Monthly Archives: April 2012

Today Wasn’t the First Time Enterprise Buzzed NYC

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So here’s another cool pic I ran across earlier. That’s Enterprise and the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft again, flying over Manhattan back in 1983. I had forgotten — if I ever knew — that, following the completion of the approach and landing tests and the beginning of regular shuttle operations, NASA sent Enterprise on a world tour, visiting airshows in France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., and Canada, as well as a number of U.S. states. She even appeared at the 1984 World’s Fair held in Louisiana before being handed over to the Smithsonian Institution and becoming a taxidermied display piece in 1985.

None of which is here nor there, I just thought it was a neat vintage photo and wanted to share. It appears in a number of places around the ‘net, but I grabbed it from the Twitter feed of Todd Lapin, a.k.a. the proprietor of the excellent Telstar Logistics blog, which I have been following for a number of years. Thanks, as always, for finding such interesting stuff, Todd!

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Back Where She Belongs… for a Moment

space-shuttle-enterprise_over-nycThis morning, space shuttle Enterprise was flown from Washington, DC, her hometown of the last 27 years, to the Big Apple, where she will shortly be added to the collection of the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Musuem. Following the precedent set by Discovery during her final flight earlier this week, Enterprise and her 747 carrier aircraft circled low over the city a number of times for spectators on the ground, and the Internet is subsequently jammed with photos of her alongside various famous landmarks. However, I again have chosen to post something a little less obvious, a lovely shot of the shuttle and SCA over the New York skyline, with the Intrepid museum visible toward the bottom of the frame. (Look for the cruise ship tied up to the pier, then look right. You’ll see a white, dart-shaped airplane sitting on the next pier over — that’s one of the retired Concordes — then just right of that is the Intrepid. In case you don’t know, she’s a World War II aircraft carrier that’s now a museum ship with a collection of planes and other interesting vehicles displayed on her flight deck and the adjacent pier.)

The Enterprise/SCA pairing landed at JFK International, where the shuttle will be removed from the 747 (a process called “demating”) and stored in a hanger for the next several weeks. Sometime in June, she’ll be transported by barge down the Hudson River to Intrepid, where a crane will lift her into her new place of honor atop the old carrier. My understanding is that the Intrepid organization is trying to get the permits and funding together to construct a permanent building in which to house Enterprise, a science and technology center which will presumably be somewhere nearby the ship. In the meantime, though, the prototype shuttle will be covered by a kind of inflatable tent to protect her from the elements. I was happy to learn that; I have no idea what would happen to a space shuttle’s heat-shield tiles after sitting out in the weather for a year or two, but I can’t imagine it would be pretty.

Funny thing… Discovery‘s final flight depressed the hell out of me, because it really did seem like a funeral march with a 747 filling the role of a hearse. But seeing Enterprise up there in the sky atop a jumbo jet again, for the first time in decades… well, that was actually kind of a thrill. For her, the only shuttle that never flew in space, it was a sort of homecoming, one last day in the sun, one last chance to stretch her wings. I almost expected her to cast free of the jet and glide into JFK on her own, just as she did during the approach and landing tests she performed over Edwards Air Force Base back in the late ’70s. How cool would that have been? Impractical fancy, of course. Her systems were long ago frozen in place, I’m sure. But I enjoyed imagining it.

Incidentally, if you’d like to bring back memories of the exhilarating early days of the shuttle program — or see it for the first time, if you’re too young to have been there yourself — some kind soul has uploaded a complete recording of the live CBS coverage of Enterprise‘s first free flight and landing way back on August 12, 1977. Part 2 is probably the most interesting to casual viewers, as that’s the segment when she finally separates from the SCA, but I found Part 1 pretty entertaining as well, for the way Morton Dean, the on-air personality narrating the coverage, tries to explain exactly how this shuttle thing is supposed to work and generally kills time until the actual test begins. Watch for some truly primitive animation, and soak in the general enthusiasm and the sense that what we were about to see was an unprecedented harbinger of… the future! The earnest anticipation in Dean’s voice as the “pushover maneuver” approaches nearly breaks my heart. It’s so different from the blase attitude we eventually developed toward these machines, and from the thinly veiled contempt so many hold for them today. (Interestingly, Dean does end the segment by pointing out that, even in those heady days, the shuttle had its critics who didn’t believe it would be worth the cost, or that the “hundreds of flights” planned by NASA would be necessary or useful. I was only seven or eight when these ALTs took place, too unsophisticated and too excited myself about a new spaceship — named after the Star Trek ship, no less! — to be aware of these detractors, so I was somewhat shocked to hear their concerns voiced so early in the program.)

Oh, and as a bonus, the recording even includes vintage TV commercials: Mariette Hartley and James Garner shilling for Polaroid cameras, Florence Henderson pushing Tang (what else in the middle of a story about astronauts?), and of course the good-natured cornpone that was used to sell Countrytime Lemonade. I remembered all of these ads within the first five seconds of them. Ah, the ’70s… such different times. So much better in many respects…

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There Can Be Only One!

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Amusing quote of the day, taken from an article about Ryan Seacrest, the terminally bland television and radio personality whom many say is the new Dick Clark:

Seacrest has become so entwined with Clark’s story that when news of [Clark's] death broke, it was hard not to picture Seacrest kneeling in some dark rite, screaming to the heavens as Clark’s power possessed him, “Highlander”-style.

I long suspected Dick Clark must have been immortal, so, no, that’s really not such a difficult thing to imagine at all. Hmm.

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Nose to Nose

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Here’s another sight we likely won’t ever see again, at least not after Endeavour leaves Kennedy Space Center for LA come September: two space shuttle orbiters in the same place. In this case, Enterprise and Discovery, the prototype and the grizzled veteran, sitting nose to nose on the tarmac outside the Udvar-Hazy Center. Enterprise was wheeled out of its long-time parking stall this morning and this afternoon Discovery took her place, but first there came the photo op, the speeches, the dignitaries, and the formal exchange of pink slips.

Looking through the photos of today’s events, one thing that struck my eye is how shabby Discovery looks alongside the spotlessly white Enterprise. That’s deliberate, apparently; my understanding is that the Smithsonian specifically asked NASA not to do any restoration or clean-up work on the most-used orbiter in the shuttle fleet, because they wanted to show the public what a real, workaday spacecraft looks like after it comes back from a mission. Personally, I think that’s a good call. I like the patina; it makes her look authentic, which Enterprise didn’t quite pull off when I saw her in person last year. It’ll be interesting to see if Atlantis and Endeavour are presented differently when they reach their respective final resting places.

And I guess that’s about all the remains to be said about Orbiter Vehicle Designation OV-103, more commonly known as space shuttle Discovery, the third production model and the oldest surviving example of them. From here on, she’s just a tourist attraction. If you’ll bear with me for a moment, though, I would like to climb up on my soapbox again and respond to something that’s been bugging me.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen a lot of sentiments expressed about Discovery‘s final ferry flight on blogs and comment threads that essentially amount to “good riddance.” Many people — and I’m going to make a grossly uninformed and possibly incorrect assumption that these are probably mostly younger folks who weren’t around for the early days of the program and therefore have a reflexive contempt for whatever their elders think is cool — are sneering that the shuttle program was a dead-end we never should have gone down, an overpriced and dangerous boondoggle that prevented the United States from doing something really cool like building a moon base or sending men to Mars. Many seem to have it in for the shuttles because they’re “old,” and a few are even making cracks about their looks, calling them examples of “1970s style” that look ridiculous up here in the 2010s, as if the orbiters are pot-bellied guys in their fifties wearing leisure suits with polyester shirts unbuttoned to their navels or something. And a handful of posters I’ve read seem to be downright angry at the shuttles, as weird as that sounds; not at the shuttle program, but at the shuttles themselves, the actual machines. My amateur-grade Psych 101 diagnosis is that they must be transferring their frustration about our country’s loss of direction in space — and possibly even our general decline in earthbound matters as well — onto the orbiters, as if the machines themselves are to blame rather than those who made the policies. (To be fair, I’ve also seen plenty of calm, reasoned, but ultimately negative comments as well, made by perfectly rational people who just happen not to share my affection and unwavering loyalty to my beloved shuttles.)

Needless to say, I find all of this very distressing. This is exactly how I didn’t want to see the shuttles remembered. Look, I can’t argue that the shuttles weren’t incredibly expensive to operate. They were, and they never became any cheaper over time, as they were supposed to. And I also can’t deny that they failed to usher in the dazzling future that was promised us by the breathless, speculative magazine articles of the ’70s and early ’80s. Or that their actual purpose for existing became increasingly fuzzy as the years wore on. In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious that NASA made a mistake by putting all of its manned-spaceflight eggs into a single, shuttle-shaped basket and that we would’ve been better off, ultimately, if the shuttle program had been less ambitious in scope, and more just a single element in a much wider portfolio of launch vehicles and spacecraft that were specialized for different jobs. But that was an error in policy. The orbiters themselves were — and still are — remarkable things that ought to be remembered for what they actually did, and not what they failed to do.

The number-one thing to keep in mind is that they were the first reusable spacecraft. (Well, okay, mostly reusable. The orbiter and the solid rocket boosters were reused.) It cannot be stressed enough what a shift of paradigm that was, coming after roughly 20 years of a completely disposable model in which the rocket and the capsule atop it were thrown away on every single mission. We may be turning back to capsule-type designs now, but notice that every single commercial rocket builder out there is designing its vehicles for reusability. It’s the most practical approach… and the shuttles were the first to embrace that philosophy.

The orbiters were — and still are, for the time being — the largest vehicles ever flown in space. (I’m not talking about the launch vehicles; the Saturn V rockets that lifted the Apollo missions to the Moon were taller and heavier than a shuttle stack, but the actual Apollo spacecraft that rode atop the Saturn would have fit handily into a shuttle’s payload bay.) That ought to count for something, I think.

And they were unique among all the spacecraft operated (as opposed to designed or prototyped) to date. The orbiters are space planes. They flew through the atmosphere like a glider and landed on a runway. In my mind, that’s what a true spaceship ought to do instead of crashing into the ocean and a (hopefully) soft field somewhere and then waiting around for a massive military search-and-rescue operation to come find it. That’s what Artoo and Threepio’s escape pod did.

But, everyone always says, we now know those capsules are so much safer than the shuttles, because the shuttles were either deathtraps to start with or becoming frail due to their age, or both. Well… I guess I’m just hardnosed about the safety issues. Manned spaceflight is dangerous. You’re riding several million pounds of high explosive into the most inhospitable environment there is, aside from the very deep ocean. The astronauts have always understood this, even if the general public has tended not to think about it. As I’ve said before, we lost two shuttle crews out of 135 missions; the Apollo program killed one crew and damn near killed a second one in only 17 missions — one of which hadn’t even left the ground. So which one of these spacecraft is statistically more dangerous? NASA’s big mistake here, I think, was in pushing the idea that the shuttles were going to make all of this routine… that, in fact, it had become routine prior to the Challenger disaster. (I think it’s also worth noting that in both the Challenger and Columbia accidents, the problem that led to the vehicle’s destruction originated in the launch system, not the orbiters themselves. So far as I know, the orbiters have always performed flawlessly. It’s an interesting question… could the orbiters still be used if we designed a different set of rocket boosters for them, and came up with a replacement for the troublesome foam that coated the external fuel tank?)

As to the charge that the shuttles are rickety with age… bollocks. The orbiters were designed to endure 100 missions, but the most-traveled of them, Discovery, has only 39 missions under her belt; Atlantis had 33 missions, and Endeavour, the baby of the family, a mere 25. Endeavour didn’t even come online until 1992. They’d all received periodic upgrades to modernize their systems. It seems to me they had plenty of life left in them. Now, you can make the case there was nothing left for them to do once the International Space Station was completed. I get that one. But the decision to shut down the program was, in my mind, a policy choice, not a technical necessity. Certainly it wasn’t really because these ships are old. Hell, the Air Force is still flying B-52s that were built in the 1950s and, last I heard, it intends to continue doing so for at least another decade. If machines are well-maintained, there’s no reason why chronological age alone should be a concern.

Finally, that thing about clunky “1970s style.” I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I have always thought the shuttles were beautiful and cool-looking. I love their contours, especially from a nose-on angle. But then what the hell do I know? I still like muscle cars and feathered hair, too…

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Don’t Mind Me…

Just jotting down a few notes about upcoming movies of interest…

  • The Raven (April 27) — John Cusack plays Edgar Allan Poe trying to stop a serial killer who’s using Poe’s own stories as inspiration. In what universe does that not sound cool?
  • The Pirates! Band of Misfits (April 27) — Animated flick from Aardman Studios, the people behind Chicken Run and the Wallace and Gromit shorts. I love their stuff, and this one looks like more of the same old fun.
  • The Avengers (May 4) — This ambitious multi-film/franchise crossover event had my box-office dollars from the moment Samuel L. Jackson appeared as Nick Fury in Iron Man. The fact that it’s starting to look as if it’s actually good is just icing on the cake.
  • Dark Shadows (May 11) — Lots of folks seem to be down on Tim Burton these days, but I usually enjoy his films at least on the first viewing, and this reboot of the old supernatural soap opera of the 1970s looks really funny to me.
  • Men in Black 3 (May 25) — The trailer looks like more of the same old MiB schtick we saw in the first two, but I liked them a lot, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And Josh Brolin’s impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones looks to be uncanny, and worth the price of admission itself.
  • Prometheus (June 8) — Director Ridley Scott swears up and down this film is not a prequel to Alien, but I ain’t buying it, and so I’m pretty ambivalent about this one. Alien is one of my all-time favorite movies, in large part because so much of what happens in it remains a mystery at the end, and frankly I don’t want that to be ruined with unsatisfying (and unrequested) explanations. I don’t want to know where the aliens come from, or really anything at all about the wrecked spaceship that the good crew of the Nostromo will investigate someday. As far as I’m concerned, those things don’t matter. Nevertheless, there’s so much buzz growing around Prometheus, I imagine I’ll probably give in and see it anyhow. I suppose if anyone could return to the Alien universe and make anything worth watching, it’d be the guy who first took us there. (Of course, it would help if the late screenwriter Dan O’Bannon were involved, too…)
  • Rock of Ages (June 15) — The Girlfriend loves musicals and has been trying for years to find one I’ll love too. Between Alec Baldwin as a sleazy nightclub owner, Catherine Zeta-Jones as, well, anything as long as she’s in it, and a soundtrack featuring all the lame old ’80s hard-rock music I love, this just may be the one she’s been looking for. I’m totally stoked for this one and I won’t apologize for it.
  • Brave (June 22) — The latest animated film from Pixar, set in the 10th century Scottish Highlands. ‘Nuff said.
  • The Dark Knight Rises (July 20) — Meh. I’ve decided I really don’t care for Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, but there’s a trilogy to be squared, and I know some of this one was shot just outside my friend Cranky Robert’s office in Pittsburgh, so I imagine I’ll see it eventually just out of curiosity.
  • Total Recall (August 3) — I know, I know, it’s a remake, and I’m the dude who loathes remakes. But this looks like a somewhat different take on the original source material (a short story by Philip K. Dick) rather than a direct rip of the ’91 Schwarzenegger film, so with luck it’ll turn out like John Carpenter’s The Thing vs. Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World — both good films based on the same source, but not really very much like each other. Maybe I’m rationalizing because the trailer looked better than I expected.
  • Looper (September 28) — A time-travel action thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt — yes, that’s the kid from the TV sitcom Third Rock from the Sun, now all grown up and playing a mob enforcer — and Bruce Willis as Gordon-Levitt’s future self. I hadn’t even heard of this until a couple weeks ago when a buddy sent me the trailer. It looks good!
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December 14) — It could be a disaster, I know, trying to integrate a children’s book with the much darker and more sophisticated Lord of the Rings saga, and also splitting that relatively short volume across two movies… but what the hell. At the very least, it’ll be nice to see Ian McKellen as Gandalf again.
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Funeral Procession

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Quite a sight, isn’t it? That’s space shuttle Discovery hitching a ride atop a specially modified 747 known in NASA-speak as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or SCA. I’ve always loved this eccentric element of the whole shuttle system, the only really practical way to move the orbiters around the country in between spaceflights. In some ways, I find this pairing as awe-inspiring as the shuttle’s complete rocket stack. It’s so unlikely, so ungainly, so… weird… to see two aircraft mated together like this. And they’re both so large. It’s incredible to think they could even get off the ground like this. And yet, they did, many, many times.

If you don’t know it, the big building in the background is Discovery‘s new home, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (or, as our Loyal Reader Cranky Robert likes to call it, the Uzzy-Wuzzy). It’s an extension of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum located just outside Washington, DC, near Dulles Airport. The Discovery and her SCA flew up there from Kennedy Space Center in Florida this morning, taking the time to do a few “victory laps” around the familiar DC landmarks. Now, this afternoon, the Web is crowded with cool photos from the flyovers, of the shuttle/SCA over the National Mall and the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, and of course countless American flags. But I thought this one was more interesting than the obvious “photo ops.”

One of these shuttle ferry flights passed through the Salt Lake Valley a few years ago, and the shuttle/SCA pair even overnighted on the tarmac at SLC International, but for some stupid reason, I didn’t make the time to see them. That’s something I will forever regret now that it’s all over, just as I regret never seeing a launch or landing in person either. There are only going to be just two more ferry flights: one next week when shuttle Enterprise is transferred from the Udvar-Hazy to the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City, and then the final one in September when Endeavour is sent to California. The Girlfriend has suggested we go see one of the ferry flyovers. Actually, she suggested a couple days ago we go see this one, the last flight of Discovery; she said we ought to just hop on a plane and go to either Florida or DC, and god, how I love her for making the suggestion. But as tempting as the idea was, I decided against it. For one thing, last-minute airfare is pretty exorbitant and we frankly have better things to spend our money on right now. But really, honestly, the biggest deterrent was that I just really hate funerals…

Photo credit: NASA HQ

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100 Years… And We Still Haven’t Let Go

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It happened one hundred years ago tonight. I doubt if I need to spell it out… the familiar silhouette of the ship above, the media’s fixation on the anniversary the past couple weeks… you all know what I’m talking about. Everybody knows the story of the supposedly unsinkable ship with too few lifeboats that struck an iceberg near the end of her maiden voyage. I believe this story will still be known a hundred years from now, too, and maybe even two or three centuries hence, long after the actual wreckage of the ship itself has finally dissolved into unrecognizable heaps of iron oxides and passed forever into the realm of cultural mythology.

But why this story, this ship, this tragedy? There have been other shipwrecks throughout history that were every bit as tragic, some even more horrifying in nature, some with even greater loss of life. What is it about Titanic, in particular, that holds such a grip over the public’s imagination?

My own fascination with Titanic began, as I now realize so many of my interests did, with an old movie I saw on TV when I was a kid. A Night to Remember, made in 1958, was based on the 1955 non-fiction bestseller by Sir Walter Lord, which I believe was the first comprehensive book on the subject intended for a popular audience. (FYI, this book has never been out of print since its first publication nearly 60 years ago, and it’s still considered a must-have if you have a serious interest in Titanica. I’ve bought two or three copies myself over the years…) I don’t know if I understood at the time that the movie was depicting an actual event. It’s possible I did not; I was young, and it was the mid-70s, so I may have mistaken it for just another one of the fictional disaster flicks that were so popular then, and which seemed to be on the ABC Sunday Night Movie every other week. Nevertheless, I have a pretty vivid recollection of sitting cross-legged on the floor of the living room in front of our massive old wood-console TV set, utterly captivated by what I was seeing on the screen. In my memory, the room was awash with bright afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows, but to me, it was a dark, bitterly cold night somewhere in the north Atlantic. I was that caught up in the story. If I did misunderstand what I was seeing, however, it wasn’t long before I learned it had really happened, and somehow that just made the story all the more compelling to me.

Not too long after that, I developed a generalized (and, honestly, kind of ghoulish) interest in all the great disasters of history. I fondly recall a book I used to have, probably purchased through those Scholastic book sales we had at school every so often, that detailed at least a dozen of the infamous catastrophes that have befallen unsuspecting human beings over the centuries: the volcanic destruction of Pompeii, the great San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire, the Hindenburg explosion, the Black Death, and numerous shipwrecks, but the centerpiece was, of course, the sinking of Titanic, somehow, even then, the ultimate disaster story. But eventually I lost my zeal for such things, at least for a few years.

My interest was rekindled — and my emotional response to the story became more sophisticated — when I saw the film Raise the Titanic on a rented videocassette and VCR machine sometime in the early ’80s. It’s not a very good film, to be honest; adapted from Clive Cussler’s novel Raise the Titanic! (note the exclamation point, which was dropped from the movie title for some reason), it’s probably the slowest-paced “adventure” film you’re ever likely to see, and it’s surprisingly cheap-looking considering how much money was spent on its production. (One of its financial backers, Lew Grade, memorably quipped once that it would’ve been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.) And yet… there were moments in this film that sank hooks deep into my heart. I loved the sequence of the actual raising, when the hulk of the old ship, pumped full of buoyant material and wrested free of the muck at the bottom by controlled explosions, bursts above the surface of the ocean to a lush, swelling theme by John Barry (it was widely believed at the time that Titanic was more or less intact, aside from the gash torn in her side by the iceberg, so the idea was not entirely implausible), and also when she’s towed into New York City at long last, decades overdue but finally arriving, surrounded by fireboats with their water cannons blasting and cheering crowds on the piers. And I love the romantic, sentimental moment when the film’s hero, Dirk Pitt (played here by Richard Jordan, who, in my opinion, was a far better Pitt than that goofball surfer boy Matthew McConaughey), walks the waterlogged decks of the old girl to the fantail, where he raises a White Star pennant given to him by an elderly survivor. It’s the kind of scene that would probably draw titters from an audience today, in these post-ironic, sentiment-impaired, practicality-first times, but if you have a certain kind of temperament — if you believe, as I do, in symbolic gestures and that machines have their own kind of spirit even though they’re inanimate… if you, like me, are prone to wearing your heart on your sleeve and wishing for a grander life and a more noble world — well, the scene works for me. And it made a big impression on my early-adolescent self. I could so easily imagine myself doing the same thing, and feeling good about it, because it would be the right thing to do under those circumstances. Through the power of this crappy movie, somehow, Titanic – the actual ship — had become a character to me, a physical object in which I invested my feelings. (It wouldn’t be the last time I did that, either. You can see all three of these scenes in this clip, if you’ve a mind to.)

Raise the Titanic was released in 1980. Only five years later, in 1985, Dr. Robert Ballard found the real thing, as well as the truth of what happened to her that cold night in 1912: that she was utterly shattered and lies in ruined pieces. Part of me was disappointed that no Cussler-style raising would ever be possible (not that it ever really was, but now it was impossible even to imagine), but I was also fascinated by the murky, low-resolution photos that Ballard brought back. Photos of the actual ship… not a movie set, or an illustration in a book, or even the vintage black-and-white photos of her before the sinking, but of the real ship, as she was now. (Or then, I suppose, since 1985 was a long time ago.) For me, poring over those photos was like reaching through the curtain of time and touching actual history, as hyperbolic as that sounds.

Following Ballard’s discovery of the wreck, I began to count myself as a genuine Titanic buff. I wasn’t obsessed — it was merely one of many interests that I would occasionally dip into, as the mood struck me — but I read a number of books, I watched all the documentaries and fictionalized accounts I came across, and I learned a great deal about the ship and her passengers and crew.

And then came James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 film. And suddenly my weird little hobby turned into a big deal. Suddenly there were more books and videos than ever before, approaching the familiar old story from every possible angle. (My personal favorite: a conspiracy theory that claims the ship we know as RMS Titanic was actually her sister ship, Olympic; supposedly, Titanic wasn’t finished by her launch date, but the hype was running so high that White Star didn’t want to miss the sailing, so they fitted out Olympic with Titanic‘s markings, intending to secretly switch them back after the maiden voyage, when the newer ship was complete. But then came the inconvenient iceberg, with all the horrible publicity that went with it, and the real Titanic ended up spending her days pretending to be Olympic instead, because of course the owners didn’t want any more embarrassment. Yeah, I don’t buy it either.) I helped my father transform my old Galaxie into a rolling replica of the ship for Halloween (now that‘s a story!). And all of this seemed to culminate in the greatest Titanic-related event of all: a public exhibition of actual artifacts recovered from the bottom of the sea (over Dr. Ballard’s protests, for what they were worth). Of course I went to this exhibition — two separate exhibits a couple years apart, actually — and I went in as eagerly as any tourist who ever fawned over King Tut’s golden death mask. But I realized something curious as I shuffled along with the rest of the crowds. I found I wasn’t feeling what I expected to feel as I stood only inches away from the sad, abused relics of the disaster. I wasn’t pleased or awed or exalted to be in their presence, as I’d anticipated. Instead, I felt profound sadness and guilt. That hair brush… those boots… that child’s doll… this crushed pocket watch, its hands frozen at 2:20 AM, the moment the ship took her final plunge… all of these had once been the possessions of real, living, breathing human beings… possibly they were even on those people’s bodies when they went into the water that horrible, freezing-cold night… and now those items are all that are left of those people. And here we stood, basically experiencing them as if they were an evening’s entertainment before being dumped into the gift shop at the end of the show.

For the record, my feelings are now pretty much in alignment with Dr. Ballard’s. I have come to think the wreck of Titanic should be left alone. No more tourist dives, no more recovered artifacts. The organic remains of the hundreds of people that went down with her are long gone, consumed by the microscopic organisms that live at those great depths, but nevertheless, those two big pieces of the “ship of dreams” and the debris field that stretches between them are hallowed ground, a tomb. Serious scientific dives, undersea archeology… that’s one thing. But no more exploitation. The 1,514 people who died — and the 710 who survived but nevertheless had to live with the wreck for the rest of their days — deserve better than ending up as a hook to sell tacky souvenirs. The ship itself deserves better.

All of which is my way-too-longwinded way of leading up to my uncertainty of how best to mark this 100th anniversary of the sinking. Or even whether to say anything at all. But in the end, even with my ambivalence about our merchandise-and-media-driven urge to make everything into an opportunity for making a buck, and my utter disgust with the people I’ve met who seem to think a real-life tragedy happened merely to provide back story for a fictional teenage romance, all this BS seems to fade when I come back to the real story of Titanic.

To finally address my earlier question, I think what keeps this great ship and her awful fate relevant and “top of mind,” as we say in the advertising biz, is that it’s such an incredible story. The fact that she was the largest, grandest, most beautiful thing on the water at the time, and that she sank on her very first voyage, so much like divine retribution for the hubris of declaring any ship “unsinkable”; the way her passengers represented a microcosm of the society that built her, and how the outmoded mores of that society proved so inadequate at dealing with the unthinkable (just as they would be again tested, and then finally swept away altogether, with the coming of World War I only a few short years after Titanic); the mishaps and outright stupidity that led to the collision and the loss of life (what the hell was up with the Californian, anyhow?); and the rich cast of characters who populated her, seemingly all with a fascinating role to play during the sinking. (I’ll be honest, I think James Cameron was wise to make his movie nearly four hours long, despite what the film’s critics may say; he gave us time to get to know both the ship and all these wonderful characters aboard her to a far greater degree than any other Titanic film I’ve ever seen, including the seminal Night to Remember, and that made for a far more powerful reaction once the inevitable came to pass.) A Hollywood screenwriter could not have invented a better story than history provides us.

And there are so many angles through which to explore this story, too… only this week, I’ve heard a new theory about the engineering crew, none of whom survived. Recent computer models show that the ship should have rolled over in the water like the Costa Concordia did only a few months ago… and yet she didn’t. The only possible explanation is that the men down in the engine room were pumping the water from side to side as Titanic filled, doing their best to keep her on an even keel so the lifeboats could launch. They surely knew they were fighting a losing battle… and yet they fought it anyhow, to buy more time for the passengers to evacuate. The word “hero” gets thrown around pretty freely these days — too freely, in my opinion, but that’s a whole other rant. But the engine-room crew of RMS Titanic… they were genuine heroes who gave their lives in the unanswerable hope that they were helping others live. Stories like theirs are the reason why I still remain interested in the unsinkable Titanic. And it is to their memory that I’ll be raising my glass tonight.

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“Remember”

Roger Ebert’s latest blog post is really something to behold, a beautiful, heartbreaking, and, from a writing standpoint, truly enviable piece that has nothing to do with the movies. Instead, it’s an elegiac meditation on death and memory, and reaching that stage of life when friends and family members begin winking out of your life at an alarming pace, and you start to ponder what’s left of them — and will be left of you — in the years to come:

The photo showed a family gathering in front of a small house in North Champaign, on some land where there’s now a shopping mall. In the second row, much taller than anyone else, was Uncle Ben. He was married to Aunt Mame, my father’s oldest sister. He drove an oil truck, and when he passed our house he sometimes tooted his horn and I’d run out in front and wave.

I think there’s a chance I was the only person in the room who knew it was Uncle Ben in the second row. There were probably a dozen who knew in general who the picture showed–ancestors on the mother’s side–but does the name or an idea of Uncle Ben linger on earth outside my own mind? When I die, what will remain of him?

Memory. It makes us human. It creates our ideas of family, history, love, friendship. Within all our minds is a narrative of our own lives and all the people who were important to us. Who were eyewitnesses to the same times and events. Who could describe us to a stranger.

On and on, year after year. I remember them. They exist in my mind — in countless minds. But in a century the human race will have forgotten them, and me as well. Nobody will be able to say how we sounded when we spoke. If they tell our old jokes, they won’t know whose they were. That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.

I’m not sure I can express how very strongly this resonates for me. I went through a phase in my younger days when I was near-obsessed with the idea that I won’t be remembered after my death. I’m still bothered by it from time to time, to be honest. And in fact, now that I think about it, that’s been a concern of mine off and on for many years. I remember signing a lot of high-school yearbooks with the phrases “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” and “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”; at the time, I thought I was being impossibly clever by referencing a couple popular songs of the day, of course… but thinking about it now, in context with Ebert’s post and a bit more self-awareness than I had at 17, maybe there was something more serious lurking underneath those seemingly innocuous taglines. And then there’s the way I still sometimes think of certain ex-girlfriends and wonder if they ever think of me, and if so, what they think about me. I suppose everyone probably does that from time to time, and I don’t think I’m unhealthy about it — it’s not like I’m constantly mooning over girls I haven’t seen in 20 years or more, and I certainly wouldn’t trade the good thing I have now for anyone from my past — but I do hope I’m well-remembered by those I used to love. Hell, that I’m remembered, period.

I used to imagine I would acquire some degree of immortality through the bestselling novels I was going to write, which would of course become beloved classics that would still be read and discussed and possibly even — God, I was so arrogant! — taught in classrooms a century or even two hence. But of course I haven’t actually gotten around to writing those novels, have I? And even if I had, and they’d been as successful as I had ever dreamed… well, chances are they’d still be forgotten in time. And a fairly small period of time, too. Consider the bestselling novels from 50 years ago. Not really so far away when you think about it, but how many of those books are still read — or are even familiar — today? I know the names of several of the authors on that list, and I’ve heard of a couple of the titles, but I personally have read only one of them, Fail-Safe. (I sought it out back in high school after catching the movie version on late-night TV.) And I’m willing to bet I’m in the minority on that one, certainly among people of my generation. Now go back another 50 years to the list from 1903; recognize anything? Anything at all? Once those titles represented the blood and sweat of the people who wrote them, and they were popular and read in parlors and on front porches all across the country, and readers must surely have discussed them and loved them… and today, they’re all completely obscure.

If my writing won’t live on, how about other forms of recording a life? Photographs, perhaps? We are in a golden age of photography right now… there are more cameras, more photos of the average person, than ever before, and I, like everybody else in the industrialized world, have lots and lots of photos of myself. But a generation or two from now, assuming those digital photos don’t just evaporate in the wake of a big electromagnetic pulse or something, will anyone remember my face any better than any of Ebert’s relatives recall his Uncle Ben? No, of course not. I have in the fabulous Bennion Archives several photo albums that belonged to my grandmother, packed with images from her teens and early twenties. I love looking through them… but I don’t know a soul in them, except her and my grandfather. I’m sure some of the other faces in those snapshots belong to family members, ancestors of mine, I imagine… but I don’t know their names. I am diligent about writing the names of people on the backs of my own printed photos, and I tag every digital shot I take to a ridiculous degree… but I can’t help thinking even that won’t make a difference. People in the future may have my name, but no one will remember who I actually was. And that’s a factor too, isn’t it? Not merely that we are remembered, but how? My memories of my Grandma June are mostly constructed from her latter years, after a stroke robbed her of her mobility and her speech. My mother, however, remembers her very differently… as a young, vivacious, fun-loving woman who liked to play boogie-woogie on the piano and throw parties cook for 20 people while they were all camping. But that woman was a stranger to me, and after my mother is gone, all that will be left — for a time anyhow — is the memory of the stroke victim.

You know, it occurs to me that my instinctive resistance to remakes of movies and TV shows I loved when I was young could be rooted in this as well. I always identified with those things so strongly, considering them core parts of what made me me, that the idea that they are now somehow obsolete and need to be replaced… my fear being of course that once replaced, the originals will no longer be seen and will start to fade from memory… and where I’m sort of made up of those things, what does it say about me? Maybe what that’s really all about is my own fear of obsolescence and irrelevance. And ultimately oblivion.

The basic existentialist dilemma, especially for the childless: will I have made any sort of impact on the world for having lived? Or is it all futile noise screamed into a windstorm? Is it any wonder that the single word Mr. Spock utters to Bones as he prepares to sacrifice himself for his shipmates in Star Trek II is “remember?”

Forgive me. It’s late, and I’ve had something of a downbeat day anyhow. If I haven’t depressed you too much, go give Ebert’s essay a read. It really is a lovely piece…

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Proof of the Obvious

john-carter-and-dejah-thoris

So, The Girlfriend went to her hair stylist last night for the usual maintenance work, and she later told me that while she was in the chair, the smalltalk turned, as I imagine it often does, to recent movies. Anne mentioned to her stylist that she and I quite liked John Carter, only to have the stylist remark that she wasn’t interested in that one because she couldn’t really tell what it was about from the TV ads. So Anne — who I think is on the verge of becoming a genuine Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, thanks to our nightly readings from the Barsoom series (we’re about two-thirds of the way through book two, The Gods of Mars, right now) — proceeded to explain what the movie’s marketing did not: that it was a swashbuckling adventure based on a seminal century-old sci-fi/fantasy pulp novel by the same author who created Tarzan… at which point, her stylist said something to the effect of, “Really? It’s based on a book? By the guy behind Tarzan? I totally would’ve seen it if I had known that!”

You see how easy it would’ve been, Disney marketing people? Bunch of schmucks…

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