Today, April 10, 2018, marks the 106th anniversary of the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, bound from Southampton to New York, but which, as we all know, sunk on April 15, 1912 in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg.
Dramas played out on the world’s stage sometimes have a way of intruding on our everyday existence in ways that are so commonplace that they would be hard to imagine. Not included among the estimated 705 survivors, or the nearly 1500 victims of the Titanic disaster was a woman whose life on this earth was long and whose influence on the people with whom she came into contact profound. Naomi Halstead nee Lenander was 22 years old when she returned to Sweden from Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1912. She had been sent from her home in Malmo, Sweden by her parents when she was barely 11 years old to escape from the hard and bitter times, the bad harvests, and near famines that had descended on Sweden at the end of the 19th century. Now, no longer a child, but a young woman trained as a teacher, Naomi returned to Sweden to visit with family and friends.
It had been a grand visit, but now it was time to return to her home in America. And so, Naomi booked sea-passage—no jumbo jets leaving daily from Southampton to New York in 1912—and began the final round of visits and good-byes. Naomi came from a loving family who were reluctant to let her leave—particularly when her birthday was only a few days away. “Stay at least until after your birthday,” her family implored. “Who knows when we’ll see you again?”
Naomi heeded the entreaties of her family and turned in her tickets. She did not sail on the Cunard Liner Titanic, the largest and most luxurious ship ever built, leaving Southampton, England on its fateful maiden voyage on April 10th, 1912. On April 14, 1912, at 11:40 PM, the Titanic struck an iceberg about 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada. Less than three hours later, the Titanic plunged to the bottom of the sea. On April 17, 1912, Naomi Lenander celebrated her 23rd birthday safe in Sweden in the loving embrace of her family.
Naomi Lenander Halstead was my grandmother-in-law and lived with Nancy and me for several years prior to her death at the age of 89 in 1978. I have often thought how different my life might be if Naomi had sailed home as planned. Nancy Lofkvist, my wife, would not have been born. Presumably, I would be married but to someone else, living somewhere else, doing something else. The mind reels.
Many long years ago I was telling this story to a group of my students, all members of the Davis Chapter of Model United Nations at the University of California at Davis. The occasion was a party and we were talking about the “small world” concept—how we are all connected to each other at some point of acquaintanceship. Later, American playwright, John Guare, wrote a play called Six Degrees of Separation that explored this notion [many years after this, I was in the Knickerbocker Tavern in New York City, one of Brother Tom’s locals during the days when he was a resident of The Big Apple, having a drink with Tom and a friend of his, the writer, Brad Morrow, when in walked John Guare, a friend of Brad’s, who joined us, thereby creating zero degrees of separation in a sense, but I digress]. Meanwhile, back in Davis, we were all intrigued by the implications of my story. One of my students, a Mexican—Jose Baron—said that he believed that he had a distant uncle who was a mechanic on the ill-fated Titanic. It was a family story often told, said Jose. I observed that that meant his uncle was a Hispanic Titanic Mechanic. And, if he were tall, well then, he was a Gigantic, Hispanic, Titanic Mechanic. That occupied our time for the next half hour or so (evil? —Satanic; showed off his learning? —pedantic, etc.) and probably obscured the original source of our word game. But here again was a connection.
And so, on this auspicious anniversary date, I see Naomi and Jose and Jose’s uncle, that gigantic, Hispanic, Titanic mechanic, in my mind’s eye and I recall the stirring words of the 17th century Scottish priest and poet, John Donne: No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less as well as if a promontory were; as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind. And therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.