by Lou Antonelli
Time is like a rope. – Ray Bradbury
This is a story about how I traveled along a loop in the rope of time. It starts with what I was told by the little old lady in Pasadena.
Okay, I know you are hearing that Jan and Dean tune in your head. No, it wasn’t that little old lady. Yes, she was a little old lady, but she was English, and I met her in Pasadena, Texas. It’s a suburb of Houston, where I grew up. I was fresh out of the UT journalism school, on my first newspaper job. They didn’t trust me with any hard news stories back then.
The managing editor called me over to his desk. “We have a local hookup with the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic,” he said. “There’s a woman living here now who is a survivor of the sinking.”
“Wow, how old is she?”
“She’s 82. She was saved in a lifeboat with her English family. She later married a petroleum engineer and moved to Texas. She didn’t like to talk about her experience on the Titanic while her husband was alive—she said it bothered him to hear about it—but she’s widowed now and living alone in Pleasant Estates.“
“That’s a real link to history,” I said.
He handed me a slip of paper. “Here’s her address and phone number. Her name is Nancy Atkins.”
* * *
Her face was a tracery of wrinkles, but her eyes were bright and blue and seemed to glow from within. She came from a good English family—her father had been a member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Asquith during the First World War.
She explained that one reason she had been happy to live in America was that she had a younger brother who went to Cambridge, became a Communist professor, and was recruited as a spy during the Cold War. He was exposed in a scandal known for the most prominent member of the conspiracy, a man known as Kim Philby.
Her brother fled in the middle of the night to the Soviet Union in the 1950s and was never heard from again. She said living overseas with her Texas husband helped her avoid the recriminations at home.
She and her other siblings sailed on the Titanic with their mother. She explained her father—a conscientious man burdened with Liberal Party duties—had planned to sail with them but was held back by work and sent the rest of the family ahead on a holiday to Upstate New York with a promise to catch up with them later via another steamship.
It was a lucky accident—the family was saved, for he might have very well been left behind aboard the doomed ship. “My mother never castigated him again concerning his work habits,” she said.
She had a clear, sharp, very British way of speaking. At times, with my East Texas ears, I would have to ask her to repeat herself during the interview.
We spoke for 45 minutes and she gave me a wealth of personal details and observations. She was a bright, curious young girl at the time, and it was a fascinating first-person account of a historical tragedy.
When we finished, I apologized for the many times I asked her to repeat herself because of our different dialects. She smiled. “Do you recall what George Bernard Shaw said about American and British English?”
“That the United States and England are two nations separated by a common language?”
“You’re well-educated and intelligent, young Mister Patton,” she said. She paused. “I wonder whether I could ask you to help solve a puzzle for me.”
“Of course, if I can,” I said.
“Do you know when the song ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ was written?”
That took me aback. “No, I assume it was written recently, it was the number one pop song last year. Why do you ask?”
“I heard someone sing the song on the Titanic,“ she said. “When it was on the radio last year, I recognized it. I hadn’t heard it since 1912.”
“I suppose someone took an old tune and wrote new lyrics,” I said.
“That’s the odd part,” she said. “When I heard the song on the radio, I recognized the lyrics. They didn’t make any sense to me when I heard them on the ship, though.”
“That’s impossible, Bette Davis was in pigtails in 1912,” I said.
“Nevertheless, the Texan sang the song to me and my girl friend.”
“There was a Texan on the Titanic?” I asked, a bit surprised.
“Yes, apparently he was a stowaway,” she said. “We saw him when the First Officer took him on deck, but kept him in handcuffs.” She frowned. “He died with all the others.”
“Ma’am, how could a Texan have stowed away on a ship that sailed from Ireland?”
“I have no idea, I was a girl of twelve at the time, and I didn’t think about it,” she said. “I’ve never a told anyone about this encounter, because it never made a whit of sense to me. I hadn’t thought of it for years, until I heard the song on the radio last summer.”
I pulled my chair closer to the table and opened my note pad again. “You need to tell me this story.”
* * *
She sat back down after serving hot tea for both of us.
“As I said, my mother, my older brother, my younger brother and I were off on a holiday to New York,” she said. “We were going to Saratoga. Another family we knew, the Davies, were also on board, and they had a daughter, Elizabeth Anne, who was the same age as I was. We knew each other from school, and we were constant companions on the ship.
“We were on the First Class deck when saw the First Officer with a man in handcuffs,” she continued. “The stranger wore an ill-fitting jacket that was obviously borrowed and was shivering violently, which we both thought was unusual. We didn’t feel it was all that cold, it was only 45 degrees that afternoon.
“The way the First Officer minded him, it was obvious the stranger was a prisoner who was taken above deck for some air. We overheard some nearby adults say that he was a stowaway, and from his manner of speech, a Texan. Then another officer walked over to the First Officer, who spoke to him briefly, and then undid his own handcuff and hooked it onto the railing.
“The First Officer followed the other officer through a nearby door and began to talk into a speaking tube inside. It was obvious he had been called away on an errand. As he spoke he watched the prisoner through a window.
“My friend Betty was somewhat mischievous, and she said to me, ‘Now watch this.’
“She took a few steps backwards in the direction of the prisoner, still facing me, and then called out: ‘Are you a real outlaw?’
“The man didn’t turn his head—he knew he was being watched—and said, ‘Ahm a prisoner of war.’
“He was heavyset, with steel gray hair and a receding hairline that was obvious even in profile. His eyes were coal-black behind his spectacles.
“‘You’re a liar,’ Betty called out. ‘You are too young to be an American Confederate rebel.’
“I was the leader in the Second Texas War of Independence,’ he said firmly.
“‘My name is Betty Anne Davies,’ she said, winking back at me. ‘What’s yours?’
“The stranger reeled off a long name that I couldn’t repeat or remember. It sounded like an Italian soup. He then added, almost as if to himself, ‘They put me here to die. They have abolished the death penalty, but they want me dead. So they put me here.’
“That startled me, and Betty, who said, ‘What do you mean by that?’
“‘You’ll find out this morning,’ he said thinly.
“The man was clearly unhinged.
“‘So your name is Bette Davis, eh?’ He pronounced it back like the American pronunciation, Davis not Davies. I don’t think he could hear the difference.
“Then he began to chuckle, almost maniacally. He said to himself, ‘It seems so long ago’, then and he began to sing to himself, low but clear. The tune was unfamiliar, the words nonsense.
Herr Harris hollow cold,
Herr lipser Swede supplies,
Herr Hansa nevah coiled,
Sheesh gat Bette Davis Ice.
“Betty Anne drew back to me. ‘The man’s a raving lunatic,’ she hissed.
“The First Officer was coming back out on the deck. We could tell he knew something was up.
“‘Let’s go,’ Betty hissed.
“The First Officer looked at us, and then at the stranger, whom he grabbed, and—after retrieving his handcuff from the railing—hustled below desk.”
“That’s the last you saw of the man?” I asked.
“Not quite,” said Mrs. Atkins. “Yes, we learned early in the morning what he alluded to, when the ship struck the iceberg and were all on deck, waiting to board the lifeboats. His reference to ‘ice’ seemed foreboding. While I waited with my family to board the lifeboat, I saw the man again, on the listing deck. He was clinging with one hand onto a funnel, trying to stay on his feet. He was no longer in handcuffs; I assume he was abandoned to his fate.”
“Did he say anything else you?”
“No, he was on the far side of the ship. He looked very cold and very angry.”
“Did he go down with the ship?”
“As our lifeboat pulled away, I saw him, still clinging to a handhold on the tilting deck, shivering violently. His mouth was moving furiously. I couldn’t tell if he was praying, or cursing.”
“That’s amazing, certainly a strange encounter,” I said rather lamely after a pause.
“I hadn’t thought about it for years until I heard that song on the radio,” she said. “Like you, I assumed it was an old tune with new lyrics, but then I recognized the words that hadn’t made any sense to me so many years ago. The pop song now has only made the mystery, as Alice said, ‘Curiouser and curiouser’.”
She smiled like a grandmother. “You’re a clever young man, and as the saying goes, ‘journalists are generalists’. Perhaps you will find an explanation for this.”
“I appreciate your confidence, ma’am,” I said.
But I never did.
* * *
I did later learn that “Bette Davis Eyes” was an original song, and it wasn’t written in 1981, but 1974. Kim Carnes just lucked out with the best cover, helped with some of the cutting edge electronic music technology in the early 1980s.
The few times I saw Nancy Atkins afterward, we never spoke specifically about the stranger on the desk of the Titanic. I think she was uncomfortable with the strangeness of the story, and so was I. Fact was, I’m not sure I believed it—until now.
* * *
Nancy Atkins died in 1991. She had told me Betty Anne Davies died during the London Blitz, while serving as a nurse. So I suppose I’m the only person alive who knows about that doomed Texan on the Titanic.
You’ve probably read and heard how, after the most recent election, more Texans than ever support secession or autonomy. Texans don’t like being on the losing side of anything.
The supporters of secession, the Texas National Movement, has gained thousands of members since the last election. And its headquarters are in another Southeast Texas city, Nederland.
I’m the managing editor of the paper now. Our staff has been shrinking steadily in recent years now, thanks to the national Recession as well as turmoil and difficulties in the newspaper industry. So when I put a story on the Texas Nationalist Movement onto the news list I decided to do it myself.
I drove to Nederland and pulled up to the headquarters in a strip mall. The storefront office was a bustle of activity as volunteers assembled and mailed out membership packets. They all wore t-shirts with the TNM symbol that reminded me of the old Texaco gas station logo.
A young man walked out. He was heavyset with dark hair that was just beginning to gray. He had a burning gaze and coal black eyes. He held out his hand.
“Dan Millieriestri, pleased to meet you.”
Something went Ding! in my head.
“Did you say minestrone?” I quipped.
“I get that a lot in Texas,“ he said, “being an Italian-American. My parents immigrated to Texas after World War II.”
We walked into his office. “You can just call me Dan.”
He was intelligent, intense, forthright, and subversive—just the kind of guy to light the powder keg of a second Civil War. It was a long interview, and as we wound down, I had a thought.
“I want to add something by way of a humanizing touch,” I said. “All we have been talking is politics. Do you have any hobbies? What do you do for relaxation?”
“Of course I spend a lot of time working with the movement, but you know the saying, All work and no play…” He laughed. “Sometimes I strum an old guitar, when I am trying to think and relax.”
He pulled a battered case from behind his desk and pulled out an old acoustic guitar that looked like it cost all of fifteen bucks in a pawn shop.
“I’ll just plunk away and play acoustic versions of old pop tunes. I like the ‘80s stuff a lot, they still wrote lyrics then.”
I played my hunch. “Do you know ‘Bette Davis Eyes’?”
He smiled. “Sure do. That was the Number One song the week I was born in 1981.” He began to play. “I’ve memorized the lyrics.”
* * *
Back in the parking lot, I put my elbows on the roof of my car and my head in my hands.
Nancy Atkins and her friend thought the Texan was referring to “ice” with the song lyrics he sang on the deck of the Titanic—which was ironic in light of what happened to the ship.
They were not familiar with a Texas accent.
Our local pronunciation of “eyes” and “ice” sounds very similar—especially if you’re British, I suppose.
As Bradbury said, time is like a rope, and now I’ve travelled completely around this loop.
I remembered what the little British girl saw as the lifeboat pulled away from the sinking ship: “He was shivering violently, and cursing or praying.”
It was eighty degrees on that late November day as I stood in the parking lot outside the Texas Nationalist Movement headquarters. Unremarkable weather for a native Texan—who would freeze in a snap if thrown into the cold North Atlantic in April.
I know how this story ends.
Some day, Dan Millieriestri will reach the end of his rope.
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