In third grade, it was Abraham Lincoln. I adored him. I’d brave the creaky wooden step stool in my grade school’s tiny library and reach as far as I could to knock another book about him into my greedy hands, and usually I’d have read through it in one or two days. I became an annoying font of information on Abraham Lincoln and his family, and I certainly had my preferences. Mary Todd Lincoln was nearly persona non grata to me.
In context, my family ventured most summers to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for a two-week stay in a friend’s condominium. My mother instructed me with a firm shake of her index finger not to breathe a word about Lincoln while we were anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Statements like “We won the war!” said in sing-song would not be tolerated, and she feared people would respond poorly. She reminded me that I didn’t like it when people made fun of New Jersey—which was often—and the residents of South Carolina wouldn’t enjoy such mockery, either.
I kept mum, even making a pen pal with whom I would correspond throughout the winter regarding what I considered were pithy comments about parochial school in New Jersey. I was amused by my friend’s commentary on life in The South. But at some point, the wall I’d built to hide my fasci-admiration for the sixteenth President just was too much, and our friendship fizzled.
By fifth grade, I had a new target: the Titanic. There wasn’t much other than Walter Lord’s famous book on the sinking in my school library, but I had a Princeton Public Library card, so I made my way to the old book-smelling stacks and quickly memorized this section of the Dewey Decimal System. Maybe by accident or maybe idle curiosity led me to also selecting a book about the Andrea Doria, and now I was hooked on maritime disaster. I realized that all of my topics of interest were about doomed people; folks who would face insurmountable odds and well, fail to surmount them. They still had dignity, ingenuity, grace, thoughtfulness, but they couldn’t escape the predicament they faced, and I wanted to understand all of that.
I would have given my left arm to know what Thomas Andrews, shipbuilder for the Titanic, was thinking in those final hours. Was he quietly saying goodbye to the people he would soon leave behind in Ireland? Cursing J. Bruce Ismay? On the Morrow Castle, which succumbed to an intentional fire set in the writing room by a man who wanted to claim credit for putting it out (and who obviously failed), how did he reconcile his actions in the years that followed that tragedy? What pushed people to action, or inaction? Did these crises show us who these people really were inside, or is it unfair of us armchair historians to judge them in what can only be extremely stressful moments?
After reading everything I could find on the Yarmouth Castle, the Lustitania, the Empress of Ireland, and other maritime disasters, I expanded my focus into disaster in general. The 1944 Coconut Grove fire in Boston. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The Hindenburg. A fire that swept through a Chicago children’s theater in 1903, and that is the reason theaters in the United States come equipped with exit signs. I noticed patterns in these stories—greedy businesspeople who cut corners, lack of safety regulations, untested technologies that came into situations the engineers hadn’t fathomed, overloading spaces with too many people. There was so much hubris here, in these episodes. Often, there were markers of human interest stories with no real details, like the couple who fled to the Coconut Grove’s walk-in refrigerator to escape the fire and smoke, and survived. Using 1980 technology (okay, books and microfiche), I couldn’t find out any more.
These loose ends persisted in my curiosity and imagination. I’d write a story about these one-line notes, almost as if I needed to see some closure, give some details to the otherwise vague mention. This was the first time I took an interest of mine—morbid as it was—and applied it to writing. I was captivated by these people in distress. It made for rough going when a friend just wanted to play Barbies or run around the playground.
With more than 200 channels at my disposal, I now have more mayhem and emergency narrative than I can possibly consume. I could watch trial TV, or a string of Law & Order episodes, some forensic show, or a History Channel docu-thing on shipwrecks. I huff that I was preoccupied with the Titanic before Ballard found the site, and certainly before that damn movie came out. I’m busier these days so I can’t dedicate a weekend to getting lost in a book on flooded U-boats, but I do cycle through the stories I’ve read and digested, and I note that I do still tend to write about people in crisis. When I’m not writing humor, that is.
Two sides of the same coin? Can I get a maybe?