Here’s a lesson in how to avoid being a popular teenager in 1997: Tell all your friends that the swoony romantic drama they’re giddy over is actually a garbage movie; that, really, a 1958 black-and-white film called “A Night to Remember” is more worth their time; that the whole romance between Leo and Kate is insipid compared with what really happened.
I was 16 when “Titanic” came out and became a colossal hit, and sometimes I felt like the only naysayer. I was right in the bull’s eye of the target demographic: What adolescent girl didn’t want to see a tear-jerker starring Romeo himself, with a plucky heroine and sweaty love scenes?
So I saw it in the theater 20 years ago, like everyone else. But unlike just about all of my female classmates, I wasn’t impressed. Or maybe I should say I wasn’t impressed with the story — you can’t deny that the movie had some seriously special effects. The problem was that, knowing the real tales of some of the survivors put me at a disadvantage for appreciating the manufactured love story the mass tragedy revolved around.
The sinking itself on April 15, 1912, was dramatic enough. What was the point of inserting a bunch of made-up melodrama into an event that was already so harrowing?
Even before I knew I had a distant relative on the Titanic, I was instantly and deeply fascinated by the disaster. I must have been 6 or 7 when I stumbled upon a couple of old National Geographic magazines in my childhood basement about the recent discovery of the ship’s wreckage. (In the days before Marie Kondo, my parents, like every parent I knew, hung on to every last issue, neatly lining up the yellow spines in a bookcase in chronological order.) I found myself paging through a worn copy from December 1985 with a story by Robert Ballard, the explorer who discovered the ruins that year. The article was accompanied by underwater photos like I’d never seen of the rusted hull of a sunken ship that had been sitting on the ocean floor, undisturbed, for decades.
I can’t say what could possibly draw a little girl to such a nightmare — shouldn’t I have been playing with my Pound Puppy or something? — but I was transfixed and immediately took the magazine to my dad, who I presumed had never heard of this massive historical event. That’s when he told me we had a family connection, albeit a distant one.
A survivor of the wreck, Olaus Abelseth, was married to my great-great-grandfather's sister, Anna Grinde. His survival story is almost too wild to believe, but the Norwegian immigrant's sworn testimony in front of a Senate inquiry is now on the Internet for anyone to read.
Olaus was a 25-year-old steerage passenger (not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s plebeian charmer) traveling with a few family members back to the United States, where he was a farmer in South Dakota. He was on the top deck as the ship began to sink into the North Atlantic.
“I asked my brother-in-law if he could swim and he said no,” Olaus testified to Sen. William Alden Smith. “I asked my cousin if he could swim and he said no. So we could see the water coming up, the bow of the ship was going down, and there was a kind of an explosion. We could hear the popping and cracking, and the deck raised up and got so steep that the people could not stand on their feet on the deck. So they fell down and slid on the deck into the water right on the ship.”
Olaus, his cousin and brother-in-law grabbed on to a rope hanging above them and waited until the water was about five feet away before jumping in. Olaus tried to hold on to his companions but got pulled under the water and tangled in ropes. He struggled to free himself, and when he resurfaced, his family was gone.
He was wearing a life jacket, so other people grabbed onto him, using him as a buoy.
“I was trying to swim, and there was a man — lots of them were floating around — and he got me on the neck like that and pressed me under, trying to get on top of me,” he testified. “I said to him, ‘Let go.’ Of course, he did not pay any attention to that, but I got away from him.”
He then swam for what he estimated was 15 or 20 minutes until he came upon one of the lifeboats. Worried about capsizing it, he floated alongside for a bit but eventually pulled himself to (relative) safety. By then, some on the collapsible boat had already succumbed to hypothermia; more would die in the hours it took the RMS Carpathia to rescue them.
Olaus recalled how one passenger died just when their salvation seemed assured. The man was sitting on the floor of the boat, which had filled with about a foot of water.
“I said to him, ‘We can see a ship now. Brace up,’ ” Olaus said. “I took him by the shoulder and shook him, and he said, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘Let me be. Who are you?’ I held him up like that for a while, but I got tired and cold, and I took a little piece of a small board, a lot of which were floating around there, and laid it under his head on the edge of the boat to keep his head from the water; but it was not more than about half an hour or so when he died.”
How on earth did Olaus survive? Having lost my grandfather to hypothermia after his boat capsized in Puget Sound one March morning in 1985, it’s hard to fathom how someone recovers from swimming in the North Atlantic in April. I generally chalk it up to Olaus’s exceptionally hardy Scandinavian roots. He eventually made it back to South Dakota and died there many years later, in 1980, at 94.
Reading his testimony, and similar stories from other survivors, I find myself gaping in awe at the measured accounts they gave of the horrors they endured.
One thing I will say for James Cameron’s “Titanic” is that he did a noble job of re-creating the terrible ordeal, showing how chaos and rushing water and screams gave way to the final dramatic catastrophe, when the great ship fractured in two before plummeting into the sea.
Cameron cared about getting those details just right. If only he’d spent as much time on a story that, all these years later, still seems thin, overly long and unconvincing. At the end of the movie, Kate Winslet’s character, Rose, survives by using a door as a float while her sweetheart, DiCaprio’s Jack, freezes to death. The finale has led to more consternation than genuine sorrow. (Why didn’t she just scoot over and make room for him?)
I still think the opinionated teenager in me had a point — even if it’s hard to argue with a more than $2 billion box-office haul. The truth is, “Titanic,” with all its special-effects razzle-dazzle and gorgeous A-listers, still doesn’t hold a candle to the intensity of reading the simple words from the people who experienced the calamity and lived to tell their tales.