COMMENTARY: Tragedy becomes triumph

BY LOUISE BUTLER | BOARD OF CONTRIBUTORS

Depending on how you look at it, April can be a month for tragedy or triumph.

On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic, an “unsinkable” ship, went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, taking 1,500 people to their deaths. The ship was built to be the final word in luxury and modern opulence. Yet she made her money in transporting hundreds of immigrants in steerage class. Catering to the wealthy, the Titanic sought to muscle through on style and hubris instead of substance and careful planning. It didn’t work.

Four days into the crossing and 600 miles south of Newfoundland, the Titanic hit an iceberg, flooding five of the 16 “watertight” compartments. The supposedly unsinkable ship went down in 2½ hours. Most of those who died did not drown but died of hypothermia in the freezing water.

A few miles from the Titanic, and in a good position to save most, if not all the passengers, was the S.S. California. This ship had sent the Titanic its first warning of icebergs and shut down its engines to wait for daylight. The California had seen flares and lights from the Titanic but ignored them. So instead of being saved, more than 1,500 people died a painful death. Those who were placed in lifeboats were picked up nearly four hours later by the RMS Carpathia.

The Titanic and its passengers are an endless source of fascination, despite the fact that they were lost due to a cascade of events and circumstances that to some degree were preventable.

Like the Titanic there have been countless stories, poems, songs and dramatizations of the Battle of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known simply as The Alamo. The defenders of the Alamo held out 13 days (Feb. 23-March 6) against the army of Santa Anna. Despite Col.

William B. Travis sending couriers to surrounding settlements for help, only minimal assistance came, and the fort was overrun.

Outnumbered 10 to 1 by Mexican troops, all the defenders of the Alamo, around 200 Texians and Tejanos, were killed.

Just as with the Titanic there is an intermingling of myth and reality surrounding the Battle of the Alamo. Did Col. Travis really draw the apocryphal “line in the sand?” Was David Crockett among those who surrendered, or was he found dead on the battlefield? Inevitably, it doesn’t matter because Santa Anna ordered all those who did surrender to be executed immediately.

It is a fact that some six weeks later, on April 21, the Battle of San Jacinto saw the defeat of Santa Anna’s men to the cries of “Remember the Alamo.”

Both the Titanic and the Alamo loom large in our collective memories. They represent failures of logic but triumphs of character. It is the complexity of the personalities, not the simplicity of the stories, that calls us back over and over to these monumental events.

We all know the ship doesn’t make it. We all know the Alamo falls. Yet we want to hear the stories again and again. Is it the failure that intrigues us? No. It is the people. We want to know how they exhibited their humanity in monstrous times. We want to see a triumph of spirit in the face of bitter defeat. We want to know (as in the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley) that our heads may be “… bloody, but unbowed.” Perhaps we are all trying to learn where our better angels reside and how to — just once — behave heroically.

It is this triumph of the human spirit that turns history into drama, and history lovers into better human beings.

Here’s to the heroes who show us how to keep the faith.

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in McAllen. She writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.