Frontier Psychiatrist

The First Class Passenger – Nonfiction by Django Haskins (Best of FP 2010)

Posted on: December 30, 2010

[Welcome to Literary Frontier, FP’s new weekly showcase of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Today we’re thrilled to debut Django Haskins, a singer, guitarist, and prolific songwriter.  This column is the first of three excerpts from The First Class Passenger, a biography of his great-grandfather.]

PART ONE

On 10 April 1912, slender, sandy-haired Karl Howell Behr,  twenty-six year-old international lawn tennis star, boarded Titanic in Cherbourg, bound for New York. He was in love, and felt as unsinkable as the great ship herself. The object of his devotion was Helen Monypenny Newsom, a dark and delicately beautiful nineteen-year old friend of his sister’s. A month earlier, Helen’s mother had swept her off on the Grand Tour, presumably to cool the development of their courtship. But Helen discreetly encouraged Behr to join them, which he did, using hastily arranged business meetings in Austria as pretext. They then spent ten blissful days and nights together — under the exasperated, watchful eye of Helen’s mother — exploring Algiers’ narrow moorish streets and Funchal’s luxurious gardens before Behr’s business responsibilities separated them in Nice.

After successfully concluding his work in Austria, Behr received an alluring telegram from Helen. She and her family would be returning to America aboard the White Star Line’s new ship Titanic. Could Karl secure a berth? Soon he held in his hands a first class ticket. As he anticipated the pleasures of a week with his young, lovely Helen aboard the world’s most luxurious liner, Behr felt like the luckiest man alive.

The first four days of the crossing flowed into one another in the same seamless way that the water blended into the softly curving horizon. The only other constant feature was the white foamy wake that trailed the ship like a delicate wedding train. Behr happily explored the vast boat — more like a small, floating town — even playing pickup squash several times. He feasted with Helen and her parents among the white columns and attentive service of the first class dining saloon, and the young lovers quietly discussed their shared future as they strode the promenade deck. They decided to announce their engagement as soon as they reached New York. Her mother’s gambit had failed.

On the evening of 14 April, after enjoying the dining saloon’s offerings of oysters, filet mignons, pate du foie gras, and peaches in chartruese jelly, Behr lingered in the smoking room past 11:30pm before lumbering happily back to his cabin in the stern of C deck. Removing his collar, vest, and cutaway coat, he suddenly felt a strange trembling all around him. Perhaps the ship has broken a shaft, he thought. Behr stood still, his athletic frame taut with concentration. A minute passed. The engines continued to hum, which ruled out a broken shaft. He put his evening clothes back on, opened the door and scanned the hall in both directions. Not a soul appeared. As he closed the door and prepared once again to undress, Behr felt an unnatural silence settle in the cabin. The engines had stopped. Why? Before turning in, he decided to check on Helen.

Behr hurried past the deep leather chairs and ornate ceilings of the dining saloon and reception room to Helen’s cabin in the bow of D deck, not yet imagining that he would end up in a lifeboat. He found Helen outside her cabin in a tense cluster with her mother and stepfather, Sallie and Dick Beckwith, and family friends Edwin and Gertrude Kimball. Ice had gathered in the portholes of their cabins. Nobody was quite sure what was happening.

Dick Beckwith set out for the decks below while Behr and Helen headed for the upper deck. They felt the bitter cold of the midnight air, but neither of them noticed any discernible list. They found the deck completely deserted and returned to D deck. Soon, Beckwith reappeared to report water in the squash court. After a few minutes’ discussion, the entire party donned heavy coats and ascended to the upper deck, where the lifeboats were stowed. They passed snowy-bearded Captain Smith on the stairs, but he said nothing. A few small groups had gathered, wrapped in shawls, evening coats, even dressing gowns against the chill. A mingled curiosity and confidence fluttered through their hushed conversations. As the minutes passed, a strange sound could be heard: a “harsh, deafening boom” combined with roars and hisses, all coming from the steam pipes in one of the four great funnels atop the ship. Evidently, an unusual amount of steam was being released from the boilers far below. In itself, this was not worrying, unless one realized that it was most likely a precaution to avoid an explosion if the boilers were to sink underwater while under high pressure. Even to the less technically minded, the thunderous noise increased the crowd’s sense of foreboding.

What happened next was more spectacular. The moonless night sky was sequined with galaxies of stars that provided little light but gave the impression of an impossibly bejewelled cloak of black velvet. Suddenly at 12:30am, a bright stream of light launched from Titanic’s bridge, illuminating the startled faces around Behr. An explosion and a white shower of falling sparks followed. The crew was firing distress rockets.

Even inexperienced oceangoers among those gathered on deck recognized the seriousness of this. Yet still, there was no panic on board.

Members of the crew appeared and began unlashing the lifeboats. They then politely but firmly called for women and children to come forward. Few volunteered. As Behr and his companions stood doubtfully by, the first boat filled with flustered passengers. Ismay urged them into the next, lifeboat number five. When there were not enough women and children on the upper deck to fill the boat, Helen’s mother Sallie quietly asked whether the men in her party could join them. “Of course madam, every one of you,” replied Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line’s Managing Director. Along with a few other men on deck, Behr and Beckwith dutifully climbed onto the small lifeboat.

Django Haskins is an author and songwriter living in Durham, NC. His eighth album, Tender Age, recorded with his band, The Old Ceremony, drops September 2010. In addition to The First Class Passenger, he is now working on a touring memoir that explores the history of five cities where he performs. He studied literature and Chinese at Yale.

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11 Responses to "The First Class Passenger – Nonfiction by Django Haskins (Best of FP 2010)"

[…] [Today on Literary Frontier, we continue with an excerpt from a biography of Karl Howell Behr and his adventures aboard the RMS Titanic. Author Django Haskins is a singer, guitarist, and prolific songwriter. He's also Behr's great-grandson. If you missed last week's installment, here's Part One.] […]

[…] and prolific songwriter. He's also Behr's great-grandson. In case you missed them, check out Part One and Part […]

[…] speaking of going down, when we last heard from Django Haskins, we were reading The First Class Passenger, his account of his great-grandfather who survived the Titanic. This week, Django and his band The […]

[…] the tender age of 18, I saw Django Haskins sing and play guitar with his college band in a beer-soaked frat house basement. We became friends […]

[…] Halloween weekend, we welcome The Old Ceremony to town. Singer, songwriter, guitarist and memoirist Django Haskins and his band of Caroliners are on tour in support of their new album, Tender […]

[…] And on Halloween weekend, we welcome The Old Ceremony to town. Singer, songwriter, and author Django Haskins and his merry band of Caroliners are on tour in support of their new record, Tender […]

[…] Tender Age, recorded with his band, The Old Ceremony, came out in September 2010. An excerpt from The First Class Passenger, a biography of his great-grandfather, Karl Howell Behr, who survived the Titanic, appeared in […]

[…] Tender Age, recorded with his band, The Old Ceremony, came out in September 2010. An excerpt from The First Class Passenger, a biography of his great-grandfather, Karl Howell Behr, who survived the Titanic, appeared in […]

[…] Excerpts from his upcoming non-fiction book, The First Class Passenger were recently selected for the “Best Non-Fiction of 2010″ by NYC-based arts & culture blog Frontier Psychiatrist. […]

[…] a touring memoir that explores the history of four great American cities at pivotal moments, and The First Class Passenger, a biography of his great-grandfather, who survived the Titanic, played international tennis […]

[…] a touring memoir that explores the history of four great American cities at pivotal moments, and The First Class Passenger, a biography of his great-grandfather, who survived the Titanic, played international tennis […]

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