H & W Yard Numbers 400 and 401

If you go to Belfast Ireland, a short walk will bring you to the Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the Titanic and Olympic were built and launched in 1911.  They don’t build ships there anymore. The large yellow crane is just for show now. But at the mouth of the harbor is the modern angular building of the Titanic Museum, which stands out against the sea like a metallic iceberg.

The museum costs money, but behind it for no cost, you can wander out onto where the slipway’s once were- now large concrete floors in the earth. The museum has traced the dimensions of the two ships onto the surface, and when I followed it along with my feet, it felt small to me.

I used to trace the outline of the great liners in my notebooks, or on restaurant placemats in crayon when I was little. Running along the smoke funnels to the bridge, down the superstructure from the bow and beneath the waves to the stern to where that first mark on the paper began. Accents of smoke billowing back, waves crashing against the hull in ways that didn’t conform to perfect perspective, and in the distance the faint outlines of nondescript islands to give a sense of scale. I must have drawn hundreds of these when I was a kid. My biggest concern was the quality of my shading, all of which achieved with a number two pencil.   

The ships had originally entered my drawings from now worn out PBS tapes. I think they’re still somewhere in my mother’s house with piles of unwatched home videos from when my brother and I were kids. They are documentaries on the ships and the men who found their wrecks’ hundreds of feet below the surface. Though the tapes are well outdated by now, I remember sitting cross legged in the living room listening to the narrator drone on like the rumble of an engine somewhere below deck. Even name the Titanic still brings back memories of those muffled interviews stored on fading magnetic tape. I re-watched them recently and realized I still knew the sequence of the interviews and the musical interludes perfectly, even twelve years on. I remember my father used to sometimes watch with me.

On the slipway in Belfast I pictured the outlines drawn into the concrete suddenly rise into the grey sky. From beneath my feet seemed to spring riveters and scaffolding and the skeleton of the great ship not yet built, long before she would sink. I had escaped again to 1911. But now I was there, before the doomed vessel at dry dock, growing in the air of that pre-war optimism. Unmistakable and unsinkable. I felt like I was intruding on someone else’s childhood dream, not my own. It was a past I was so far removed from it almost seemed like fiction, and yet we now shared the same physical ground, the ship and I. A group of school kids wandered past, and it was a chilly spring day in Northern Ireland. I hoped none of them saw my eyes start to water, when I realized the ground was as much a grave as the childhood home of anyone is a grave of their younger self, piled high with VHS tapes and half filled sketchbooks. There are crayon drawings on placemats like blueprints of outdated designs. My mother didn’t have the heart to throw them away I think. The ice warnings were posted and were written. Sent across by wireless. Twin signals. They’d raised us and bathed us and kept us warm. In my twenties I could see where it’d gone wrong, but like yelling murder in sleep paralysis, my arms would not move, and my chest was filled with ice water. The time would not again return to me.

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