Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Strange Fate of the Morro Castle

A cold, rainy start for October. This time of year I’m reminded of October the First is Too Late, an obscure work of science fiction by Sir Fred Hoyle, who is better remembered as the cosmologist who didn’t care for the Big Bang. I read the book about 30 years ago, and naturally only remember bits and pieces. But the main idea, that the Earth suddenly divided into temporally distinct regions that could nevertheless interact with each other, sticks with me.

That is, suddenly it was 1966 in the UK (the present day, at the beginning of the book), but 1917 across the Channel and various other centuries in further away places; and the 1966 British government spent considerable effort trying to get the 1917 combatants to stop fighting. Why October 1 was too late, I’ve forgotten.

I read last month that the doomed ship Morro Castle now has a memorial in Asbury Park, NJ, unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the disaster. That news prompted me to take Shipwreck: the Strange Fate of the Morro Castle (1972), a paperback I bought for pennies last year, down from the shelf. It’s well written, and appeals to my interest in events that have all the right stuff to be part of our collective memory -- twists of fate, negligence, panic, drama, heroism, innocent victims -- but which are mostly forgotten.

The authors, Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, who seem to have a talent for writing about bad things happening to large numbers of people at the same time, note in the book’s bibliography that “only the sinking of the Titanic came near to matching the intense press interest that surrounded the Morro Castle disaster. Like the sinking of the White Star liner, the disaster involving the flagship of the Ward Line led to a great deal of sensational and inaccurate reporting.” (Newspapers being the cable news of the day.)

Then again, a lot of ships have gone down over the years, and human memory, collective or otherwise, only has so much capacity.

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