Wednesday, October 05, 2011

COLUMN: Titanic

Indeed, sometimes there are perks to being a beloved, semi-successful humor columnist of moderate fame in the #142 market of the country. You just have to learn to know when to take advantage of them.

I first started writing this weekly column in a distant time known as "2004." That was when I received my first letter from Rick. Inside the manila envelope were some photocopied pages and a note that basically said, "Hi Shane. I'm a fan of your column and thought you might find the attached information about the Titanic interesting."

"Ummm," I thought, "ooookay." I hadn't ever written about the Titanic, nor was it a topic of much interest to me at the time. But whatever, I checked out the pages and they WERE intriguing and detailed the links of local residents and families to the famed disaster. Did you know there was a survivor of the Titanic who was en route to Galesburg at the time? Rick sure did.

From that point on, about every six months, I would get another envelope from Rick, usually containing more documents and news clippings related to the Titanic. Eventually, thanks to some back-and-forth correspondence and a mutual friend, I met Rick. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but as it turns out, he's just a normal, nice retiree who just happens to have a lifelong obsession with all things Titanic. And I'm cool with obsessions -- I've been told on more than one occasion that my passion for British music runs the gamut from "hobby" to "obsessive" to "a little bit sad and pathetic." To each their own, I say.

As soon as I read about Davenport's Putnam Museum landing a touring exhibit of Titanic artifacts and a return engagement of Jim Cameron's "Ghosts of the Abyss" documentary, I knew one Quad Citizen who had to be veeeery happy. And when my girlfriend's little sister expressed interest in going, I knew just the tour guide to call. It took a while for everybody's schedules to match up, but finally, on the last weekend of the exhibit, the three of us walked into the Putnam to meet up with Titanic Rick.

It was a good call. There were times I was convinced that Rick knew more about the exhibit than the folks who had curated it. Between his insight and the awesome collection of artifacts retrieved from the ocean floor, it was a fascinating day out and one heck of a learning experience. Kudos beyond words to my friend Rick and to everyone at the Putnam for securing such a great and rare treat. To say it got me thinking about things is an understatement, but here's a few impressions:

* If I had been onboard, would I have perished? Been a hero? A plucky survivor? I'd like to think that I'd have some kind of heroic end, but I also know myself. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have gone down in history as the guy who got shot while trying to cut through the line of women and children to get to the lifeboats, but that's only because I probably would've dropped dead of a heart attack the moment someone yelled "ICEBERG!" I'd like to think, though, that perhaps some skinny person could've used my heroic corpse as a flotation device.

* Even facing certain death, the band played on and some of the first class passengers took the time to change into formalwear for their pending doom. In a way, these notions seem elegant and courageous and indicative of a time long gone from our culture. But then I got to thinking. Most of Titanic's better-known passengers were wealthy aristocrats and socialites. INCREDIBLY wealthy, since the cost of a first-class suite was equivalent to around $85,000. I can't help but envision a boat full of braindead Paris Hiltons, Kardashians, and Real Housewives of Orange County. Perhaps the socialites only knew how to be socialites and couldn't bear to imagine a trip to the Pearly Gates without a personal attendant and imported silk at the ready.

* Staring at a pile of plain white au gratin dishes sounds like the most boring activity in the world. But staring at a pile of plain white au gratin dishes recovered from 12,600 feet under the ocean is inexplicably fascinating.

* Among the most well-preserved artifacts recovered from the ocean floor were the personal affects of one Howard Irwin. But young Mr. Irwin didn't perish in the Titanic disaster. In fact, he wasn't even onboard. While en route to the ship, Irwin was kidnapped and shanghied onto a China-bound freighter, where he was forced into servitude for weeks before escaping. A horrible experience for sure, but quite likely a better fate than had he made it onto the world's most luxurious deathtrap. His friend Henry Sutehall, who boarded the Titanic with Howard's luggage, was among the 1,517 lost at sea.

* I realized during the showing of "Ghosts of the Abyss" that I kind of hate James Cameron. Sure, he's responsible for the two highest-grossing movies of all time (Titanic & Avatar.) But does he have to be so self-important about it? "Ghosts of the Abyss" documents the efforts of Cameron (and, oddly, actor/narrator Bill Paxton, who will forever be Chet from "Weird Science") as they take 3D cameras two miles down to the Titanic wreck. But somewhere in there, it starts to feel like the star of the show switches from the Titanic herself to Cameron and his (quite literally) tons of gadgets. I'd love to remind him that he may have brought us "Avatar," but he also directed "Pirahna II: The Spawning," so he's not the essence of cool.

* If I were to die in some kind of monumental horrific tragedy, I'm not sure how I'd feel about a museum one day honoring my life -- especially if it involved thousands of people staring at my underwear through a temperature controlled glass case while a self-guided audio tour pointed out my pant size.

* Some of the most amazing artifacts on display were letters and postcards that had managed to survive the brutality of the ocean floor thanks to leather satchels. Again, though, this makes me highly concerned that one day the contents of my leather wallet could be on display for future generations to see -- and frankly, I don't want future generations to know that I'm one punch away from a free lunch buffet at Happy Joe's. I would want my horrifying tragic death to instill a sense of mystery and wonder -- which is why I just wrote a note and put it in my wallet that says: "THE DIAMONDS ARE BURIED 40 YARDS FROM JIMMY HOFFA" next to GPS coordinates of the Dispatch/Argus office basement. That'll give 'em something to write about.

All told, it was an amazing exhibit and I hope you guys all had the chance to go soak it in. I hope the Putnam Museum continues to give every one of us something to obsess over. To that effect, I'll be glad to help out in the design and curation of any future exhibits on British Alternative Rock 1970-present. I promise you the Echo & the Bunnymen kiosk alone will be worth your trip.

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