Penguins, Sharks, Treasure

by | Jan 21, 2019 | Titanic

Dressed as First Class passenger Col. Archibald Gracie, I awaited the frisky group at the Map, which is the first gallery in our world-class museum. And yes, frisky is the word. There were two children skipping, pirouetting, humming what sounded like the theme from Walt Disney’s Frozen.

There was a dark-haired little girl of maybe five years trotting beside her younger brother, whose name she later confided in me was Cody, though I never did learn the girl’s name.

But yes, I suspected this would be one of those delightful groups when the dark-haired little girl suddenly stopped and flung her arms wide as though embracing a wondrous something too amazing at first to even identity. But then, she did identify it exuberantly.

“Oh, Mommy, look”, she exclaimed, “Oh, it’s a treasure chest!”

Brother Cody approached it cautiously, with the reluctance of a born skeptic. He looked almost scientific as he eyed it, not yet willing to concede. I could see it in his face. His sister might be a year or so older, but he watched her with the understanding that she was prone to absurd pronouncements and perhaps needed his steady consideration of the thing before confirming that an actual treasure chest could have been on the Titanic.

“Yes, I said, smiling at the girl and her little brother. “it does look like a treasure chest, doesn’t it?”

I explained that it is like a big suitcase that people of more than a hundred years ago used when they took a voyage across the ocean. Known as a steamer trunk, it was definitely onboard Titanic. It belonged to a Third Class passenger.

The Titanic broke in two before sinking, and this trunk was one of thousands of items that fell out of the ship as it was sinking.

“Those items that could float were bobbing around on the surface. Recovery ships were immediately dispatched to clean up what was then considered a dangerous mess. The debris field went on for miles.”

Cody stood before me with a stern expression, his eyes fixed upon me. Meanwhile, his dark-haired sister discovered something to fiddle with on her sneaker

I began to tell of Titanic’s voyage, which started in Southampton, England.

“April tenth, 1912,” I said. “One of those days when you can just feel the excitement. It was a celebration, the first day of the first voyage of the great Titanic.”

That’s when the dark-haired little girl popped up, bumping against brother Cody, who let out an offended moan, turning to his parents, his facial expression suggesting –without words–the idea: did you see what she just did?

His sister, unperturbed, stood on tiptoe, raising her hands as she exclaimed, “I just love penguins!”

Others had come over to join the group by now, smiling and nodding at the dark-haired girl’s excited proclamation. The parents looked at me apologetically, leaning forward to whisper for the girl to just listen.

But that was my cue to grab this sudden reference to penguins and weave it into the presentation. After all, hadn’t Col. Archibald Gracie, the passenger I was pretending to be, resembled a penguin out there on that night, balancing atop a capsized lifeboat?

“How interesting that you would mention penguins,” I said. That reminds me how I had to stand on capsized Collapsible Lifeboat B with my arms out like this . . .”

I held my arms out to either side.

“. . . on the capsized lifeboat where I and thirty other men stood like penguins as we tried to balance on top of that overturned lifeboat as the Titanic was sinking.”

And I nodded to the guests who had just joined the group.

“Col. Archibald Gracie,” I informed them, “was washed off the sinking Titanic by a wave, was able to reach a capsized lifeboat known as Collapsible Lifeboat B, and stood like this—arms out to side—balancing for hours with thirty other men until the Carpathia arrived.”

The Carpathia was the first ship to arrive in response to the distress call. It arrived around 4 a.m., an hour and forty minutes after the Titanic sank.

I then returned to the Map, tracing the route from Southampton, to Cherbourg, to Queenstown, and from there to where the lookouts called down to the Navigating Bridge, Iceberg Right Ahead.

That was when the dark-haired little girl, who seemed lost in thought about penguins, looked up expectantly.

“Sharks?” she cried, her voice rising. “There were sharks?”

Apparently when I said Iceberg right ahead she heard not Iceberg but shark. Such an exuberant child, such imagination. I noticed that brother Cody had adopted a look of resignation. He caught my eye with an expression as if to convey the idea of his long suffering in the face of her outbursts. It was as though he were saying she’s always like this.

“Oh,” I said. “Yes, maybe sharks. Just maybe, but we really don’t know for sure.”

I was not surprised to see that the group at the Map seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the dark-haired little girl, and now they were smiling at her little brother, who had begun to nibble the lower right-hand corner of his boarding pass.

These children, though. Each one such an effervescing package of promise, creativity, and potential. They and their families are living proof that we have so much in common with Titanic passengers, which included one hundred thirty-three children and their families—the same surge of new life and the ever-present hope and plans that define us now just as they did more than a hundred years ago.

In truth, this ever-present surge is always with us, reminding us of the effervescing rhythms of the sea, of the constant movement of surf as it bubbles and stretches up a flat beach. Just as it always has in every era of human history, and long before humans were here.

We are part of this eternal cycle. The Titanic allows us to look from the perspective of a hundred years or so ahead of Titanic’s era, feeling this ever- present tug as we consider just how closely Titanic passengers resemble who we are now, in our own time. As a matter of fact, we today, and Titanic passengers in 1912, resemble all humans who have ever struggled toward life upon this planet, Earth, where our species was first begun.