February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

26. Father Knows Best: The “Californian” in the Dark

By |2024-02-01T15:50:49+01:00December 13th, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
The SS Californian, a ship notorious for watching the Titanic sink.

s a lover of old magazines and illustrated books, I found subjects of interest my father never discussed. In a nutshell, I fell in love with calamity.

So it was that I learned that the disaster stories of the early 20th century were so plentiful, no one book could hope to cover them all.

It was, authors told me, a work-in-progress era in which industrial modernity fell from the pages of speculative fantasy and acquired literally modern shape. But past and future were made to overlap so suddenly that awkward cracks appeared, some of them lethal. Haste makes waste but humans are hasty, or so spake my father

Buildings taller than any before collapsed or caught fire; airships and airplanes decided capriciously not to fly, which was fine enough while still on the ground, but another matter in the air. The General had spoken to me of the many crashes of bombers as a result of mechanical failure, and as a result were never mentioned so as not to damage national morale. All that was built was sturdy and would last. This, at least, was the myth needed.

Yet trains derailed and cable cars detached from their upwardly hitched tethers, falling miles downward and smashing into pieces.

Disaster, to my near-teen mind, was built into adventure, and to contemplate taking risks without imagining the immensity of the loss if anything went wrong diminished the adventure itself. Life in some way should always be on the line, because fear itself was inspirational. No doubt today I would have thrice-weekly meetings with a therapist and many pills to take. No such pills existed then, only shock therapy, and I was too much of a small shock in my own right to qualify. I also seemed to most as a “normal” child, never mind my truant past and huts of one in the woods.

The cover painting gave me chills, that of an immense ship sinking nearly perpendicularly into the ocean.

I read Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember” partly in my hut and partly in the garage, which I had reclaimed from Tony’s and Sarah’s undressing antics. The cover painting gave me chills, that of an immense ship sinking nearly perpendicularly into the ocean. I had crossed the ocean on several liners so the thought cut deep and I imagined what I would do if my immense liner began to go under.

All things Titanic-related became essential reading and seeing, so much so that even sports and lizards and war comic books were set aside.

It was not that a ship called unsinkable had struck an iceberg and gone down on its maiden voyage that most struck me, but two almost paranormal events in the disaster’s background.

The first was that a little-known American author named Morgan Robertson had, in 1887, written a book called “The Wreck of the Titan,” a pulpy bit of industrial revolution fiction that imagined the building of the greatest ocean liner in the world, the “Titan,” and sent it out on a maiden voyage. But the vessel, called unsinkable, struck an iceberg and sank, stunning a public so sure all things modern had to work, or could not fail. Robertson in essence wrote the Titanic disaster in his mind three decades before the White Star Line built the Titanic, filled it with humanity, rich and poor, and sent it to the bottom of the icy North Atlantic. To me, what Robertson had done was more than uncanny. It made me feel he was kin to me, a resident of Telefonica, a man capable of imagining the unimaginable and writing it down, much as if someone in 1950 had posited the building of two 110-story skyscrapers in New York City, immovably high, and then constructed a plot in which anarchists hijacked airplanes to ram into them, bringing both towers down. Perhaps instead of anarchists he would have colored his evil in the form of desert nomads or associates of a caliphate so regressive as to be entirely detached from the modern world, and used these figures as the hijackers. Robertson’s “accidental” vision was just that, but it didn’t make the wanderings of the mind any less impressive.

But even more gripping than Robertson’s fiction was the reality of the SS Californian, a stand-alone episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The Californian was a British steamer the Titanic raced by as it headed into ice fields, determined to make it to New York City in record time. The Californian’s captain, wary of the bergs, brought his vessel to a dead stop. What happened next made me understand the concept of planning was anything but absolute. If planning and organization were human strong points and reflected the brilliance of higher consciousness, all such planning could come apart in an instant.

After the Titanic, only ten nautical miles away, struck the iceberg it, too, came to a stop and slowly began to sink, a process that took nearly three hours. The few men left on the bridge of the Californian past midnight saw flares in the distance. They scoffed, thinking the entitled passengers of the Titanic were having a grand party. The vessel had also closed down its wireless operation for the night and therefore could not hear the Titanic’s relentless SOS tapping.

Instead, a ship that could have reached the sinking Titanic in an hour and saved thousands simply sat and watched as the fireworks display grew dimmer. All assumed the rapid Titanic was simply churning forward. No one, not a soul, guessed it might be in trouble. The guess itself was too bold, too needlessly fatalistic.

Thus the Californian watched the whole drama of the sinking from afar and never moved an inch. This cut me to the core, and I turned in a deeper way toward the stoic, fatalistic thinking that would later play a vital role in my life, a mixture of hope and pessimism I called optimistic pessimism.

The crew of the Californian, with no malice intended, slept through that tranquil night. They heard the news only much later, and the captain would later be questioned both in New York and Washington, where congressional hearings were held. His response was cruelly true: I had no idea. Assumptions defeated reality and a rescue did not occur.

The men aboard the Californian scoffed, thinking the entitled passengers of the Titanic were having a grand party.

Hollywood, not yet born, did not interfere. The ending was gruesome, with a vessel sent from New York to harvest the nearly 2,000 floating frozen bodies near where the Titanic had foundered. Most newspapers did not display images of these corpses, covered by sheets, as the rescue vessel docked in New York days later.

The story led me to a greater appreciation of science fiction and horror, and on weekends I’d ride my trusty bike (with a speedometer no less) to “the other side of the park,” the euphemistic way of saying where Negroes lived, to watch sci-fi matinees and horror movies. I befriended many Black ticket cashiers and ushers who seemed to me much nicer and more willing to chat to a boy than white people, who first required some sort of proof of pedigree. I asked one of them, Horace, at my favorite ramshackle movie house, what it felt like to be Black. I was a heavily freckled boy, so the opening was obvious. “Kid,” he said, “you just imagine you wake up one day and all them pretty freckles you got done come together, and that’s what you see in the mirror. Then come talk to me.” We laughed and joked and the idea of racial enmity was lost on me.

He liked my Titanic stories, I liked his tales of his favorite underground sci-fi films, including one in which aliens are just moving eye sockets that comb the earth, sucking humans whole.

I mentioned the Titanic so many times to my father, as well as the story of the Morgan Robertson novel, that one day he said, “Enough. London is full of rare book shops. We can order it and go there and pick it up.” And so a trip was planned.

I did not know he had more in mind for this trip, including taking me to East Berlin, and flying to Rome to attempt a reconciliation with my mother. I was too absorbed, as always, in my own solar system.

When time came to embark on the trip, in June 1966, just days before my thirteenth birthday, my father sprung the surprise to end all surprises.

With the help of the General and a letter I’d written in longhand to Walter Lord but never sent, we had an appointment to meet and chat with the author in New York. Apparently my father had found the letter and ensured it was sent to Lord, since I’d been too shy to show it to anyone. This is how my father and the General worked together, concocting conspiracies on my behalf.

I was in every way a fortunate son.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.