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The Boston Phoenix Ship Fever

How can you love a disaster? Visit the convention of the Titanic Historical Society. Count the ways.

By Ellen Barry

MAY 4, 1998:  "Well, I could just talk to you all day!" a cherry-blazered TV reporter is saying, leaning forward in her seat toward the last interviewable survivor of the Titanic.

Millvina Dean -- droll, British, 86 -- chats away like a dinner guest. Unfortunately, she cannot supply much information about the Titanic, since she was nine weeks old when the ship went down, but she is more than willing to talk about the recent upsurge of interest in the disaster and the consequent upsurge of interest in her.

"I was on . . . G something . . . Riviera . . . Geraldo," she says, pronouncing the G as in Gerald, like a foreigner. She appeared by satellite hookup and has very little sense of what kind of program Mr. Riviera hosts. "They could see me," she says, "but I couldn't see them."

The TV reporter has found a serene oasis of good fellowship, but the crowd of people waiting to meet Millvina Dean is swelling portentously. There's another reporter glaring evilly at the first reporter while siphoning off her quotes in a notebook, and there are another 15 -- no, 20 -- people just standing there in a semicircle, watching Dean with hungry looks. They look as if they would like to take pieces of her home with them.

Eighty-six years have passed since the Titanic went down, and the eyewitnesses are almost gone. Nowhere is this more evident than at the annual convention of the Titanic Historical Society, which was held this year at the Springfield Marriott. Nine years ago, the convention flew in 11 survivors, but now, of the 705 people who were saved, only 5 are still alive, and of those 5, only Millvina Dean is still active on the circuit. So this year, there is the vague sense of urgency among the buffs, as if this could be their last chance to get next to a real survivor, even one who knows virtually nothing about the Titanic. "All the good ones are dead," says one amateur historian matter-of-factly.

Still, the fans want something from her. They want, mainly, to meet her, but they also want to have their pictures taken with her, and many of them want to kiss her. One of them actually wrote Dean once for a lock of her hair, says Art Rider, a Virginia man who is acting as Dean's companion-slash-manager-slash-bodyguard for the duration of the convention. Dean wrote back good-humoredly, remarking that if she had been a decade or so younger, the man's request might have been reasonable. The man wrote back and insisted that he needed the hair for his collection.

"She stopped communicating with him," Rider says laconically. All weekend, he stands by Dean's elbow, trying to control the crowds that press in on her, and by Sunday he's exhausted by the effort. At a convention in Wilmington, Delaware, some years ago, there was a moment when the fans stormed forward to a platform where 10 survivors were signing autographs and nearly knocked the whole row of senior citizens right over.

"It was out of control for quite a while," Rider says, shaking his head in disgust.

All of a sudden, everyone wants a piece of the Titanic, but the men and women gathered here are the original enthusiasts. Since James Cameron's film sparked a frenzy of amateur scholarship among the training-bra set, the Titanic Historical Society's membership has increased by 40 percent, and Ed Kamuda's mood has become increasingly grim. Kamuda, who founded the society 35 years ago, is suspicious that new members might not have the commitment of the men who stewarded the society through the thin years of the 1970s, before Leonardo DiCaprio came along. He's concerned about the spread of popular misconceptions, such as the "brittle steel" and "faulty rivet" theories of the sinking. But underlying all these concerns is a protectiveness about the field; he and his friends are the people who were into the Titanic before the Titanic was cool.

From the beginning, the Titanic Historical Society has combined a spirit of mourning with the hobbyist's unabashed love; members make fun of "rivet-counters," but they also know how many rivets there were (3 million). Kamuda's museum is an unmarked two-room collection in the Springfield suburb of Indian Orchard, behind Henry's Jewelry Store, which deals in Hummel figurines and novelty beer steins. It contains swatches of stateroom carpet, buttons, hair combs, and a wealth of correspondence with survivors, certain of whom were not wholly supportive of Kamuda's project. In 1962, the newborn organization was known as the Titanic Enthusiasts of America, and a survivor by the name of Renée Harris, who had lost her husband in the sinking, wrote to Kamuda with the pointed question, "How can anyone be 'enthusiastic' about a disaster?' " That year, the group's name changed to the Titanic Historical Society, and so it remains.

But the trained observer can still detect traces of enthusiasm.

Take, for example, Pat Boyles of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who collects memorabilia related to the Titanic disaster, the Hindenburg disaster, the Kennedy assassination, and the prominent vehicular fatalities Buddy Holly and James Dean. He doesn't see anything strange about this hobby. "Everyone's interested in things we make that don't work," he says.

In fact, Boyles's collection consists mainly of witnesses; he has an album filled with snapshots of himself sitting next to a seemingly endless succession of elderly people -- 11 survivors of the Titanic, plus one woman who sailed on the Titanic from Southampton, England to Cherbourg, France, and so classifies herself as a "semi-survivor," plus an old man in New Jersey who was standing under the Hindenburg when it exploded. Boyles was also "close friends" with Evelyn Lincoln, who was John F. Kennedy's secretary. He says certain of these people are very dear to him; he exchanged Christmas cards with several of them right up until their deaths.

"They're just regular people who were in the middle of history," says Boyles, whose day job is selling vintage records. "We gotta hang onto something."

There are other signs of enthusiasm. Most disasters do not appear on a line of T-shirts, but the Titanic has a lot of them; one T-shirt shows a side view of the vessel with the word TITANIC, plus, in script across the ship, VOYAGE TO ETERNITY -- which sounds more enjoyable than, for instance, DEATH BY HYPOTHERMIA. Many disasters do not have earrings modeled after them. But the Titanic has always been different; since the morning after the sinking, it has figured in a series of national myths about manhood, sacrifice, and fateful human arrogance. It stands for something. As the historical reality recedes, the metaphors become stronger, not weaker; in a speech at the convention, Kamuda compares the sinking to a contemporary disaster that means something else entirely.

"What is it about the Titanic?" he says. "There is no Lusitania Society, or Andrea Doria society. Perhaps it is the times we live in and [the values] we have lost touch with . . . honesty, courage, responsibility, and the difference between right and wrong. How many people today would step back and let others into the lifeboat? 'Me first' has become all too common. A recent example is the Challenger disaster: cutting corners, expediency -- whatever."

This is the effect the Titanic has on people: of two fatal accidents, both brought on by engineering flaws, one stands for nihilistic carelessness and one for human nobility. And Kamuda is not alone in his assessment. Among many of the buffs gathered here, the Titanic disaster's primary fact is something profoundly positive -- namely, that men let women precede them into the lifeboats. There is near consensus in this crowd that a contemporary group of people would not behave nearly as well. And because World War I brought an end to the age of the age of the great steamship soon after the tragedy, there is a deep sense of nostalgia for a graceful way of life that began to be lost when the Titanic hit ice.

For some, this regret is manifested in a minute attention to the ships themselves. Perhaps the most attentive of all is Peter Sparre, a self-taught draftsman who came to the convention with blueprints of the Atlantis, an imaginary ship he began drawing in 1966 and completed two years ago. Across the bottom of his longitudinal silhouette, which unfurls to a good six-foot length, is printed BY FAR THE LARGEST STEAMER IN THE WORLD. Only history -- in the form of the First World War -- prevented ships like the Atlantis from being built, he says.

"You see, she is built in the incredible year of 1916, [which] couldn't be because of that useless war. That's how I work her into history," says Sparre, who kept logs of exactly how long he would draw at a stretch, so he can tell you, for instance, that the largest drawing took him 1100 hours to complete. In fact, he can tell you how long it took to draw in every individual piece of coal in the coal bins in his diagram: six hours.

Behind all this exactness is an idea that society took an irreversible wrong turn sometime around the time of the sinking of the Titanic. Sparre himself spent a good part of the 1960s searching for someone who could build a good Scotch boiler. ("As I wrote in my diary, 'Scotch boilers, which looked like boilers, were the rule,' " he says.) Despite 30 years of agitating on this project, he has had no success.

"I was born too late," says Peter Sparre. "We are in a very dark age."

Millvina Dean was well into her 70s before she discovered this reservoir of love for all things Titanic. For years, when her neighbors in England found out about her experience, they responded to the information with the grave silence appropriate to tragedy, in part because her father had died that night. "They would say, 'Is it true you were on the Titanic?' And I would say 'Yes.' And they would say 'Oh.' That's how the conversation went,' " she says. Another elderly British woman in the crowd remarks that a gathering like this would never happen in her home country, since "to them, it's something sad, not to be glamorized."

In America, though, it was different, as Dean will attest. Once, when she told a shop owner in Florida about her connection with the Titanic, the owner gave her a pair of earrings shaped like flamingos. Another time, she was being held at US Customs for incomplete documentation until she let slip that detail about the Titanic, whereupon a customs agent embraced her and told her she had suffered enough.

"When you tell someone you survived the sinking of the Titanic," she confides, "they give you presents."

There is something sweet about this -- a sense that perfect strangers have some familiarity, and therefore some sympathy, with her pain. And time after time during the course of the weekend, the buffs show such an intense concern for historical detail that reverence is implied. One especially touching moment comes when the society's president, Donald Lynch, reads a list of the second-class passengers no one knows anything about. He does this in a tone that suggests he has personally failed in a responsibility.

"We know very little about George Sweet," he says, looking down a list of names. "The only thing I had on him is that he was traveling on the same ticket as the Herman family. That's all we know. A lad of 15 had been coming over with them," he says, and looks out at the crowd. "I hope someone out there knows more about these people."

At times, though, all the enthusiasm can strike the outsider as a little strange, as if the boat and the passengers and the sinking added up to nothing but epic fabulousness. Titanic euphoria is general across the universe this spring; in Zurich on April 6, a Swiss-American financial consortium named after the White Star Line announced it was planning to build a $500 million replica of the Titanic, which would sail April 10, 2002. On April 9, a South African shipbuilding company called RMS Titanic Shipping Holdings announced that its own, competing replica would be able to set sail on December 29, 1999. People are booking passage for sums in the mid six figures. Something important seems to be lost in the excitement.

On the last day of the convention, the Titanic Historical Society holds a memorial service beside the grave of Milton Clyde Long, a native of Springfield who was listed on the Titanic's passenger manifest as a "gentleman of leisure" and who died that night at the age of 29. The assembled conventioneers sit in folding chairs in the middle of the cemetery and sing "Nearer My God to Thee," which most (but not all) Titanic buffs say was playing on deck as the ship slipped into the water. It is a clammy day, and we are gathered like real mourners under a green awning. Chills go down spines.

Then, with a great ceremonial flourish, the top officers of the society unveil a large floral wreath in the shape of . . . the flag of the White Star Line.

This raises certain questions. Would Milton Long really want to be commemorated with the insignia, in carnations, of the steamship company that was ultimately responsible for his death? This could be seen as bad manners, something like sending a wreath in the shape of the ValuJet logo. Would he really want his mourners to be wearing tie pins shaped like the damn boat? A member explained: Milton Long, in this case, represents not one man, but all the souls lost with the Titanic, and the White Star Line flag also represents the Titanic. And the Titanic, taken as a whole, represents manhood and courage and responsibility and a time when life in America seemed bound only to improve.

So the crimson flag remains at the gravestone, which represents something more important than a man. The only person who might have argued that point was Milton Long, and Milton Long has been dead for 86 years.

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry@phx.com.

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