Wednesday, February 1, 2017


"Your birthday is April 15th, that's the day the Titanic sank," my mother told me.  I don't know how old I was at the time, but there's a chance it was the day I was born.  I'm not kidding.

My parents loved history - they met working for a newspaper and later my father became a high school history teacher.  They were both big readers.  I remember going to the library on Tuesdays and Saturdays with my mother carrying a large basket, big enough so we could take home seven books each.

They were always reading.  Newspapers and novels, non-fiction books, dozens of magazines.  And growing up in Virginia, we schlepped to monuments and sites of historical significance.  "Here's the farm where Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper!" or "Let's visit Monticello again!"

Did my mother try to delay her labor so I would be born on a day associated with so much history (the Titanic sinking, income tax day, Lincoln's death)?  We'll never know (I'm sure she did).  But my parents began to tell me about the Titanic.  It was considered unsinkable, but hit an iceberg on her maiden voyage and there weren't enough lifeboats available for the passengers and crew.  700 people were saved, but 1,500 perished.

I became obsessed.  The first "grown-up" book I read was about the sinking of the Titanic - A Night to Remember by Walter Lord.  I checked it out from the library so many times my parents gave me my own copy on my 11th birthday.  Walter Lord's storytelling threw you into the action.  You felt as if you were there on the deck, emergency rockets flashing in the sky.  Or freezing in a lifeboat, listening to people screaming in the water, watching as the lights on the ship went out and the great ship slid into the water, disappearing from sight.  You could flip to the back of the book and check the passenger list - the passengers who were saved had their names in italics. 

For years I would tell everyone my favorite writer was Walter Lord.  When I met my husband, I mentioned A Night to Remember and he said his favorite Walter Lord book was Day of Infamy, about Pearl Harbor.  I've read most of Walter Lord's books, including Incredible Victory, about the Battle of Midway, and The Night Lives On, a sequel to A Night to Remember.  Walter Lord (and my parents) helped me fall in love with history.  He made history seem alive, not just words on a page - he wrote about people.

Walter Lord passed away in 2002.  Jenny Lawrence, a family friend, complied some of his unpublished talks and a manuscript she had transcribed from tape recordings of his reminiscences in a wonderful book called The Way It Was, Walter Lord on His Life and Books.  Walter Lord's life was as interesting as his books.  He was in the OSS, for example.  In the book, he talks about how he came to write each book - we read about the history of his histories.

When I was eleven, I wrote him a fan letter about A Night to Remember.  "Dear Mr. Lord," I said.  "My birthday is April 15th."  He wrote me back.