Friday 29 December 2017

An Old Book
From an excerpt of my memoirs, Vol. 1

When I was fourteen years old, I was sent by the Children’s Aid in Vancouver. British Columbia to the town of Nelson that was east of Vancouver to live with an old couple who had a small goat farm on the outskirts of that middle-sized town.

I wasn't happy right from the start this idea of living with people who were more than half a century older than I was.  After all, what did I have in common with these people other than that we ate at the same table and spoke the same language?

The old man, (Raddly Liversidge) who I called “Pop” out of deference to the old woman's wishes) was still working at age 80.  He wasn't the chief of police, or the supervisor of the dam, or the principle of a school— someone whom I could brag about to my school chums.  No, he was a caretaker who worked the night shift at a broken down hotel which was more reason for me to distance myself from him during his attempts at getting me to talk to him. Our conversations were limited to "Morning." and "Goodnight." with the occasional, "Would you pass me the potatoes, please?"

There is no doubt in my mind now when I reminisce back to the autumn and winter of 1946/47, that I was an insufferable snob—not a rich snob, but a young  snob who was too dumb to talk to an old couple in their twilight years. The old man gave up his  attempts  at  communicating  with  me  and  we  ended  up merely acknowledging glances.

It was in the spring of 1947, that the old woman decided that it was time that I learned the value of an old book. 

When I think about how cleverly she planned my lesson, I can't help but laugh, for she certainly knew how to put a young snob in his place. Her lesson gives weight to the word subtly.

It happened on a sunny Saturday afternoon. She told me that she and ‘Pop’ were going out for the afternoon and she wanted me to take a cardboard box down to the basement after they were gone.

The contents of that box set in motion a change in me that altered my life and my attitude towards old people and in an indirect way, has affected the lives of millions of children around the world and millions of children in the future. More on that later in this article.

Ma (she liked being called Ma)  had left the top of the box open and knowing that I would snoop (don't all kids snoop?) and had carefully manoeuvred the contents in a way that anyone looking at them, would feel the full impact of the message she was giving me—that message being that you can't judge an old book without reading it first.

Inside the box were newspaper clippings, photographs, letters and other items. I had a good three hours to snoop. And snoop I did.

The first thing that came to my attention was a tattered photograph of a young sea captain standing on the deck of a sailing vessel. In the distance were some hills. At the back of the photograph were the words "Captain Liversidge-Valparaso, Chile, 1902.  It was a picture of the old man when he was a young man in his twenties.

As I plowed through the contents of the box, I learned that this old man had gone to sea as a young boy well before the turn of the Twentieth century and at the age of 22 was one of the youngest sea captains in the world. He was standing on the deck of a sailing ship with three masts as her captain when that photograph was taken in 1902.

As I plowed further into the box, I learned that he worked his way up the higharchy of shipping, first with sailing ships that carried silks and other merchandise from the Orient, and later, small  steamships  and  finally  a  huge  liner  that  carried passengers from continent to continent at the age of 26.

About half way through the box, I discovered that while he  was  crossing  the  Atlantic  in  1911  as  the  captain  of  a passenger liner, a great storm arose and his radio man heard the distress call of a small floundering Swedish fishing boat. Captain Liversidge found the source of the call and when they were a couple of kilometers from it, he ordered a lifeboat lowered into the water. The newspaper articles of the time stated that instead of standing on the deck of his ship in the relative safety of that great liner, he went into one of the lifeboats with the other volunteers and  personally  took  command  of  the  rescue operations.

His lifeboat made repeated forages into the huge waves in its search for the floundering ship and after reaching it and taking a boat load of survivors from the distressed ship and bringing them to the safety of his own ship, he returned again and again to battle the sea for the lives of those still on the stricken ship. When the battle was won, he boarded his liner amidst the cheering of hundreds of passengers and crew lining the decks of his ship.

When his liner arrived in New York, thousands of New Yorkers came to see the hero who had saved the lives of so many. He was presented with a medal of valour from the president of the United States and later given a letter of thanks by the King of Sweden. The newspapers raved on and on about his feat.

His courage hadn't gone unnoticed by the White Star Line, which was the owner of its ship passenger ships.  They had just completed the building of one of two large sister ships, ships that were the largest ships in the world at that time.

They were looking for the right man to captain the first one that was ready to be put to sea. Whoever was to be her captain, was also to be the Commodore of the entire Line. This was an honour that every sailing master in the world coveted and it was going to "Pop"

As  you  may  have  guessed  by  now,  the  ship  was  the Titanic.  She was 53,086 tonnes in weight, 251.5 meters in length, and comprised of seven passenger decks, four below and three above the waterline.

Pop agreed to consider the honour put to him and told his employers that he wanted to look the ship over first before making his final decision.  He was told that the ship was unsinkable because of a double bottom and also because the decks below the waterline were divided by a traverse bulkhead every 18 meters of her length.  

When the owner of the Line, (his last name was Ismay) told Pop that he wanted him to take the Titanic across the Atlantic full speed and non-stop, Pop told him that he would slow down when they were south of New Foundland since the icebergs would be prominent in that part of the Atlantic when he reached them. 

Pop refused to change his mind even when Ismay told him that the ship was unsinkable and he was was to go full speed and nonstop. Pop told him that he should get another captain to take the ship across the Atlantic.  Ismay then replaced Pop with a retired sea captain—Captain Smith.

On April 10, 1912, the Titanic left Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York without my grandmother who was to give birth to my mother in three weeks and who chose a Belgium ship over the Titanic at the last minute and it also left without Captain Liversidge as the ship’s captain.

On the Titanic's fourth day at sea, and 2093 kilometers from its destination and while in the vicinity of the Grand Banks off the Newfoundland coast, the huge unsinkable ship hit an iceberg. The hard blue ice of the iceberg tore a 91 meter gash along her starboard forward side and those compartments filled up with water. The ship was doomed. Of the 2201 people on board, 1,551 died when the liner sank below the the icy waters.

It was six in the evening when the old couple returned home. I had gone through the box and replaced everything in its proper order and then taken the box down to the basement as I had been instructed. 

Now you might think that after being apprised of what  was  in  that  box,  I  would  immediately  begin  asking questions about the Titanic.  I wanted to. I wanted to ask Pop about the Titanic  so bad; I had to bite my tongue lest I blurt out the questions.

I was pretty dumb to treat Pop as a nothing but I wasn't stupid. I knew if I asked about the Titanic, both he and his wife would know that I was a snoop and had prowled through his personal effects.

Over the next few weeks, I began asking him advice about various things, such as girls, cars, goats (that was a waste of breath since his wife ran the goat farm) and anything else that I thought he might know that I didn't know which would have been a great deal.

Then I borrowed a book from the school library called Two Years Before the Mast.  After reading it, I showed it to Pop and asked if he had read it. He said that he hadn't. I told him that it was about a cruel captain who beat his sailors for no reason. I asked him if he thought life was like that on board sailing vessels in the last century.

It was as if I had opened the sliuce gates of a dam. For years Pop had kept silent about his seafaring days. Now someone was asking him what life was like on sailing ships. He began telling me of his life at sea and I sat there in awe as he told me of storms tearing the sails apart, of ships going down with all hands, of what it was like for him when he rounded the Horn as a cabin boy on a sailing vessel heading to China.

I manoeuvred the conversations until we reached the Titanic. Then Ma (she like being called that) smiled at me and said to her husband, “Pop. Why don't you tell Danny about how you nearly became the captain of the Titanic?”

I exclaimed (as much as I could fake it) “WOW! You were asked to be the captain of the Titanic?” If there is an Academy Award for faking surprise, I certainly deserved it.

It was then that I learned about the stupidity of the White Star Line  and how the owners and others  who sailed on the Titanic  had killed 1551 people.
Pop told me that he warned Ismay that there were not enough lifeboats on the ship. He said that hey laughed at him and reminded him that the lifeboats were unnecessary since the Titanic was unsinkable. As it turned out, the British Board of Trade was the authority which set the standards as to how many lifeboats were to be on each ship. That ultimate standard was; 16 lifeboats and 4 collapsible rafts-when ships exceeded 10,160 tonnes. But the Titanic was 42,926 tonnes more than that maximum tonnage mentioned in the standards. The White Star Line concluded that so long as they had the maximum lifeboats on board as per the maximum number set by the British Board of Trade, they were within the legal permissible amount.  Unfortunately, the unsinkable liner had lifeboats for only 1,178 persons, which meant that 1046 would have to go down with the ship if it sank.

Pop told me that because many on board the slowly sinking ship initially believed that the ship would not sink, they refused to climb into the lifeboats and by the time they realized that the ship was sinking, it was too late to launch the remaining lifeboats.

He also told me that because the bulkheads didn't go all the way to the deckheads, water would flow into each compartment and drag the ship under the surface. (It did just that on that fateful night)

The owners of the liner told Pop that because the trip scheduled for April 10, 1912, was to be her maiden voyage, they wanted him to push the liner at her top speed of 22 knots and that he was to take the northerly route. This was demanded of him so that the Titanic on her maiden voyage would break the world's  Atlantic  crossing  record.

Pop told me that he balked at this because he knew that there was talk about sightings of icebergs drifting southward towards that route.

As it turned out, Captain Smith who took the Titanic  on her maiden voyage, (while one of its coal bins was on fire) pushed the ship to its 22 knot limit and when he reached the area where the drifting icebergs were floating, he didn't slow down at all, even though it was the middle of the night.  Captain Smith figured that the lookouts would spot the icebergs in time for the ship to take evasive action. There were no waves large  enough  to  create  a  surf  around  the  waterline  of  the icebergs and even if there was, there was no moon out to reflect it.  And to make matters worse, all the ship's binoculars (Are you ready for this?) had been accidently left behind in Liverpool.

The iceberg that the Titanic struck had earlier turned upside down because the ice above the surface of the water was heavier than the ice below it. Instead of the lookouts facing a white iceberg, they were facing the hardened dark blue bottom of the iceberg, a characteristic of what is seen in icebergs when they turn belly up. The iceberg wasn't spotted until the liner was only 460 meters away, and therefore there simply wasn't enough time for the helmsman to take evasive action  and putting  the  ship's  engines  in  reverse  to  counteract  the momentum of that huge ship as it plowed through the water towards its fate, was an exercise in futility.

There was another ship nearby but it didn't pick up the SOS signal sent out by the Titanic because its radioman had turned off his radio and gone to bed. Another ship called the Californian  which was only 17 kilometers away had spotted the Titanic's  distress  flares  being  shot  into  the  air  but refused prompt aid in response to the flares.

I asked Pop what he did when he realized that he was being asked to captain a ship that was obviously going to be sailing in a dangerous manner. He said that he didn't want the job under the conditions that his superiors were forcing on him so he took a way out that could save face for him and the board of directors of the White Star Line.  He sent them a letter in which he said that his brother was dying and he wished to be at his brother's side in his last moments. The brother lived for several years after the Titanic sunk.

Pop said that he gave up seafaring right after the Titanic was lost. He said that he carried the souls of those 1551 men, women and children on his conscious because he knew that had he  been the captain of the Titanic,  he would not have obeyed  the  orders  of  his  superiors  to  push  the  liner  at its maximum 22 knot speed limit. And as such, the ship never would have hit an iceberg at that speed and certainly not the actual one that doomed the ship.

I remained with the old couple for the remainder of the school year.  

Pop convinced me that seafaring was a great life.  Five and a half years later, I joined the Canadian Navy instead of going to Hollywood, California with my mother and brother. Had I gone to Hollywood with my mother and brother, I would have later become an American citizen like they did. 

 I had a photograph of a young seaman standing on the deck of a warship and in the background are some hills. On the back of the photo are the words, "Ordinary Seaman, Batchelor, Valparaso, Chile, 1952.”  Alas, I lost the photograph.

It's ironic when one thinks about it. Had Captain Liversidge accepted the honour bestowed upon him, those 1551 persons lost at sea would have lived.  Pop   wouldn't have given up his life at sea and bought a farm in British Columbia. I never would have met him, let alone heard about him and therefore I would not have gone to sea on my own volition.

Because fate has a strange way of changing our lives, such as those people on the Titanic dying—Pop bought the farm, and I went to sea.  After my life  with Pop and his wife, I had a different lookout on my life.

As an adult, I worked as a youth worker, a prison worker, a writer, I practiced law and I was also a criminologist. This led me to the United Nations where in September 1980, while speaking at the Sixth United Nations Congress on the Treatment of Offenders which was held in Caracas, I proposed that the U.N. create a Bill of Rights for children in trouble with the law. The delegates voted unanimously in favor of my recommendation. Five years later, after conferences around the world were held to draft up the Bill of Rights for children, the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously in favor of those rights which are now called the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules on Juvenile Justice.  I am also one of the precursors of the United Nations Bill of Rights for Victims of Crime. I also headed a task force in Canada that brought compensation to innocent persons wrongfully sent to prison and I also brought in the law that before an arrested person is questioned or given a test for his breath, the person must be given the phone number of 24/hour counsel. That law is also applicable all over Canada.

When  I  extrapolate  backwards  in  time,  I  realize  that those rights may not have come into existence if it wasn't for the fact that an old man talked a young boy into going to sea. But then we could extrapolate even further and give the credit to the iceberg floating belly up in the path of the Titanic.

I have reached the age of "Pop and four more years to boot  and  I  hope  some  young    snob  doesn't  treat  me  as shamefully as I treated Pop in his twilight years. If he does, perhaps  my  wife  will  ask  him  to  move  a  box of mine to the basement and when he does, he too will learn that you cannot judge an old book without first reading it.

If you want more detailed information about the sinking of the Titanic, go to Google and type in the following—Sinking of the Titanic batchelor and my three huge articles on the sinking of that ship and all the people who contributed to the sinking of that ship will appear on your computer screen. Thousands of other people  worldwide have already read that article.  

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