I WAS ALONE WHERE I LIVED at Pretty Brook Farm the night my intrigue began. Firelight animated books lining the room's floor-to-ceiling shelves and music subdued the fire's crackling. On a whim, I moved a chair near the hearth in order to gain access to the cabinet behind it. When I raised the black iron lift-latch, it burst upward. The door flew open as though pressure from something enclosed there needed immediate release.
Before me, bulging with pictures, letters, and newspaper articles, were my grandfather's scrapbooks that I had never seen before. As I turned the pages, I was captivated by pen-and-ink illustrations of Karl Behr kissing Helen Newsom with a ship sinking in the background. Columns of text supported headlines above them: Love in a Lifeboat; Love Blooms from Disaster. The memorabilia, which had been sequestered in darkness for decades, was suddenly monumental to me. After I discovered it, somehow, my life changed.
The fire in embers, I replaced the albums and climbed the stairs to my bedroom where I studied another black-and-white photograph of my grandfather that was on my desk. It was just his face, the face of a man I had never known since he died six months before I was born. The handsome features that composed his earnest demeanor—a pleasing nose, a distinguished mouth, a youthful, combed-back hairline—were overlaid by traces of duality. An aura of experience intermingled with innocence; apparent introspection overshadowed triumphant resolve. Ambiguities insinuated that I had as much to learn from him as about him.
In my early twenties at the time, I peered at the photograph, wondering where he'd been when it was taken and whether or not, once the session ended, he'd engaged the photographer in conversation, or simply hustled out the door. Without a spoken word from him, a raised brow, a propitious lick of lips, even a blink, I was aware, of course, that I would never know him really, and that I could only inform my intuition into his sympathies, into the mystery—what I wanted to believe might be a continuance of souls.
Considering these quandaries as I was getting ready for bed, I walked across a small hallway and was moving through my sister's room when I experienced (as Helen recounts to Karl in
Chapter 7) a phenomenon that struck me as a revenant, or some kind of ghost.
Whether imagined or not, although decades have passed since that night, I remember the sound and sensation of the occurrence as if it happened a minute ago. Ever afterward, I harbored intuition that there was something my grandfather had never been able to clarify. And I hoped that by being his messenger I might bring his name—transfixed in memory—to light.
Helen Newsom, kneeling, aboard Carpathia
Along with his photo albums, my grandfather (known as "Pappy") wrote a 185-page unpublished memoir from which this recounting is derived and further conflated by my research. I was able to learn more about Karl through people who knew him: his two sisters, my father (Karl Jr.), and my father's three siblings. For the purpose of helping me present my grandfather's character, I have introduced three fictitious characters: Charlie, Jack, and Sarah, based upon real people Karl might have known. With the exception of these and the few mentioned in "About this Book," all dignitaries, acquaintances, colleagues, and events in regard to Karl come from his true life story.
On the other hand, although I knew and adored Helen and grew up only a short walk from her door, I had no memoir or memorabilia from which to garner details about her. Therefore, although her background, friends, family, and educational history herein are authentic, my depiction of her emotional landscape, as well as that of her grandfather, is based upon an assumption that personal histories might be woven from common threads—albeit some more mine than hers.
In this book, present-tense chapters titled in italics with the symbol involve Helen in company with Karl or Helen alone, during the year 1949. She is the center (half of a double helix, if you will) around which Karl's life story turns in past-tense chapters between 1895 and 1919—a time that fascinates with similarities and differences even today when considered in the context of political, scientific, and historical developments. It is important to take note that television had not yet been invented. No maritime disaster of such colossal magnitude had occurred during the forty years previous to 1912. Hitler's Germany and World War II still loomed in the not-too-distant future.
A century has passed. Many books and movies have been made. But still there are a few missing pieces. Like a small object submerged in a sea of guilt, lost in the debris field that surrounded it, one man's life continued on for four decades after the tragedy. Because it was formed and tested early, his passion to save the endangered and oppressed could not be quelled. Against prejudice and self-doubt, he would come to influence the course of History.