LOOKING DOWN THE ROAD TRAVELED:
A RETROSPECTIVE OF TWENTY-NINE YEARS
A lifelong passion for
Titanic: The Story of a Legend
by W. E. Brower Jr.
My interest in the Titanic began when I was five years old. Growing up watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” helped to increase my interest in shipwrecks and scuba diving. In the summertime my grandparents would drive over to visit. My Grandfather and I had a special bond, he played a double role in my life being a family member and also a best friend. We called one another by our own nicknames, I was known as “Applesauce” and he was “Apple”.
In the summer of 1980 Apple and I were going to the movies to see “Clash of the Titans”. A traffic jam delayed our arrival and the film had already started. As we turned to leave my eyes fell upon an amazing photograph. An old ship was rising out of the water with spray cascading down its forecastle. The words above read “Raise the Titanic!” On a spur of the moment choice we opted to see this film. I was unaware at the time how much of an impact this movie would have with me. Apple and I sat in the front row and soon the lights dimmed, my eyes grew
wide with wonder as a series of photographs appeared on screen. The images of a massive liner filled the area and at the bow was the name Titanic. The pictures faded to show the murky depths of the sea and out of the shadows was the same ship!
My interest had been sparked like the flick of a match, I spent the entire ride home asking about the ship called Titanic. We made a side trip for some ice cream and it was there that I was told the tale of the tragic maiden voyage. Apple told me how the newspapers claimed that the ship was unsinkable and then a week later the public was shocked as the liner foundered.
I wanted to know more about this ship and Apple encouraged me to pursue this interest by buying me the book “A Night to Remember”. I was just learning to read so Apple would wait until bedtime and then come in my room where he read one chapter per night. My dreams were with images of the elegant staterooms and that Apple and I were having a game of cards in the smoking room with John Jacob Astor.
Using our imagination, Apple and I would have tea on the promenade deck of the ship. Each time that new books or items were available for sale Apple would buy them for me to start my own collection.
September 1, 1985 marked a new chapter in History when the wreck of Titanic was discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard. I was given permission by my parents to stay up late that night and watch the news with Apple on the telephone as the first images of the wreck were released to the public. That weekend I was over at my grandparents once again as we had much to celebrate. While we spent time together Apple came up with an idea; he wanted me to help me with my fear of heights so we drove to the YMCA where I climbed the high dive while he
I saw the people far beneath me; I was up about twelve feet and gripped with fear. From the water below Apple called me into action. Looking up he yelled,
“You’re standing on the Titanic and she is going down fast so you’ll have to jump to escape!” Hearing this I promptly leaped from the board and plunged into the pool.
As I surfaced my fear had subsided and Apple being ever so proud bought five books and a model of the Titanic for me! We returned home with our new batch of goodies in our hands and smiles on our faces.
The summer of 1988 came and I got ready to have more fun with Apple. It was a surprise when I saw him, his embrace was weak and he looked pale. The visit was going to be quite short as I was told that he was ill. On the last night while my parents were driving to pick me up Apple and I sat on the patio. We were gazing at the stars in silence until he called my name. Beside his rocker was a package with my name written on it. I opened it and smiled, inside was a copy of the book “Discovery of the Titanic” by Dr. Robert Ballard, within the first page was a typed dedication:
To my good friend BJ Brower
Who has an intense interest and a broad knowledge of the tragic history of this great ship.
Included with the book was the movie “A Night to Remember”. I hugged him smiled as the book was opened. After looking through the pictures, Apple called my attention and said,
“If something were to ever happen to me would you promise me that you will continue your research in the Titanic? Will you teach others as I’ve done for you?”
I agreed and nodded my head, following that my parents started to turn down the road. Apple asked one more thing, “What dreams do you have?”
I told him that I wanted to dive the wreck and meet a survivor. As I got in the car he said, “Pursue your dreams for one day they may come true.”
We pulled away and I watched Apple waving goodbye until the distance separated my line of vision. It was only a few days later when the phone rang late in the night. I awoke and looked over at the clock, it read 2:05 AM. my first thought was Titanic would be gone in fifteen minutes and I soon fell back to sleep. The house was quiet and still when I woke up, my mother was sitting at the kitchen table. She didn’t look up at me. She sat there and then
said, “Apple died at two this morning, he had cancer.”
I returned to my room and looked at my collection, as I sat on the bed my emotions were released. My best friend was gone and I never told him that I loved him. With tears in my eyes I slowly started to take down the posters of Titanic. Within an hour my room was stripped bare, everything was packed into my closet.
In a sense I could understand how the survivors from the disaster felt because I could not bear to speak of the ship. The next summer I chose to stay home and spend time alone. It had been a year since Apple’s death and I wanted to find a way to remember him. At the local hobby shop I found a large scale model of the Titanic which I soon purchased.
As I began to paint the superstructure the books that were once packed now sat cluttered along the floor as I used them for reference. It was a strange feeling reading them once again, my interest was returning to me and growing like a blossoming flower. Apple still lived on though only in my memories and distant thoughts. The model which was supposed to have been a summer project turned into a labor of love that lasted four years.
On May 31, 1993, the eighty-first anniversary of Titanic’s launch, the model was completed. It took the same amount of time to build it as it was for the construction of the ship itself!
The legacy of the ship carried into my high school years when in September of that same year my English class was reading about it in our textbook. My classmates who had grown up with me looked in my direction when the teacher assigned us a report to show how human error caused the disaster. I opened my archives and gave a breakdown from Titanic’s construction to the final plunge detailing the minute mistakes which would later become infamous.
I was given my first U, which is below a failing grade. The reason being I gave the breakdown of reactions from the passengers and crew which was not supposed to be human error. I also was informed that my account of the damage to the ship was inaccurate when I stated approximately ten to twelve square feet of the hull had been damaged versus the three hundred foot rip in the side. My friends took action on my defense and organized a strike refusing to continue their education until my grade was changed. That was my first time fighting for something I held steadfast to and ended up passing. As a two part ironic footnote during the 1996 expedition to the wreck divers did a sonogram over the damaged area. The plates on the hull had buckled in about twelve square feet. Years later I ran into my former teacher after the discovery of the damage had been made and he apologized to me by saying he was going with what was written in the answer key in the teacher handbook!
To remember the people who lost their lives in the disaster I began a tradition on the fourteenth of April 1994. At twenty minutes to midnight, the time that Titanic collided with the iceberg, I stood on my patio and rang on old ship’s bell that’s been in my family for many years. Following that I’d watch the film “A Night to Remember” from the moment of collision to the end. This took the time frame to 2:20 in the morning, the moment Titanic sank. With the lights shut off I would hold a moment of silence in memory of them and also for Apple.
That same year, my interest in the ship helped me to pass a class. My twelfth grade English teacher graded us on our note taking skills with 95% of our grade based upon everything in our notebooks. Because of all the running around I did, all of my pages had fallen out! I wasn’t aware of it at the time until my meeting with the teacher. When I was threatened to be held back for not doing the assignment I made a last minute deal with her. In the course of only one week I’d produce a report on something I have an interest in while using all the lessons she taught to produce it.
It only took three days for me to write a ninety-four page booklet on Titanic without even opening the books for reference! I passed the class with an A!
When I graduated from high school I decided that it was time for me to keep my promise. Driving to my local Borders Books I signed myself up to do a lecture about the disaster on April 15. The first time there was a small group of twenty people. I stood before them with shaky hands and restless pacing trying to sound like a professional. After the success of the first time I resolved to continue doing this always on the anniversary.
Edith Haisman, Michel Navrotil: survivors of the Titanic
Through the help of Titanic International part of my dreams came true as I was able to correspond with the few remaining survivors of the disaster and in May of 1995 had the pleasure of having afternoon tea with Milvina Dean the youngest survivor while at a convention in New York. During our meeting Cindy, my fiancé at the time, and I had our first fight. It started with the question “What would you do if you were on board the Titanic as she was going down?” Milvina listened quietly to everyone at our table answering in various ways. When it came to my turn, I said I’d follow the rule of the sea at that time and put Cindy into a lifeboat while I remained on board. She in turn took offense at the notion and mentioned that she would have followed in the footsteps of the Strausses (Isidor and Ida founders of Macys refused to be separated and went down with the ship) following my brief meeting my passion and devotion for Titanic became obvious to my peers. At my lectures from that point, I started to dress in period clothing to enhance the environment. I felt that in order for people to imagine what is was like you needed to go farther then only words.
Even at this time my interest was observed and sometimes the subject of jokes among my friends. One night after I bought my Ford Thunderbird my first vehicle paid out of pocket I thought it would be fun to take a couple buddies out for a game of pool. In my school years I owned mostly compact cars and this was much bigger then what I was accustomed to driving. Four days after buying it we were on the road heading to the billiard hall when I saw the turning area. I made the swing on the wheel and hit the curb blowing my tire and damaging my front fender. As the car tilted to the ground my friend Scott turned to me and mumbled, “Nice move Mr. Murdoch!” making reference to Titanic’s First Officer who gave the fateful orders that doomed the ship.
When the James Cameron film opened in December 1997, I had been given the chance to be on the local NBC channel discussing the opening of the big budget movie. That night I sat in the front row once again for the premiere. In the climatic final moments of the film my emotions got the best of me and I wept. My tears were not only for the horrors on the screen, but for Apple, it had been seventeen years since my passion was born.
My Annual lecture with Borders in April 1998 was to be a proud time for myself. That night the entire store was transformed into the opulence of Titanic herself. The staff dressed as members of the ships crew while caterers borrowed one of my menus from the last day and served the final dinner from the first class dining saloon complete with champagne, behind the meal the store hired an orchestra to play from the White Star Line songbook. There were almost five hundred people who attended my lecture that year.
During the height of the film, I was thrust into a business venture. Using my knowledge I wrote a script and transformed my lectures into a one man play. I painted the ship in all its stages and included those with other visual aid and imagination I made it a point to bring the audience back to the decks of the ship on sailing day. Describing the scene right down to food baking in the ovens I was able to bring the disaster into perspective.
By the fall I had burned myself out working the lectures at over ninety hours a week followed by phone calls and emails. It was then that my friend Jim Flood offered me a commission if I helped to sell his prints and soon my lectures opened into a different format as I read books about sales and marketing. Using the research I’d sell various types of Titanic Memorabilia available but focused on the high end rare items. During the fall of 1999 I had the largest gathering for a lecture with my entire collection of Titanic relics on display. This was at our local performing arts center where “Titanic the Musical” was set to open. I performed in front of ten thousand people that night and decided to bow quietly away from the limelight and retire from the public eye.
Even with my adjustment of normal life I couldn’t escape the interest that endeared me. I had taken a regular job at an air conditioning company where my coworkers would joke on occasion about the poster of the ship I had at my desk. Life soon imitated art on a stormy morning in 2000. We were in the midst of a tropical storm and with the winds building speed most of us remained indoors. Someone had commented about the canal behind us when the owner of the company reassured us that we were safe from the storm. As work resumed someone heard a crash from outside and moments later our back office had two feet of water drifting in. The office manager looked at me and then ordered the women in the company to leave first! Even though the company went under we laughed at the irony.
My world changed once again on the night of April 15, 2004. Ten years to my traditions of watching the movies and everything else, one of my closest friends who helped to promote my lectures and called in for radio interviews lost his battle with depression and took his own life. When the call came, my collection was once again removed from the walls. Since it happened on the very anniversary of the disaster my outlook was changed. After attending his funeral I was a different man, April 15 took another meaning to me so without wasting a second thought I took the model which I labored so hard on and smashed it with a hammer. The next morning I went to the pawn shop and sold some of the items from my collection. Nobody knew I did this or how things changed within me, people continued to send me memorabilia including actual items from the ship itself which I would just place into my footlocker and store it.
It wasn’t until a year later that I realized there was still my promise to keep and I learned to accept that there are things in life one can never prevent. My portfolio was dusted off and soon some of my posters where visible in my entertainment room. All the books were returned to the shelves and the movies were placed on the DVD rack.
2008 rolled along and for the third time Titanic was a challenging topic for me when I lost my father on April 15 as well. I had a huge fit and after gathering emotion I cataloged the entire collection and was in the process of putting it up for sale through EBay when Cindy walked in and smacked me. After having a long talk about the situation I came back to my senses. At that time as well I was working at a retail distribution center out near the everglades and once again my interest had taken a strange twist. We had the tail winds of a hurricane coming through the county, it was a blustery morning when I arrived ready for the job. As the rain poured and the storm hit, our power started failing. The supervisor called my department together and reassured us that we were going to be leaving because of the storm surge. While being told they were releasing us by the different departments I watched with my associates as the staff of Executive Row was leaving first, followed by the secretaries and other staff members from the front of the company. I was in the warehouse with four hundred coworkers waiting for the release. Doors to other exits had jammed from the surge leaving only the loading bay doors and main entrance. As rainwater filled the docks and started flooding into storage rooms and offices I decided to be sarcastic and sent a text message to my wife: SOS MGY require immediate assistance boiler room flooding. Needless to say we left in a matter of time shortly afterwards but once again there was another example of my interest showing up in various forms. Many Titanic historians have said that two things happen to people who research the ship, once they learn of the raw human emotion played out on those decks so long ago that many continue the research to perpetuate the story. Most importantly the ones who respect the ship are drawn to a special bond. The legacy of Titanic continues to change even today, Milvina Dean passed away this year and now there are no more survivors only their words in film and print. Artifacts are on display throughout the museums while two miles below the Atlantic sit the remains of the ship itself. During my years of research I’ve been able to befriend the people who dive it, most people collect baseball cards etc. I have the autographs of the explorers who have gone to the ship itself and my passion has won me the chance to have my name placed on the diving roster! Like the lottery one must wait for the registration number to be called. Which in turn takes us full circle, I don’t know what lies ahead in the road of life but somewhere behind a young boy is sitting in a darkened movie theatre with his grandfather looking in awe at images of a grand ocean liner.