Tuesday, December 12, 2006


There's the story of this woman. You've probably heard something about her. She survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. She survived the sinking of the Britannic in 1916. I thought she had survived the sinking of the Olympic whenever the Olympic had sunk, but she didn't because the Olympic never sank, it was cut into bits in 1935 just a couple of years after being modernized and rebuilt – one more victim of the Great Depression. But this woman, who was a nurse and a stewardess, was on the Olympic in 1911 when it collided with a Royal Navy cruiser that left its shaft twisted and two watertight compartments flooded. I don't think that collision killed anyone, but it was still a pretty big deal. Among other things they had to grab the propeller shaft off the still-in-dry-dock, yet-to-be-completed Titanic to fix the Olympic. This delayed the Titanic's launch and thus maiden voyage from March 1912 to April 1912. Not a long time, but long enough, in that cold year, to create the difference between clear winter sea lanes across the North Atlantic and spring lanes filled with floating ice. Maybe the Titanic still would have struck an April iceberg, but if it had done so on its third or fourth crossing the story might have been, perhaps, a touch less compelling, and maybe, just maybe, that damn movie would've been shorter. I swear that Titanic was filmed in real time and when it first came out I was stuck in that theater for four days, and being on a second date I could barely even complain, but maybe, if I let false memory run away with me, I can remember that the food on-board was quite good.

All things touch all things, more or les

The Titanic, Britannic, and Olympic were all built at Harland & Wolff in Belfast, in the world's largest dry-dock, on a peninsula called Queens Island, in what is now called Northern Ireland but, of course, back then was just Ireland, part of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a political entity that lasted, quite uncomfortably, from 1801 until 1922. Whether this union was created to insure proper mental health care for the insane British monarch of the time (one theory: the English not trusting the Irish Protestants who made up the Irish Parliament to go along with their plans for a regent) o
r to punish the Irish for the rebellion of 1798 (theory two), does not really matter. Over the nineteenth century, Scot/Protestant dominated Belfast industrialized, led by the Harland & Wolff Shipyards whose massive cranes ruled the skyline. The rest of Ireland stayed rural and agricultural and the tallest things in the other three big cities, Dublin, Cork, and Derry, remained the towers of the churches.

If you stand today on the edge of the River Lagan, looking across and east, there is still a working waterfront there. Still a dry-dock, still ship repair, or most
ly either repainting or fixing offshore oil drilling platforms. It's a long way from the glory of building the world's largest, most luxurious means of transportation, but then, hell, that part of the city is now called, for tourist purposes, "The Titanic Quarter" – which may not be the best advertisement., all things considered. Though I have always wanted to attend a football game featuring the team from Harland & Wolff, The Welders, so that I could lead a chant of "Iceberg Ahead." But I do not go to Irish League games, even first division games where the Welders play, my club having been, hmmm, "dismissed" from the league because it was unsafe for them to play anywhere after Bloody Sunday. So they now play across the border in the League of Ireland, though the "all-Ireland" Setanta Cup had Derry City playing at Belfast's Windsor Park last winter for the first time in over 30 years.

Things can change, if given the chance.

Belfast was once
Béal Feirste which means something like "Mouth of the Farset." The River Farset flows into the Lagan someplace north of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge which is way south of those Harland & Wolff shipyards, or where, at least, you'd see them across the river. But you cannot see it. I think it runs underground now through pipes under High Street, and people have told me that Bridge Street is where people once crossed. The kind of victory of man over God's water that the Titanic failed to be.

Violet Constance Jessop died on the Fifth of
May in the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred
and Seventy-One. She was alive, this amazing survivor of Belfast's repetitive contribution to disaster legends, while I was alive. We were on the planet at the same time. I thought about her as I listened to something on the radio about Americans wanting to go back to the moon. How these "do anything" countrymen seemed to have lost both their nerve and their belief in the cooperative citizenship we call government during the Challenger/Reagan era, but now there was a new generation that could not quite understand the thought that you could go to the moon, but would choose not to. Space exploration - real exploration - is a big waste of money, surely, but it is also absolutely magical, and absolutely human. When humans can try something big, something huge, something that will reach toward heaven, I think that they should, I think that they must.

Violet Jessop kept drying off and heading back to the sea. We should all do that.
copyright 2006 by Ira Socol - photograph: Titanic Releasing the Last Rope, 1912.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Snow on the road heading south

We were driving south on the A5 and the snow began to fall, at first in huge flakes that seemed made by small children with round-tipped scissors, but as the miles flicked by the flakes got smaller, and fell much more thickly, and mixed with the gray of the sky and the gray-green of the winter valley landscape and our headlamps worked to cut a tunnel through the darkness.

The goal was a Christmas party outside of Omagh, people neither of us had seen in years, and we were coming together not just for ride-sharing but to add confusion to the rumors about what she and I were or were not doing together at this point in our lives. Maybe though, maybe, as we listened to the CDs she had burned just for today's trip, old songs that had us both singing outloud, it was we who were getting confused.

In the US I would drive easily through this kind of storm, but in this evening in this place everything seemed both more distant and more fragile, and when we got to Strabane, the snow and ice piling onto the pavements, we looked at each other and I suddenly steered the car to the right, a crazed move that left oncoming traffic sliding to avoid us, and crossed this point where the Rivers Mourne and Finn marry to become the Foyle, and drove into Lifford. In the back of the ancient courthouse we found an unexpectedly fine and romantic Italian restaurant, I had a carbonara and she a lasagna, and we told each other tales and laughed so hard that we cried.

When we walked back out to the car through the swirling white cloud we had already made the unspoken decision. And we crossed the rivers again, and drove to the one open and obvious area hotel, and found our shelter from the storm.

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Thursday, December 07, 2006

silent night

The woods are full of snow. The wind is pushing the air across the big lake, and there it fills with the moisture of this vast inland sea. Then it dumps that as tiny flakes as soon as it reaches this cold shore.

I have driven through a scary night, 90 miles west from pretending to be an academic, watching cars and trucks slide when the "bridge freezes before roadway" and it has taken over two hours and two hands on the wheel almost the whole way with grim news flowing from NPR and the BBC, but the talk, it keeps me thinking and awake. Music might let me dream.

There are just eight hours before I need to head back the other way. I hate Wednesdays into Thursdays this semester. But first the dog and I run through the drifts that have swirled around the trees. The wind stings, the lights from the roads off in the distance have vanished, the sky is not there at all, just what falls from it as it crosses a narrow path of vision.

And yet, it is so silent. It is so silent right now. We are making the only footprints, and I can hear the crystals as they fall and strike the ever growing tide of frost.

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol

Friday, December 01, 2006

city life

We waited out the rain under Lever House surrounded by great art and one really bad trumpet player. It was the kind of summer downpour that proves New York tropical – sudden and violent and overwhelming in the power of both water and electricity – but it slowed the city only slightly, and the reflections multiplied the passions.

We started to walk again, south towards St. Bart's, and she said, "We're getting soaked." I looked down, an umbrella lay abandoned on the sidewalk. "This looks like what we need," I told her. And now she thought both I and the city were magic.

copyright 2006 by Ira Socol - Photographs: Lever House, August 2006 and Lever House Rain Dance copyright 2006 by Ira Socol