, fine China and silver utensils, all the luxury in the world unable to save it from the human condition of pride and ego.
Sure I had heard of Titanic here or there in a textbook or two while growing up, just as I had caught occasional glimpses of the old lady who lived down the street from my family and I, but it wasn’t until my senior year of high school when one lead me to the other. I was seventeen and summer was fast approaching, ready to put pen to paper for the last time in the form of a history report for Mrs. Stewart’s history class, a subject I had mostly slept through and therefore needed the credit of this last assignment in order to get a passing grade and graduate. The famous ocean disaster had been on a short list of options to choose from, the others of which I don’t even remember. Maybe I had chosen randomly, but what follows leads me to believe it was anything but.
Back in those days research involved going to an actual library and using a card catalog, not sitting in the comforts of your own home and stroking a few keys to have the world at your fingertips. There were microfilm readers however, which in a way was like a primitive version, and it was by this means that I came across an old newspaper article about Titanic that was not only from my hometown, but my home street.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that old, but for someone my age something that had been printed three decades before I was born was thought of as pretty ancient. Anyway, the headline read, ’Titanic’s Oldest Living Survivor Recalls Harrowing Event Half-Century Later.’ That’s not what sent the lightning bolt of shock from my eyes to my gut. It was the picture of the survivor, Rose Calvert, who looked a lot like the old lady down my street, only younger.
The teenage brain can be like a tangled mess of Christmas lights, still needing a number of years before it’s all straightened out and able to shine bright and beautiful. So instead of just going up and knocking on her front door to confirm it was her nerves had me wasting a couple of days spying on her from afar with a pair of binoculars, but I needed to get that report done if I were to graduate, so I inconspicuously walked past the old lady’s house one afternoon at four-thirty, a half hour before her timely routine of checking her mail, darting my hand inside her mailbox and quickly fumbling through the advertisements hoping to find an actual piece of mail with her name on it.
Just as I spotted her name on an electric bill a soft but sturdy whack came crashing down on my head, the shock of it rattling me more than anything else. Thankfully it had been the bristle side of a broom, the old lady wielding it seeming to have come out of nowhere and ready to strike again if I didn’t talk fast.
“Mrs.- Ms. Calvert, I’m sorry, I just-”
“Who are you? Why you trying to steal my mail?” she demanded to know with such a stern but controlled voice.
“I- I’m sorry. I’m not trying to still your mail. I’m just- I wanted to make sure it was you. The last survivor of Titanic. I’m doing a school report.”
After taking two seconds to look at my face as if scanning it for honesty she pulled back the broom as if uncocking a 12-guage. “Why didn’t you just come to the door then? That’s what doors are for.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I just-”
I just didn’t have an excuse, just a foolish case of shyness. Luckily for me Ms. Calvert wasn’t one to hold grudges, inviting me in for cookies and milk and a story that would change my life forever.
For the next couple of hours I was spellbound, amazed at what she had went through back when she was my age as I listened with my ears and heart, lost in her aging blue eyes, as if I could see, feel the icy blue waters coated in fog-gray mist as she had let go the hand of her first true love, Jack Dawson, after only having shared a couple of days with him before he gave up his life to save hers.
I wish I could say Ms. Calvert turned out to be a lifelong friend, if only I had went through that mailbox earlier, I would have gladly accepted countless whacks on the head for friendship like hers, but I was in a transitional time in my life, about to go off to college, that summer being all we had of her sharing a wealth of stories from her past over cookies and milk.
And so from that time onwards I could never come across the year 1912 or any year near it without thinking of Ms. Calvert and Titanic. Whether it was a tree growing out of the cement amongst the serenity of Brooklyn in one of my favorite books to the stock market crash which triggered the Great Depression. From Rodin’s The Thinker to Einstein’s theory of relativity. From Ford’s model T to the start of world wars. Any event occurring near 1912 is an event to be pondered with 1912, to be pondered with Titanic.
1914 – Charlie Chaplin’s first film. Just two years after Titanic sank. I wonder if Ms. Calvert is still having nightmares. Maybe the funny man is helping her get past it.
1937 – The world’s most famous meat in a can, Spam, is created. Twenty-five years after Titanic sank. I wonder: what kind of meals were the third class passengers served? I research.
1948 – Broadcast television begins. Ms. Calvert was fifty-three then. I wonder what she thinks of it. Did she later miss the good ol’ days before it as I do with the Internet?
And so it goes on, how I view history through the lens of Titanic, through the stories of Ms. Calvert. I can’t help but wonder what today’s generation and those who will come after will think of my prime years. Which event or events will they measure all else by? The beginning of commercial Internet? 9/11? Global warming? Political divisiveness that spilled over to all-out hatred which nearly caused the United States to implode?
Only time will tell, but as for me, I’ll always have my 1912.