Woog's World / Questions of Titanic proportion
Published 12:15 pm, Thursday, April 19, 2012
I'm not a huge fan of anniversaries of famous events. I usually have more things to do than remember Paul Revere's ride, or recall the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- both important, if random, April events.
But last week's crescendo of news leading up to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic made me think about the tragedy of 1912, and the 1997 movie of the same name. I had been captivated by the film -- its soaring story, intersecting subplots and vivid images of state-of-the-art ships, an iceberg, and beautiful-but-doomed inter-economic-status couple.
So I watched it again. This time "Titanic" -- the movie -- made me think about the parallels between 1912 and 2012.
After watching Jack, Rose and 2,000 other men, women and children face an unfathomable hell with either heroic grace or graceless fear, I thought about the people I know today. How would we react in similar circumstances?
The good ship Titanic and the fair town Westport are not as dissimilar as we think. We may not physically inspect those who cross our borders for head lice, but we are often on guard lest certain social ills, thorny problems and unwanted pathologies somehow seep from surrounding communities to contaminate our safe, secure way of life.
And we may not physically separate various strata of society the way the White Star Co. did, but Westport has its own version of steerage. Look at the bus stop near Super Stop & Shop. Just a few feet from the town line, men and women who work in our stores, clean our homes and make our lives run more easily huddle, barely sheltered from rain and wind and snow, waiting to return to places like Bridgeport that we seldom think about and never visit.
Most Westporters, if they were parents of Rose DeWitt Bukater, would not want their daughters dating the likes of Jack Dawson, no matter how talented, charming and good-looking he is. Nearly every day, we judge our children's friends or neighbor's looks. Often, those judgments have nothing to do with who those people really are. If I had a dollar for every time I hear: "He only went to Norwalk Community College," "She's just a teacher," or "Can you believe they're wearing that?" I could buy the Heart of the Sea diamond.
Many Westporters are "masters of the universe." Men and women who live here enjoy powerful positions. Every day they make important decisions -- buying companies, shutting plants, laying off employees -- that impact the lives of millions of people around the globe. Those people are fellow human beings -- but also faceless folks we never see, and whose stories we never hear.
Some of us are like the White Star businessmen who choose to limit the number of lifeboats on their ship. The decks look better that way. It's cheaper too, of course. Anyway, they said, the Titanic could never sink.
But other Westporters are like the unsinkable Molly Brown. They see the arrogance and pomposity of those who hold power, and misuse or abuse it. The Molly Browns use their positions of privilege to keep everyone else on their toes.
Some are like Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line who put everything he had into his work. Then, when his world is literally sinking to the bottom of the sea, he reacts with quiet dignity, using his knowledge and resources to help as many as he can.
Some Westporters are like Rose. From inauspicious beginnings, they grow into beautiful flowers. They face adversity, and it makes them strong. They engage in awful, harrowing struggles, and emerge as fuller, more complex human begins. They take their newfound knowledge and make the world -- or perhaps one small corner of it -- a better, more livable place.
The movie's long, gruesome climax, when the great ship buckles and breaks, made me think of Westport today too. The Titanic was built, launched and sank during the Gilded Age. Life was good; prosperity seemed forever assured. We know now the world seldom works that way.
But what if things get much worse than today? What if our civilization smashes into an iceberg and founders? How will we react? Will we shove everyone else aside in our mad scramble to survive, or will we give up our place so that others might live? Will we aim a pistol at others, point it at our own head or throw it away because we understand that, in the end, violence solves nothing?
Finally, if we do find ourselves among the lucky ones floating, figuratively, in a lifeboat on the moonlit ocean, will we turn back to those sinking slowly beneath the waves? Or will we simply turn our backs on them?