Venturing: Getting there, one way or the other

Posted Wednesday, April 11, 2012 in Features

Venturing: Getting there, one way or the other

The Titanic

By David D. Platt

It has now been a century since TITANIC sank south of Newfoundland, taking 1,500 souls with her. Everyone knows the story, of course, and everyone has had a chance over the ensuing decades to understand TITANIC as a metaphor for class discrimination, for the end of one order and the beginning of another, for hubris, overconfidence, recklessness and a lot of other bad things. If you haven’t read something about TITANIC in your lifetime, or seen one of the movies or dramatizations, you’ve likely been living on another planet.

What hasn’t been well developed in all the commentary is TITANIC as an example of what travel once was and what it has become. She was a steamship, after all — admittedly a damned big one — designed to get people rapidly and comfortably to their destinations. (We’ll forget for the time being that TITANIC never reached her destination, which shifts the focus and tends to ruin the story.) I’d like to consider TITANIC as straightforward transportation, and then compare her with other ways of getting around and what we’ve come to expect from them.

Since pharaohs navigated the Nile, Spanish grandees enjoyed luxurious cabins aboard gilded galleons and British monarchs rode royal barges on the Thames, we humans have aspired to comfort aboard the boats we’ve traveled on. Granted, a lot of our ancestors crossed the Atlantic in steerage or otherwise uncomfortable quarters, but on most ships there was the chance at the captain’s table, First Class or something similar. If you were willing to pay for luxury you could get it.  Things were like that aboard TITANIC and lots of other ocean liners that provided regular service across the Atlantic for generations. I crossed the Atlantic once aboard QUEEN ELIZABETH in the 1960s and while I didn’t do it in First Class, the trip was certainly comfortable, interesting and fun.

It took four days to reach Southampton from New York, of course, and all the food, bed linen and entertainment must have cost Cunard Lines a lot of money that had to be passed along in the price of the tickets. I returned to New York by plane, but even there I recall being served a hot meal and given a pillow. Fewer amenities, but it took less than a day to cross the Atlantic.

That was then, and since planes have largely supplanted ships as the means of crossing oceans and continents, it’s fair to make comparisons with air travel. Twice this winter I’ve flown across the U.S. aboard Delta and Jet Blue, reaching destinations in California and Arizona in a few hours but paying a heavy price for all the speed.  Check your bag? Well, yes, if you’re flying Jet Blue, but only one. Aboard Delta you pay.  Food? Peanuts; perhaps a cookie or a cup of coffee. Drinks? Pay. Hot meal? Fuggedaboutit.  Pillow? What? The seats might recline but they definitely weren’t deck chairs.

The progression in land travel has been similar — robber barons rode private railway cars; early motorists had chauffeurs if they could afford them. Most of us walked or rode horseback, but given the chance we’d have switched to something fancier and more comfortable. Once trains came along we had the daycoach (during the Depression there was always the boxcar), but luxury was the goal.

The lesson we’re all learning (and if we’re older and remember former times we don’t want to learn it) is that travel and luxury no longer mix in any real sense. Sure, we can board a cruise ship and gamble and eat our way around a few oceans; if we know the president we can fly aboard Air Force One and enjoy pretty good service; but if we simply want to get from one point to another we’re going to have to suffer. And suffer we all do, having lowered our expectations from what we once aspired to — TITANIC or her sister floating palaces — to something most resembling a Greyhound bus.  But it’s faster, cheaper per mile because it doesn’t employ a lot of cooks and stewards, and likely safer. Certainly safer than TITANIC.

David D. Platt was editor of the old Maine Times.

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