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TITANIC, Ship of Dreams

by Linda Coffman

"Are you ready to go back to Titanic?" -- From the blockbuster movie

I admit it... I saw Titanic twice on the silver screen and have watched the video at home numerous times. My end-of-the-20th-century New Year's Eve party theme was "Last Dinner on the Titanic." Guess you could say I've had a fascination for the great ship since reading A Night to Remember over forty years ago. Forty! Yes, it's been that long since Walter Lord hooked me with his vivid story of the vessel, the passengers, and the tragedy.

My curiosity whetted by a dear friend's description of an exhibition then in Orlando, and with a bit of time to spare while driving across Florida, it was only natural that I would stop to see Titanic, The Experience. It was well worth the time for maritime history or movie buffs.*

Right away I knew this would be no ordinary theme park-style event. My ticket of passage identified me as Miss Mildred Brown and I was solemnly instructed by the "purser" at the ticket booth to check the passenger list at the end of the voyage to determine if I was a survivor.

My fellow "passengers" and I watched an informative video about Titanic playing on a bank of television screens until a young woman in period dress announced it was time to "board." As we stepped forward she announced our "names" and turned us over to our hostessa "film star" of the day, hired by the White Star Line to promote their newest and grandest ship. Before entering the ship, we proceeded to the White Star Line offices to be greeted by Mr. J. Bruce Ismay, the Managing Director. On his office walls are rare blueprints of White Star vessels.

Anticipation built as we were then led to the graving yard. There we got our first glimpse of Titanicthrough a window she awaited fitting out and the installation of her stacks. Of course, it's just a huge photograph, but the young man who took over our tour at this point made a genuine attempt to make us believe it was the real thing. His Irish brogue was thick and nearly incomprehensible as he enthusiastically described the ship's huge propeller, or screw, which takes up an entire walland it's not even the BIG one!

Picking our way over ropes and rivets, it was time to begin exploring on our own...

"Take her to sea, Mr. Murdoch. Let's stretch her legs." -- From the blockbuster movie

At last we found ourselves pier side, surrounded by antique steamer trunks and preparing to board. But first, we looked overhead and waved at the "passengers" already at the rail attired in costumes from the Broadway musical Titanic.  

At this point we began speaking in whispers as the enormity of what we were about to view washed over us. Even boisterous children became subdued. Historic treasures unfolded, not the least of which is a table crafted from debris from the luxurious liner and actual Titanic floor tile, left over after the completion of the ship. While some of the artifacts are from Titanic, most were salvaged from her sister ship Olympic and other White Star vessels of the period.  

Before moving on, a steward beckoned us to peek at the sumptuous sitting room of a first-class "millionaire's" suite and to step on the thickly padded carpeting. Recreated to scale, it was larger than I imagined, and only one of the several rooms comprising the suite. A far cry from modern cruise ship staterooms!

Next I entered the Palm Court with settings of china, silver, and crystal bearing the White Star logo. I could help but wonder, who used that tiny silver mustard jar and sipped from that delicate goblet? To the accompaniment of familiar music from the blockbuster movie, I made my way to the full-scale replica of the Grand Staircase. Here's where a sense of unreality began to set in... it appeared so, well, small compared to what I expected. Eerily, the taped voice of a survivor described her experience on that night to remember.  

Vaguely unsettled, I passed stateroom corridors and watertight doors, stopping at the automobile in the ship's hold. Familiar movie sights and sounds prevailed. In a darkened room under glass are letters and other memorabilia taken by the survivors into their lifeboats... water stained. And on the far wallan "iceberg." Touching it, I quickly pulled my hand away. It was colder than I could stand.

"High in the crow's-nest of the New White Star Liner Titanic, Lookout Frederick Fleet peered into a dazzling night.  It was calm, clear and bitterly cold.  There was no moon, but the cloudless sky blazed with stars" -- From A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord

Outside on deck, it was freezing... it was, as my friend described it, "breathtaking." I moved to the railing, mesmerized by the stars overhead. Then I noticed ita deck chair encased in glass. An actual deck chair from Titanic. Preserved all these years. I shuddered to think of it in the icy water under the starry sky. Tears filled my eyes as I imagined a passenger, desperate for survival, clinging to it until the end. I began losing my composure as I noticed another small bit of historya pill box crafted from a bit of wood taken from the ship's floating debris.

I really lost it in the next room as I stood before a life vest worn by a survivor. No longer were these elegant and intriguing artifacts, but terrible evidence of human tragedy.

I wasn't the only person wiping back tears while passing through the gallery of motion picture memorabilia. I glanced briefly at the costume worn by Leonardo DeCaprio in Titanic, and items from A Night to Remember starring Kenneth More and The Search for Titanic, hosted by Orson Welles. Compared to the deck chair and life vest, they seemed superfluous.

Clearing my eyes, I searched for "my" name... Miss Mildred Brown.

I discovered I was a second class passenger. I survived.

Illustrations--White Star Line Logo & RMS Titanic


* While the experiential exhibit I visited is no longer available, you may find another one as the fascinating artifacts are often on display.


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