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Stories, Personal Expressions, and History Lessons

By Remy Benoit

Eyewitness accounts can be very valuable sources of historic events. Like the one below, they can be extremely poignant sharings of events that altered lives. In the case of this story, the event recalled was one that changed history.

Stories are medicine... They have such power; they do not require that we do, be, act anything - we need only listen. The remedies for repair or reclamation of any lost psychic drive are contained in stories.

— Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Stories provide us with insight into those who came before us, whose blood and DNA we carry. I recall my much loved great-aunt once sharing remembrances of her sister, my grandmother with me. While the stories of growing up in Montana at the turn of the twentieth century were fascinating to me there was one line that my aunt shared with me that brought a very great understanding of how, and why, my grandmother spent her later years as she did. All my aunt said was that, When they came to Philadelphia they had a red truck, a big police dog, and not even enough money for any more gas.

Is there someone in your family that you could ask about a relative whose life choices are difficult for you to understand?

What kind of story could you write, or tell, your children or grandchildren that would help them understand who you are?

Most importantly, what kind of stories do you tell yourself about who you are and why? Suppose you began to write those stories down. Is it possible that you might find that you are laying blame on others for decisions you made? Can you find the clarity in there somewhere to say that you made the decisions, based on what you knew are true then, and if there is blame for decisions that you feel you made incorrectly that you can find that perhaps the "mistake" was being re-active rather than pro-active?

Perhaps using the genre of fable you could pass along what insights you gained from this exploration and archaeological research on yourself.

This is a true story; emotions shared across generations and now with us. Thank you, Pete, for sharing this.


Peter Capalbo

I lay these words down as a testament to a man whose whole life was lived in one extraordinary moment of time, now dark and faded on old tattered photographs and newspaper clippings. The man's vision in mind of the occasion lost to us forever. All that remains are my recollections of his vision, my Great Grandfather's vision as it was last told to me. /p>

The generations between us were as vast as that between the moon and earth, yet a cord held us. The frail old man never let me forget that. The last time he told me the story I was nineteen and he was ninety-five. His story had been told to all in our family before they took their first steps. It's one of my first memories and fittingly, it's my last memory of him.

When I saw him sitting quiet and alone at my mother's birthday party one dark and cold, November afternoon, I knew that a request to hear his story would rouse his dull senses and bring light to his dimming eyes. A deep, old smile stretched across his face when I mentioned it to him. He whispered to me to bring him into my father's den away from the others in the house. He'd been confined to a wheel chair for almost ten years. All of his movements were slow and painful. I put him in front of the fire that crackled in the dark room as I took the chair across from him. The shadows of the flames exaggerated his wrinkles and his tired eyes. He was thin, almost emaciated from the ravages of old age. His vision was almost totally gone and he wore thick-rimmed glasses that brought little sight to his worn and weary eyes.

"T'was a beautiful morning," he began in his crackling old voice. "I remember that clearly." He still carried a thick Irish accent, one of the few things he brought with him to America. "Me parents and I lived in a small cottage on the outskirts of Queenstown. I'd read that week that the 'Great Ship' was coming to port in Liverpool, and it would have to pass by the Irish coast on its way." There was a glimmer in his fading eyes that I hadn't noticed before that afternoon. He spoke of the 'Great Ship' with a reverence typically held for the Pope and his beloved mother.

"With me chores finished by mid-day, I rode me bike to the shore to find what, if anything, I might see."

His voice was high pitched and labored, each breath drawn deliberately and with effort.

"The sky was dark blue and clear as it stretched far into the distance. It hung listlessly over the blue green ocean. I could smell the salt in the air even though I was used to it, but that morning, 'twas as though it were fresh to me nose for the first time. I slowed me bicycle as I reached the bluffs, stunned to see the sight before me country. The long beautiful beast of a machine sat quietly off the coast. It was moving so slowly that I thought it was just going to sit there all day. It had been past that place many times in the previous year, but because of the excitement with the war and all, I'd never had a chance to get to the ocean and look upon it.

"I'd never seen anything so grotesquely large, yet there was a serene majesty about it that captured me imagination. The beast looked as though it could rear up out of the water and destroy me with a slight motion of its oversized hull.

"I stood over me bicycle on a patch of grass that stretched to the cliff until falling off into the ocean below. I was entranced by the sight of the red smoke stacks that looked like the spiny back of an animal lost to the planet millennia past. Three of them were puffing out a charcoal gray cloud that left a long trail behind as if they were leaving a marker to find their way home again. It was an incredible sight, watching it move slowly through our ocean with the sky holding right behind it. The ship moved as if it were delivered to us as a gift from the Lord himself.

"I crossed me arms along me handle bars and rested me chin on me hands as the ship cast its spell. I thought about the beauty man could produce as the ship continued to move silently past. It was a tremendous machine. It moved gracefully, slicing through the water as if it existed simply for the service of this craft alone. It was a piece of artistry with all the magic of Van Gogh yet grander in its motions and its living spirit. It was long and dark, with rows and rows of portholes along its side. It was fantastic. As I watched it, I was lost to the world. The wind swirled around me and normally would have chilled me to the bone, but I felt nothing but warmth and contentment. There was a pride that filled me though I didn't understand it at the time.

"Everyone knew in those days that traveling on the open seas was putting your life in another's hands. The Germans had their U-boats circling the oceans like sharks searching for prey. In fact, the ships advertisement that had passed through the cities in America had a note on it from the German embassy warning of the risk. People sailed anyway, be damned with the Germans and their war they believed. I leaned on me bicycle and thought about how terrifying it must have been to make the journey, yet, there they were right before me. They'd made it."

My Great Grandfather's deep set blue eyes looked past me, transfixed on a point that only he could see. The old eyes didn't see the corner of the dark room, they were back on the coast of Ireland almost a century before.

"What a beautiful ship," he said in a fading voice. He paused for a moment, looking into the shadows cast on the wall by the fire, warm and smoldering.

And then," he said as he had since the day he began telling his story and recounting one of the most tragic and horrendous sights any man might ever see.

"The serenity of the moment was forever destroyed by a burst of water that climbed up to the top of the smoke stacks from beneath as the mammoth creature lurched and slid to the starboard side. I picked me head up to stare as the surge of water came cascading back to the earth. I didn't hear the first explosion, but I heard a second thunderous crash, the likes of which I'd never heard. It was as if two trains collided before me.

"From where I was standing, I could see people running about on the deck of the dying ship desperate to escape and preserve their lives from the cold, dark grave on the ocean floor beneath. They looked like small dolls moving frantically about as the massive beast began to slip away. My Lord in heaven it was the most horrible sight. I saw people of all sizes jumping off the deck flailing their arms as lifeboats were lowered to the water."

He paused; his eyes flickered as if he were counting off the people leaping to their watery tomb.

"I looked about but I stood alone on the bluffs, watching death work before me eyes. I remember feeling a salty mist of ocean spray bluster past at that moment, as though a storm was coming in off the water. I'd never felt so alone as that dreadful moment. I stood watching, unaware that an act of war was happening only miles from me very home. I never saw any torpedo and I never saw any submarine.

"After only minutes, the ocean surrounding the sinking beast was littered with humans and debris as if they had rained down from the heavens. They were strewn as far as I could see. Bodies and garbage were floating on the white capped waves that rose and dropped listlessly in the emerald ocean.

"The front of the ship had made its way under, on the way to its resting place. The bright sky shone down on the dying beast as its death knell rang in my ears. I could not move. I was frozen in place, scared to move, as if the monster might take me with it if it saw me watching. I felt like I was intruding on an intimate act. I watched the last remaining minutes of life for some and I could not move away.

"There was a high pitched squealing noise as the beast rolled over on itself and crushed the poor souls floating next to it. What I realized in my later years was that the ship was not simply and inanimate object of cold steel, it held the humanity of its creators. Not the architect who devised it, but the men in the cold dockyard, risking their lives to weld and screw the thing together. The aura that surrounded her during her inception had seeped into her. Those men filled her with not only a frame, but their hopes and dreams and love. That's what the squeal was, it was pain, it was her dying cry to the world."

I could see the pain in my Great Grandfather's eyes as his gaze focused intensely on the spot in the room that showed him the past like an oracle. He squinted and blinked as a tear escaped his eye. He was quiet. For that moment, his life had lost eighty years and he was there again. We sat together in a few moments of shared silence. He dreamt of what was, I dreamt of things I would never see. His chin quivered as he opened his mouth to speak.

"I watched almost twelve hundred people die that day."

He wiped tears from his eyes as he continued to tell the story with a passion that I would only understand later.

"Finally," he began again, "I composed me-self and I rode home furiously to tell me father what I'd seen. I was incoherent at first when I returned to the cottage. I was rambling, unable to produce the words to truly describe the turmoil that had unraveled before me young eyes. Once I was finally able to speak, we went to the constable and they went out to the bluffs. It was much too late by then. They sent out rescue ships, but by the time they reached the wreckage, the few who were able to save themselves from the ship had died in our ocean. Only eight life boats made it to the shore... only eight."

He spoke in a solemn voice. The poetry of his language, built over almost a century of storytelling, had melted away leaving only the raw emotion and intensity of an eyewitness. It was the emotion of a person so moved by an event that it brought him to tears a lifetime later.

"I met many of the survivors that day. They stayed in our town until transportation could be arranged for them to finish their journeys. They were chaotic, having lost so many family and friends to the cold deep. I'll never forget that night. I wandered into Ward's pub that evening which was also a rooming house that many of the survivors had occupied. There was a young American woman slightly older that me-self, telling her story. She was a beautiful girl with long, dark, curly hair and long eye lashes. At first glance I'd taken her for an Irish lass. I sat down near her and we began a conversation that lasted into the small hours of the morning. She'd been traveling alone to meet her older brother in London. Her father protested such a thing because in those days it was not proper for a girl of seventeen to travel unsupervised. She insisted on going. She had a strong will, that woman. I met her father two years later, right before we were married."

His lips were quivering and his eyes were red with tears. Never in the short time that I knew him, did I see him speak with such exquisite language. As we sat in that den, lit only by the flame before us, I felt as if I stood next to him on the bluffs that day long since lost to the world. I felt his fear, the empty pit in his stomach, the compassion for so many people he'd never met. More though, I felt the extreme loneliness of a boy still unsure of himself and the world around him, as he watched something inconceivable to the average person. A simple country boy who knew little of what war does. That day he learned that man fills a spectrum of which he was only familiar with the few colors of good and unfamiliar with the many colors of evil. He found the darkness that can exist in the human heart and cause such awful things. I knew he always felt guilty about standing frozen in place that morning, as if he had reacted sooner, one more person might have been spared from their cold, wet resting place. A part of him knew that, had he known ahead of time, he still would have been powerless. But he would not allow himself to let go the guilt he carried his whole life. I could see not only the pain in his face, but exhaustion. He could speak no longer. That night, I saw the boy from the pictures, for he relived that entire day before me. My mother drove him back to the nursing home soon after he'd finished. He didn't look at anyone when he left the house. He stared at the ground, detached from the world surrounding him. My parents worried, but I knew where he was; he was home.

I never heard him speak of the ship again. He died in his sleep two months later of heart failure, thirty six years after my Great Grandmother, and eighty years after the Lusitania.


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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