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SOS or Save Our Memory?

June 13, 2004

The Titanic is still sunk. But the idea of the Titanic has, like Molly Brown, proved unsinkable. Thus, fans of this endlessly eulogized ship seek more profound expeditions to explore what they see as another mystery of the deep. Word has reached the surface that the Titanic is decaying.

This appears to surprise Titanic buffs, that a mammoth metal ocean liner nearly three football fields long and weighing 52,310 tons would not perfectly withstand the pressures of time and the ocean. Well, first off, the grandiose liner didn't withstand the pressures of a single complete ocean journey, or brushing by one lonely iceberg just sitting there. On the chilly night of April 14, 1912, an anonymous chunk of melting ice, for thousands of years a minute sliver of a Greenland glacier, ripped open the imperious British iron of six once-watertight compartments, two more than sufficient to doom the Titanic. In about 150 minutes, the world's largest metaphor plunged into our romanticized memory and the cold, murky depths of the North Atlantic, killing about 1,500.

Second, the ruins are spread over half a mile of ocean floor under 12,000 feet of water. That water isn't only heavy, it's salty. Saltwater + metal = rust. The ocean contains bacteria, which also enjoy man-made materials. And contrary to some beliefs, the Titanic was not sunk for James Cameron's 1997 movie, which earned way more than the ship cost to build. The real ship has been on the bottom off Newfoundland for 92 years, longer even than Celine Dion has been singing about it.

Robert Ballard, who engineered the wreck's discovery 19 years ago, reports items disturbed and missing since previous submersible visits, beyond a few hundred retrieved for auction. He wants the wreckage to be a pristine watery gravesite. Not likely in international waters and this non-Victorian age. What is likely, along with more Celine Dion, is an endless stream of TV documentaries chronicling the wreckage's continued deterioration.

This is, after all, what makes history so fascinating, beyond date-filled chapters on the reigns of kings and presidents. There have been, it's useful to recall, many famous shipwrecks. None hold the Titanic's death grip on popular imagination. The maiden voyage of the ship, three years under construction, was global news. So strong was the pride and confidence of that industrializing age that disaster was inconceivable; Titanic carried less than half its allotted lifeboats. The ship's shocking disappearance, out of eyesight and camera range, left everything horrible to the imagination. Two years later came something called a world war.

Obviously, treasuring Titanic's memory -- or any other -- is fine. Makes you wonder, though, which everyday conceits harbored as unsinkable givens today will founder like the Titanic and be viewed as naive, revealing and decaying 92 years from now.

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