February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

27. Father Knows Best: Walter Lord

By |2024-02-01T15:58:06+01:00December 25th, 2023|Boyhood Empire|
Walter Lord was best known for his account of the sinking of the Titanic.

o get to New York we retraced our off-to-Spain steps of four years before. Only this time, without my mother present, we were allowed to fly (in 1962 it had been a slow train). My father introduced me to my latest wonder of the world, the Eastern Airlines shuttle, an hourly air service between Washington and New York that required no reservation and pledged to seat all passengers, no matter the number. If one plane was full, it rolled out a second, even a third. Dull prop planes stood on the tarmac at the ready, giving National Airport the look of a military base.

All was modern, or so it seemed to the reptile in me. Tickets cost very little, and for travelers my age, next to nothing. Security did not exist. You bought the paper ticket and walked to the gate and onto the tarmac and then into a Lockheed Electra or DC-7, four-prop staples of the 1960s. All could smoke and the sensibility aboard these planes had the feel of American bohemianism, with wood paneling around oval portholes and wood also above, where the reading light was embedded into the works. Each window had curtains. The men aboard these planes, at least those I saw, dressed in jackets and suits, and the women in their best public garments. Flying was to participate in a public ritual.

Naturally none of this casually slipped into mind. It was my father who explained the sensibility of flying and of traveling in general, and the rules that had to be respected. If you chose to leave your seat for any length of time or debarked during a layover, it was your obligation to use the “Occupied” sign, a plastic sliver that politely stated: “Sorry, this seat is occupied.” Sorry, please, and thank you were ritual parts of speech under almost all circumstances.

When we arrived at the Henry Hudson Hotel on the west side of the city, not far from the liner docks, the concierge welcomed us and immediately apologized that our room was not ready and asked for a small amount of patience, please. And we both nodded.

The Hudson was no longer what it was “in the old days,” said my father, explaining that in the halcyon days of liner travel it was the perfect hotel to spend a night in before boarding a Europe-bound vessel. But jets were now in charge and liners waning, so the Hudson was rough around the edges, listing like a ship taking on water. I had no idea what the halcyon years might have been like or even how to pronounce the word, but I imagined great festivities and illumination and immediately inserted bits and pieces of the halcyon era into my ever-present imagining of Telefonica.

The iceberg ripped open 300 feet of the Titanic’s hull without most passengers even hearing much of a sound.

We were scheduled to meet Walter Lord in his Lexington Avenue apartment the day before my birthday, when we’d fly to London by BOAC VC-10 type 1011, a jet with fuel tail engines I could not wait to see. So Americanized in my thinking, I found planes and cars produced by other nations as exotic, little beads I needed to add to my collection of things in the known world. Once again it was my father who pulled me down to earth, telling me the British had invented the jet engine, technology the Nazis had used during the war to produce rockets and early jet fighters. These jets, the Messerschmitt-262 in particular, took to the air only when all was already lost for Germany in 1945, but Allied fighter pilots in their reliable prop planes were at times unable to comprehend the zoom of these planes as they swooped in and by. It was in this period, and with the dropping of nuclear bombs in Japan, that political observers were able to take the temperature of the future, and imagine what would come to pass: a contest between America and Russia to lure the best wartime mechanical and scientific minds to bolster their postwar military in what would be a bipolar postwar era defined by bluster and standoffs.

Walter Lord, a very kind and gentle man with a deep smile, had to listen to whole chapters of my father’s futurism before turning to me and saying, “So young man, I hear you’ve been smitten by my ship!”

Mostly too shy to speak, I mostly listened as he told me how he came to write the book and anecdotes he’d picked up along the way. He said the ship should never be found, nor would it be (it was, decades later), because the wreck was a “holy mystery” of sorts, a temple to “hubris run amok” (yes, I later looked all this up). He also marveled in amazement and horror about the story of the Californian and told me the son of the captain was writing a book in an effort to clear his father’s name. At the time, no ship swore by wireless and no captain remained on the bridge when a vessel was dead in the water. Those on the bridge of the Californian had done nothing wrong. Their failing, if they’d failed, was to apply greater imagination to what they beheld. Why should a liner be sending up flares after midnight on a cold April night? A party? At that hour? They’d failed to be moved by the small things, making them immune to the possibility of something unthinkably larger. “God is in the details,” Lord said carefully.  “Life is about paying attention, You see, the Titanic’s wireless operators, Jack Phillips and Harold Bride,  were actually given the exact coordinates of the berg the liner would graze, but they were backlogged sending private wires to New York, notes from passengers, an upper-class privilege that was all the rage at the time. Bride snapped at the sender of the ‘iceberg-ahead’ message to get off their busy  frequency, and the warning was lost.”

I loved listening to Lord, to the clear journalistic velocity of his diction. He told me those alive to see the iceberg the Titanic had struck were unimpressed. It was not some Empire State Building at sea all would notice. No, it was a modest block of ice whose curved immensity was below the waterline, where it had corrugated slivers, one of which ripped open 300 feet of the Titanic’s hull without most passengers even hearing much of a sound.

This, he said, is what most confused the bridge, that the reports from below were apocalyptic but from the top of the ship it seemed the worst had been averted. The officers in essence denied the reports from below, creating a sort of quiet chaos. “No one wanted to understand what had happened, that the ship had been cut open, that it would have been far better off just colliding head-on with the berg.”

Every liner I saw that day was gutted and its innards spread around the planet like dust. I was looking at dinosaurs.

His voice fell to a whisper when he described the saga of the watertight doors, the doors that gave the Titanic its unsinkable label. Close these doors and water would remain trapped in one, two, or three compartments, allowing the ship to stay afloat. But in a fatal flaw, the designers, unwilling to tinker with the luxuries and make some rooms a bit less opulent, had built the system so that these doors extended upwards only a few decks. This meant entering water, once it filled one compartment, had easy access to the next, and the next, and this spilling-over effect, unstoppable, is what sank the ship. Had the watertight doors extended upward a few more decks, as became the rule later, the ship would have sat dead in the water, its bow dipped into the sea, but afloat.

In all, we spent an hour with Lord and my father spoke little, thankfully letting the author mesmerize me. He gave me copies of several snapshots of the Titanic (which in later months would send me on an ocean liner-picture-seeking frenzy). I told him I wanted to find Morgan Robertson’s book and my father was taking me to London for the search, since one bookseller claimed to have a copy.

He applauded my effort, insisted human beings, even enlightened ones, were destined to make the same kinds of mistakes again and again, and the day of the Lord, as I called it, ended there.

Not quite there, since my father had always promised to take me to a New York steakhouse, and we went, father and son, into the bustling room of moving meat in which all smelled grilled, even the ties of the waiters.

The next day I would befriend the Vickers VC-10 and fly BOAC (which would later become British Airways). All was well with my world, and after the steak I was sleepy.

But my father had a final surprise in store: a walk along the West Side docks, where in succession I saw the Queen Mary, the Dutch Rotterdam, the beautiful American dragster United States (which held the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing at less than five days, and the stunningly futuristic French flagship France (third French liner in a century to hold that name), which seemed as much a starship as an ocean ship — all its lights ablaze, a floating island soon to sail for Le Havre. I had yet to make the connection between my love of new jets and these liners, in that the VC-10 and others were swiftly stabbing these liners to death. They were, on that night in June 1966, already dead, like dead ships sitting, museum pieces that wouldn’t last, soon to be dispatched to scrap. Every liner I saw that day was gutted and its innards spread around the planet like dust. I was looking at dinosaurs.

Later, when I thought of that night, it came to me that even the Titanic had met a nobler fate.

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.