Guilt Ridden

Written By: Lynn Sanford

Guilt Ridden The Titanic sank. In the aftermath, all Hell broke loose. Searching for scapegoats and reasons, inquirers maneuvered an across-the-board blame game. Reporters crafted eulogies to assuage misery around the tragic loss, filling ubiquitous silent shock with words about bravery and honor. Years passed. There were ten suicides among the 705 survivors. (See Andrew Wilson’s Shadow of the Titanic.) Many of the men who survived were tacitly, or otherwise, seen as suspect; in some cases they were vilified. A N.Y. Times headline read: Better Death Than Dishonor. Some male survivors hid and changed their identities. (It was reported, also in the N.Y. Times, that a Japanese survivor, picked up from the 28 degree water by Officer Lightoller as he was clinging to a piece of wood, went home to Japan to live under a supposed cloud of disgrace merely because he survived.) My paternal grandfather, Karl Behr, survived in the second lifeboat to be lowered––no. 5––at age 26. He was following the love of his life, Helen Newsom, (my namesake grandmother) who, at age eighteen, was travelling aboard the magnificent ship with her mother and stepfather. Karl embarked from Cherbourg, France. His love for Helen was euphoric, idyllic––an in-love kind of love. It remained so to his death at age 64, in 1949. I am 63. I was in my twenties at the time I discovered my grandfather’s scrapbooks hidden in an obscure cabinet in my parents’ living room. I saw multiple newspaper articles pasted there: The articles were written by reporters who claimed that Karl proposed marriage to Helen in the lifeboat––Love Blooms From Disaster. While Helen and Karl were witnessing thousands suffer and die around them? With her parents sitting behind them? I wondered and stared at the articles in disbelief as I witnessed fake sensationalism proffered for the sake of selling a story. No wonder my father never answered anyone who called about the Titanic; I thought. Later, after my sons were grown and my parents had passed away, [both with the angelic guidance of Judy Hren from East End Hospice. A plaque on Main Street reads: Karl Behr Jr. and Elaine Oakley met, married and died in their beloved East Hampton] I decided to complete my research about my grandfather: What was it like in lifeboat no. 5? What was the timing of the launch? How much did they know? How would he have felt? Was he guilt ridden? After ten years, my book, Starboard at Midnight, was published by a small academic publisher, who bravely took a chance on an unknown author. We were in time for the Titanic centennial of April 15, 2012. Our book was officially published in October, 2011, which had given us leeway for advance reviews. My aim was not to profit, but to give any money away; to introduce my grandfather, and grandmother, adding them to the roster of “storied” survivors, along with those who perished on that horrific night. I wanted the world to know that my grandfather did not survive merely for self-centered reasons. He did not dress as a woman. Timing and perspicacity was everything. His circumstance was unique. Afterward, his friendship with Theodore Roosevelt helped to galvanize enthusiasm across America for preparedness and involvement in WWI. Karl was of German-American decent; yet his patriotism made a difference to US history. He organized a parade in NYC that the N.Y. Times touted as “The greatest civilian marching demonstration in the history of the world.” And he provided key testimony during the trial when Titanic’s parent company filed suit for limited liability. Karl was also a well-known tennis player. He played at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton. He was responsible for spearheading the decision to move the US Open championships from Rhode Island to New York. Ranked in the top ten for ten years, and third in 1907 and 1914, Karl was a Davis Cup player, instated in the Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. Five months after my book came out, another was published. It was about Karl and the other tennis player aboard the Titanic. Gradually, I learned about that book. The author had used my work. She twisted the facts and turned them inside out. Her misuse resulted in pure sensationalism. My effort to instill reverence for my grandfather was swamped. The other book was sold on the shelves and tables of (roughly 705) Barnes & Noble stores. Teachers everywhere could use it to engage young minds. The real names were used. The other tennis player’s family was as aghast by the fallacies as I was. In that book, my grandfather is portrayed as vice-ridden. Helen supposedly attempts an aborted seduction of Karl aboard the Titanic. Her mother is depicted as manipulative and mean. The author quotes my grandfather saying absurd things. The claim that their book is a “real life story” is written on the back cover. When I called the publisher, he said he had “never heard of” me. At that time, he had already printed my name (incorrectly) and cited my book (misidentified) in his book’s acknowledgement pages––as a source to make his book “as factual as possible.” My copyright was breached; my heart was broken. I wanted to bring forth my grandfather’s true and heroic story as a gift of absolution and respect. I have been guilt ridden; because writing and publishing my grandfather’s story provided fodder for thieves of his soul. My father was right not to answer phone calls from Titanic enthusiasts. ( Helen Behr Sanford