Last week, I saw a billboard for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. A full-scale traveling exhibit that featured actual artifacts from the kitchen shelves and personal closets of the Titanic. Cool. My mom's in town, we'll take the kids, sounds unique. We hear they have an actual iceberg, you can touch it. Someone shipped an iceberg to St. Petersburg, Florida? Isn't it too large, too cold, too much of an iceberg for a museum setting? My nine-year-old suggests it's kept in a penguin enclosure of glass and faux glaciers. Right. It'll be blue-lit for sure, the air conditioning cranked, perhaps the dull sound of distant whales piped in.
"That's Seaworld!" says my 12-year-old son.
He's right. We're surrounded by theme parks in Florida. This is a memorial of a catastrophe, an up-close look at all that went wrong one night, long ago.
Upon arrival, we're each given a boarding pass with an actual passenger's information on it. Name, age, occupation and the class you paid for -- first, second or third. Even your purpose for traveling was listed, a brief story on how it was you came to board the biggest, fastest and most technologically savvy ship ever built.
Today, my name is Claus Peter Hansen. I'm from Racine, Wisconsin, and I'm traveling with my wife and brother. We're returning from a long-awaited family visit in Denmark. My brother, Henrik, decides at the last minute to join us on the return to the United States. The only way I can afford the roundtrip tickets is to sell my barbershop in Wisconsin. But, we made it to Denmark with no issues. The question is, will I live through the evening of April 10th, 1912? My tickets are in third class.
My mom is off to a way better start. Her name is Esther Hart, also known as Mrs. Benjamin Hart, and she is from Ilford, Essex, England. She is traveling in second class with her husband and seven-year-old daughter, Eva. Their purpose for travel this spring is a gradual move to Winnipeg, so that Benjamin can profit from the current construction boom there. Esther, it says on my mom's card, was quoted as saying that "Calling a ship unsinkable, was to her mind, flying in the face of God."
Underway, we encounter people's shoes, purses, earrings and the ornate chunk of a carved, stairway railing. Leather goods withstood the ocean water, as did the mangled blades of a fan. Remarkable that a set of dishes lay in perfectly uniform rows on the ocean floor as the wooden case that contained them disintegrated. And there they are, still positioned like they were found a century ago. More encasements of the retrieved, a model of the ruins that still sits two miles below the ocean surface. Instillations glow blue and cold, the voice of a British sailor heard throughout the purposely dated sound system.
We move along, a bit cramped, the ceiling was higher in the last room. As the hallways grow darker, the Claus Peter Hansen in me begins to realize this may be my last day alive. Third class? Adult male? Women and children first, baby. I saw the movie. I can't believe I willingly walked on this ship. I never thought the way Mrs. Benjamin Hart did about God and this man-made toy I'm floating on. What about icebergs? Why didn't I question the icebergs? There's so much false trust in me. I'm astonished at how little I thought this through. Live or die -- my brain will be forced to deal with my survival. Not only my own, but my wife's and my younger brother Henrik's. I relish the quiet I sit in currently, and all sections of the exhibit that preclude the truth regarding my life and my death. I look back, and my mom is leaning over a glass case of infant booties.
I walk ahead with the kids. We encounter an actor in the "promenade wing." He wears the same beard and captain's uniform as the guy in the movie. A living, breathing, wax museum figure. I make eye-contact with him, subtly blaming him for all that's about to occur. He begins a monologue regarding the absurdity of so many random mishaps coming together, including the main "lookout" person's lost binoculars. The man hired to look for icebergs misplaced his binoculars. Terrific.
"You see, folks," the actor said calmly, "She was way, way off course, as the iceberg came into view. The monstrous ice mass was only in her path because of confusion, the stars, the stacking of remarkable and unfortunate circumstances."
As Claus Peter, I'm growing more and more Claus-trophobic. The "lookout" guy can't find his binoculars? Every room is colder than the last. Listen up. I sold my shitty barbershop to get on this death trap. Shouldn't the "lookout" guy borrow his shipmate's binoculars for the evening? I have my wife here, my brother. What the hell is my mother going to say if we don't get off this ship alive. She'll say my stupid son sold his shitty barbershop to buy those tickets.
Calling a ship unsinkable is flying in the face of God.
The iceberg is real. We're encouraged to touch it, to press our palms against it for as long as we can. It's a rock, a freezing and relentless piece of earth that wouldn't move if you, I don't know, hit it with an unsinkable ship. I, Claus Peter Hansen can feel the horrors of what is about to occur. As all the emergency horns begin to sound, I push my third-class wife as close to the women and children line as possible. We're on a staircase, and my hand is flat against her lower back. I love her. Damn it. This is awful. I allow the weight of the crowd to bring Jennie back into me, against me. I kiss her once on the lips, I smell her hair. And she's off again, rolling forward into the panic. I am stuck in the belly of the problem, and now I don't see her, I have no idea where she is. I try another route, alone, praying she'll find her way. I run from one hallway to the next. I think about my brother and how young he is. I find an opening, a hallway and I begin to run, but in my haste I crush my hand in the hinge of a swinging cabin door. It's bad, broken maybe, crushed into the thumb. Here I am thinking about drowning, and my hand is flattened. The rage pathway in my amygdala is sending a signal to my hypothalamus. I feel an implausible fury, then thirst, my teeth bared, my neck as taut as piano wire. Apparently, my rage pathway is now linked into a cerebral nook in my brain called the periaqueductal. Claus Peter Hansen is in the process of choosing whether to freeze or fight, to die or live. And everything he's standing on is sinking.
I'm not so sure I want to go into the next exhibition room.
"You go ahead," I tell my second-class mother.
Go on, I'm going to make peace with this iceberg. My mom and the kids move closer to the exit, closer to the List of the Unfortunate. God, I hope I make it. Isn't that a song from A Chorus Line? What a tragic story. The barbershop in Racine, my Danish relatives, the kindness to us, the way they sent us off with those muffins, the flowers, the kisses. I really liked the affection. Men don't embrace in Racine, Wisconsin. We hunt instead. We drink and fight. I am so much more than just a barber in a sleepy, Wisconsin town. Third class, my ass. I'm Claus Goddamn Hansen, and I'm not going to just sit here and die of hypothermia. I'm going to fight.
But then I can hear the violins. You know the ones. The quartet from the movie, signifying the icy demise of all those colorless babies. I walk towards the resiny sound, the frayed bowstrings, the morbidity of those achy chords. And I arrive at the wall of names, the deceased.
Hansen, Claus Peter
Jennie lived. My sweet Jennie Hansen made it to see the day of light. I see my family hovered over a pre-disaster model of the Titanic. I walk to them and ask my mother the inevitable question.
"Did you live?"
She nods, a triumphant twist of a smile. "My whole family lived."
She can see it on my face. "You didn't make it?" she asks.
I shake my head. "My brother, too."
She gives me a long hug. "Woman and children first, honey."
"I know, I know."
"It was mayhem."
The kids are in the gift shop. Bookends, snow-globes, a teddy bear with a Titanic hoody. I look for something that might represent Claus Peter, and all he must have witnessed before his death. Titanic oven mitts don't quite do it. A visor, a puzzle, a pair of plastic binoculars.
As we leave for the parking garage, I use my new binoculars to see as far as I can. I can see my son with my daughter's ponytail in his hand.
She says, "Get off me!" and swats his shoulder.
They're awful binoculars. I paid $5.38. For fun, I point them toward the iceberg across the street. I see the blurred bricks of the museum, a handicapped parking sign. And then I see her. A stranger to me, a woman exiting the museum. I decide it's Jennie Hansen, my wife. About 35 years old, long brown hair that I cut myself at the barbershop in Racine. Look at her, smiling, even giggling as she leaves the exhibit. I hope she leaves Wisconsin and ends up in Denmark with all those warm relatives. Boy, she's handling my death really well. In fact, she's got her arm around the man she's with. Probably some rich guy from first class. One day, she'll tell him the story about that last kiss, just before I lost her in the crowd. He'll comfort her, acknowledge that is must have been a nightmare.
"It was a hundred years ago," she'll explain to him. "But I still get the chills."