Apr. 14, 2009

The Titanic

by June Robertson Beisch

So this is how it feels, the deck tilting,
the world slipping away as one
sitting at a desk writes a check.

The Titanic went down titanically
like a goddess glittering,
Pinioned to an iceberg, she sank

almost thankfully while tiny mortals
leapt into the sea
and the band played Nearer My God to Thee.

But what happened to the signals of distress?
Nobody believed it was all really happening.
I still canít believe that it happened to me.

As a child, I stared horrified at the photograph
and the vision of that scene in the moonlit sea.
We will be one of the survivors, we think,
then something looms up like catastrophe.

All life, it seems, is the morning after
and love is the most beautiful of absolute disasters.

"The Titanic" by June Beisch, from Fatherless Woman. © Cape Cod Literary Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the anniversary of two historic disasters.

On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. It was the first presidential assassination in American history. Lincoln was shot and killed by a 26-year-old actor named John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln's bodyguard had gone next door to the saloon for a drink.

Shortly before midnight on this date in 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The ship was on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. More than 1,500 people drowned in the 30-degree water. The passengers on the lifeboats were close enough to hear people in the water crying out for help, but only two lifeboats returned to rescue drowning people. The others feared getting pulled in by the suction created by the sinking ship. The liner Californian, less than 20 miles away, could have saved most of the passengers had its radio operator been on duty to hear the distress calls.

It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath was published. (Books by this author.) He wrote the novel in five months, writing about 2,000 words a day. He warned his publisher that it wouldn't be very popular, but it became an immediate sensation, and it was the best-selling book of 1939. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of the woman who taught the blind and deaf child Helen Keller how to communicate: Anne Sullivan, born in Agawam, Massachusetts (1866). She was the oldest child of Irish immigrants who left Ireland during the Potato Famine. She had a terrible fever that rendered her blind as a small child. She went to the Perkins Institute for the Blind and then underwent a series of surgeries to correct her vision, and eventually her eyesight improved. Shortly after she graduated from the Perkins Institute, she heard that the father of a young blind and deaf girl was looking for a governess. And so Anne Sullivan became the governess for Helen Keller, a six-year-old whom Anne found to be sullen, stubborn, and also very intelligent.

Sullivan taught Helen by spelling out the names of objects, using the sign language alphabet, into the girl's palm. The first word that Helen Keller learned was "doll," and the second was "water," which Sullivan spelled out while pouring running water over the girl's hand.

With Sullivan's assistance, Helen Keller went to the Perkins Institute, then to a prep school, and then to Radcliffe College. Keller and Sullivan made the rounds on the lecture circuit, raising money for blind soldiers returning home from World War I. They went to Hollywood, where Helen Keller starred in a movie about herself. More recently, the story of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller has been turned into the play and movie The Miracle Worker.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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