Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Friend The Titanic Survivor.

In 1967, I was a junior in high school and had decided to pursue a career in radio. You had to be at least 16 years old to get a third class radio operators license, a prerequisite for working in a radio station. There was a test. I studied for it and took it as soon as my age allowed. I passed and received a small but very official-looking piece of paper with my name on it, impressive to my young eyes.

The previous year I had joined Junior Achievement, which was supposed to teach kids about business. When I went back in the fall of 1967, I learned that one of the new sponsors was a radio station and the company’s likely ‘product’ would be a radio show, for which we would sell advertising. Since I already had an interest in radio and even had my license, I joined immediately and made no secret of my eagerness to do everything. I became president of the company, announcer on the radio program, and the show’s most successful advertising salesperson.

My most loyal advertising customer was Frank Goldsmith, who ran the camera shop downtown on the square. I was introduced by my grandfather, who used to have a ladder store nearby. They were about the same age and both named Frank. Mr. Goldsmith even looked a little like Grandpa; tall, lean, with sharp features and wispy white hair. His camera shop was pretty typical. Although he sold cameras, his business was mostly film and other supplies. I don’t recall anyone else working there except Mrs. Goldsmith, whose name I now know was Vickie. In the back, Mr. Goldsmith had a peculiar collection of home movie cameras and projectors. My grandfather had a home movie camera that he probably got from Mr. Goldsmith.

Mr. Goldsmith was always nice to me. Buying advertising on a Junior Achievement radio program isn’t really advertising, more like a charitable contribution. I didn’t understand the distinction then, but I appreciated Mr. Goldsmith’s loyalty. I also appreciated the way he treated me, like an adult, a fellow business person, not like a kid. He did it in a matter-of-fact way that was still unusual to me, at age 16.

I valued my relationship with Mr. Goldsmith for another reason. He was a local celebrity, albeit a low key one, a genuine survivor of the Titanic. My mother told me all about it before I ever met Mr. Goldsmith in person. She showed me his name in Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember. Frank Goldsmith was a young boy, eight or nine, migrating from England with his parents. He and his mother survived, his father did not.

I would like to report that Mr. Goldsmith and I developed a close relationship, that we talked for hours as I helped him around the shop, that he shared with me his deepest thoughts and most harrowing memories of that famous event. It wasn’t quite like that, but during the 1967-68 school year I did see him every few weeks and we did hang out, although we talked more about photography than about the Titanic. All he ever said about Titanic was that he was very young and didn’t remember much, except that it was dark, he was wet and cold, and he could hear screams in the distance, like when he lived near Tiger Stadium in Detroit and someone hit a home run.

I probably saw Mr. Goldsmith for the last time in 1969 or 1970. I now know that, in his later years (he was about 64 when I knew him), Frank Goldsmith became closely associated with the Titanic Historical Society in Massachusetts. He became a popular after-dinner speaker, regaling audiences with his tale of a little boy from Kent who lost his father and best friend on that cold night in 1912. When he died in 1982, his ashes were sprinkled over the wreck site in the North Atlantic. His widow gave his papers to a family friend, who crafted them into an autobiography called Echoes In The Night, a True Life Adventure, The Autobiography of Frank Goldsmith, a Third Class Titanic Survivor.

When he died, his unique story punctuated by the unusual disposition of his remains earned him a major piece in The New York Times. They reported that his mother had covered his eyes that night in the rescue boat, presumably to spare him from the sights we all know from James Cameron’s movie, such as the stern of the great ship rising in the air before sinking into the frigid depths, and Leonardo DiCaprio turning blue. They also reported that, according to his widow, he found it difficult to talk about the experience when he started to give speeches, around the time I knew him, but it got easier for him as time went on.

I first wrote about Mr. Goldsmith in 2003 and heard from his grandson. He was irritated at first about the ‘professional survivor’ tag I had applied to his grandfather but as we communicated more, he came to realize I knew his grandfather pretty well and after that he treated me like a family friend. He has a pizza restaurant in Indiana.

When you are young, you really have no idea which experiences are going to stick with you. I imagine there were times when I wished Mr. Goldsmith would just hand me the check and be done with it, but in retrospect I’m glad I got to know him a little, not because he was a Titanic survivor, but because he was a nice and interesting guy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing, and making the point that despite his one past experience that makes people want to know about him, you enjoyed knowing him just as a neighbor, and well, to your 16-year-old eyes, an old man, a wise old man.