Monday, April 27, 2015

Meanwhile, in Liverpool, my grandfather awaits the Lusitania

In "Dead Wake," Erik Larson tells the story of the last Atlantic crossing of the R.M.S. Lusitania, Larson is a fantastic storyteller and I should have known better than to start reading his latest book before bedtime. Two hours later, I was deep into the tale but had to get some shut-eye. Tomorrow's another day....

Larson's "Isaac's Storm" was my first contact with the writer. As always, he takes a defining historic event, this time the devastating 1900 Galveston hurricane, and takes it down to sea level, seeing the cataclysm through the eyes of local meteorologist Isaac Cline.
Wasn't that a mighty storm
Wasn't that a mighty storm in the mornin'
Wasn't that a mighty storm
It blew all the people away.
Larson has a novelist's eye for detail and characterization. We all want to hear other people's stories. When we tell stories, we always tell it from a person's P.O.V. What did you do in the way, daddy? How did you two meet? Who are you named after?

How did you get to the U.S., Grandpa?

My maternal grandfather, Martin Hett, waited in Liverpool for the Lusitania to dock on May 7, 1915. Martin,. 14, held a steerage ticket for New York. One way. For the past two years, Martin had worked in the coal mines of northern England. In 1912, he left the poverty of County Roscommon in Ireland to make his own way in the world. His ultimate destination was the United States, home to an older brother and sister who earlier had fled Ireland.

Martin was not a gregarious Irishman. Gruff and hard-working, he didn't spend a lot of time telling tales. His Lusitania tale was a short one. He waited for the Lusitania to arrive in Liverpool. Pieces of it arrived, the flotsam and jetsam left after a German U-boat attack. He rescheduled his ticket for the next ship to New York. The Germans sunk that one, too. The third time was a charm.

That's it. No florid touches. No grandiose descriptions. He made it to New York and then to Chicago, where his brother got him a job working downtown's elevated trains.

As a trained reporter and researcher, I could easily trace Martin's story. And I will, one of these days. It's a fine story as is. It's as good as my paternal grandfather's story about General Pershing riding his Iowa National Guard cavalry mount during a break in the action during World War I. It's as good as my maternal grandmother's claim to have served as the first postmistress of a PO in small-town Ohio. It stacks up against my Maryland-raised paternal grandmother's claim that her mother's family was kin to Robert E. Lee of the Virginia Lees. All of these claims can be tested. That's what the Internet is for. DNA tests, too.

I'm also a fiction writer. I make stuff up. Sometimes I begin with the kernel of a story. Sometimes it's a situation or a snippet of conversation. It might be an old memory. It might be someone else's memory. I am blessed and/or cursed with wonderful recall. Thing is, when I tell a story at a family gathering, other family members remember the same situation differently. Memory plays tricks on us. Writers need fact checks if they are writing non-fiction. If writing fiction, we still need to make sure that we have the names and dates right. The Lusitania was sunk on such a day and such a time. As for the reasons why, we still have writers speculating 100 years later. And why is that? The sinking of the Lusitania is one of the reasons given for the U.S. entry into the European war two years later.

The more history I read, the less I understand. I love the stories, as does Larson. One incident leads to another. The Lusitania, the fastest ship in the Cunard Line inventory, the greyhound of the Atlantic, races toward Liverpool. Unterseeboot-20 awaits. The German submarine is captained by Walther Schweiger, his surname the same as my wife's maiden name. "No relation," she says. "How do you know?" I reply. She shrugs. Her German relatives were simple farm folk who immigrated to the U.S. before World War I. Capt. Schweiger was a well-to-do city boy from Berlin, "No relation," she said.

My grandfather must have been wrapping up his job in the mines, ready to head to America. At 14, a veteran coal miner. Imagine that. What were you doing at 14? At 14, I graduated from Catholic grade school which, in those days, was eighth grade. My only job up to that point was paperboy. I had never seen the inside or the outside of a coal mine.

Martin Hett had already left his home country of Ireland. He now was leaving his adopted country to travel to America. His adopted country was at war, as he would discover dramatically in Liverpool. That was 100 years ago next month.

Larson illustrates his tale of the Lusitania with portraits of the ship's captain and crew, and a variety if passengers. He imagines life in a crowded and dangerous submarine. He doesn't mention my grandfather awaiting the big ship to dock and take on new passengers. That's up to me, of course.

It's all in the story.

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