The Time Travel Journals: Shipbuilder, Chapter 37

The author walks along the Lagan on a cold day in Belfast.
The author walks along the Lagan on a cold day in Belfast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 37

May 1911

The early mail on the second Tuesday in May brought a note from Casey’s sister-in-law, Jessie. The letter’s greeting made Casey’s heart squeeze in fear, but as she read on, laughter forced her to a chair in the parlor.

My Dearest Sister, the note began, John and I wish to extend our heartfelt condolences for whatever fate has befallen your husband. It has come to our attention (so we have acknowledged to each other), that the dear Fellow perhaps fell into the Lagan one day. Is it possible Uncle Willie neglected to inform you?

Well, we want you to know your family is ever full of love for you. As such, John and I request the honor of your presence at Maxwell Court for dinner, this Friday night. If, by some joyful miracle, you find our Tommy before then, by all means, bring him along. We shall expect you no later than seven o’clock, although I extend my personal wish to see your arrival even earlier than that.

In deepest love,

Mrs. John M. Andrews

As it happened, Casey did not see Tom that night, but she left the note in his dressing room, where he would find it. The next morning it was on his pillow, with his scribbled note promising to be home early on Friday.

Wednesday night, as Casey sat in bed reading, the bedroom door silently opened and her husband crept into their bedroom. When he saw that Casey was still awake, he sighed, and continued the removal of clothes that he’d begun on the way up the stairs.

Casey watched him place coat and cravat on the dresser, and slip his suspenders off his shoulders. When he sat on the divan to remove his shoes, she closed her book and joined him, gazing at his face.

He smiled at her, but the smile did not quite erase the wrinkles of exhaustion at the corners of his eyes. “I’m pretty sure I still live here,” he said, his tone lightly questioning. “I did sleep in that bed for a few hours last night.”

“Did you?” she asked. “I must have missed it. In fact, I’ve been thinking of renting the space out, it’s been vacant so often.”

He laughed, but pulled her possessively against him with one arm, while the other hand buried itself in her hair, tilting her face up so he could look at her. “I miss you,” he said. “I can’t do anything about all the work, but I promise it won’t be like this forever. Once Olympic is turned over to White Star, and Titanic is launched…”

“I know.” She placed a finger against his mouth, then stood, lifting the skirt of her nightgown and sinking onto his lap, legs astride him. “My mother was an obstetrician, remember. My father never gave her a hard time for the hours she worked. I try to follow his example.”

“Building ships is not quite comparable to delivering babies,” he said, but she shrugged.

“It’s your chosen career. Thank you for replying to Jessie’s note. I let her know we’ll be coming. But…” She hesitated.

“What?”

“Can I trouble you for another appointment?”

“I’ll try. What is it?”

She ran a finger along the buttons of his shirt. “I need a few minutes of your time tonight, say about ten o’clock. I’ll make it worth your while.”

He thought about it, then retrieved his watch from its pocket, flipping open the gold lid with practiced fingers. He nodded as he placed the watch on the table next to the divan. “I can arrange to be free at that time.” He traced a finger up her leg. “What did you have in mind?”

She sputtered a laugh, leaning forward to kiss him. “Keep still. I’ll show you.”

***

“Casey!” Jessie hugged Casey as she and Tom entered the stately foyer of John and Jessie’s home on Friday. “You look wonderful, dear. And who have you brought with you?” Her eye critically appraised Tom and she raised an eyebrow at her sister-in-law. “Such a handsome fellow, dear. Where do you find them?”

“Oh, this one was on the corner, Jessie. He looked so woebegone, that I had to bring him. I hope it’s all right?” Casey sounded serious, but Tom didn’t look concerned. He just hugged Casey to him, at the same time catching Jessie in an effortless head lock, making her squeal in comic protest.

“John? John!” Tom looked around for his brother, who entered just behind an anxious eight-year-old Jack, whose eyes widened at his mother’s predicament. “Ah, there you are, fellow! I’m keeping this one,” and Tom dropped a kiss on Casey’s head, “but what on earth should I do with this one?” indicating the squirming Jessie with his chin. “She’s frightfully noisy.”

John held up both hands. “You can let her go. She means well, really.”

“Ah, well then,” and Tom let her go gently, with a supporting hand kept to her back. “Do try to keep track of her, will you?”

Jessie straightened, dignity never wavering. “There’s no chance of that, you know,” she told Tom, tucking a strand of hair back under its pin. “He hasn’t been able to keep up for years.”

Young Jack was allowed to stay up for a few minutes to visit with his uncle and aunt, who had not made it to Comber for several weeks. They heard about Jack’s latest school project and then, at Jack’s insistence, Tom launched into a description of the great ships taking shape at ‘Grand-Uncle Willie’s shipyard’.

“Oh my, we are ever so busy these days,” he told them in his best story-telling mode. “The Olympic is nearly complete, and I must say, she is the grandest lady I’ve ever set to sail the sea. There’s not a ship in the world that’s larger than she is and there won’t be, until the Titanic sets sail later.”

Jack’s eyes widened more and more, as his uncle continued his description. “We’ve still got to finish painting the passenger’s quarters in third class and I’ve got ovens and hot plates and ice boxes to be delivered next week. Enough ovens to cook for over two thousand people! And the last week of this month, she begins her sea trials, then it’s off to Southampton for her maiden voyage to New York on thirty-first May.” Tom leaned back in his chair, the bard keeping his audience enthralled as he went on with his story.

“Now, thirty-first May. Let me tell you, that will be some day! The Olympic finishes her trials, and returns to the dock in the morning. And at 12:15 p.m., the grandest sight of all will occur, for at that time, the Titanic will be launched!” Tom lifted a hand to his brow. “Oh the to-do! You’ve no idea what it takes to launch a ship, do you?”

His audience obediently shook their heads and Tom leaned forward in earnestness. “We have to let everyone know when it’s happening, for one thing. Announcements in the news, especially in foreign lands—we have to give the American and European journalists time to arrive. The ship’s owners, the insurers, the harbor commissioners, the Board of Trade… the list is as long my arm! We have to make sure the engines and boilers are ready to go. We have to test the ship itself to make sure all the drain holes are filled and the plates on the hull are closed. Oh, and we have to have plenty of chains and ropes connected to the ship. Can you imagine if we launch her and she just kept sailing off down the lough? We have to be able to stop her once she’s in the water!” This last was said with sternness and increased volume over the guffaws of his listeners.

“Caulkers and carpenters have to be ready, the flagpole installed, and woe is me if I forget to have the flags ready to fly! And do you have any idea how much tallow we need?” Tom spread his arms as wide as he could and stood to indicate a height much taller than himself. “More’n that, I’m telling you! Every bit of the ship bottom and sides has to be covered in tallow, so she can slide into the water. Och, the smell of that stuff as we cook it!” He sat down again, expression fretful. “But what we need most is men.” He nodded seriously. “Aye, lots of men, to knock away the boards and scaffolding so the ship floats free. Uncle Willie has tasked me especially, to make sure we have enough men to do the job.”

He looked at his brother, exceedingly worried. “I’m afraid I’m missing one. I need just one more, even a young lad will do, to help knock away the boards.”

Jack could not contain himself. “Me, Uncle Tommy! I can do it! I’m big enough!” He waved his arms frantically, and jumped up and down, as if to make certain his uncle could see him.

Tom turned a stern visage on the youngster, eyebrows nearly to his hairline. “You? Och, I’m not sure, lad. “Tis an important job, you see.”

“I can! I even launched my own boat of sticks a week ago! I know I can! Da’, tell him!”

“Oh, so you have experience, too, is it?” Tom looked to his brother for confirmation and received a quiet nod, although the eyes shone with pride and laughter.

“Aye, he did, and well enough.” But John was not so easily swayed. He stared at his son, lips pursed. “Ye’d have to miss school, lad. What about that?”

“I’ll write a report!” was the instant rejoinder, causing every adult to burst into laughter. Tom reached out a hand.

“All right, then. Consider yourself part of the Board Demolition Team, lad,” and he was nearly knocked over by sixty pounds of boyish excitement as Jack threw himself into his uncle’s arms, a loud “Yippee!” deafening all of them. Jack recovered enough to firmly shake his uncle’s hand, as Tom told him, “I’ll make sure your Da’ will know when and where to have you there. Mind you, you’ll have to do exactly as you’re told. It’s a dangerous place, lad.”

Jack solemnly promised to obey, and at his mother’s word he kissed each of them goodnight and followed his nanny to bed.

***

Tom’s story had not included even a small fraction of the tasks left to do to prepare for both the launching of one ship, and the turning over of another ship to its owners. Since he was sailing on the Olympic’s maiden voyage as head of the guarantee group, Tom gave that project his strictest attention. As the first of the grand ships to sail, the Olympic had the dedicated attention of the press, including an eight-page spread in Shipbuilder Magazine. The ship must be completely ready for its maiden voyage. Tom was leaving nothing to chance.

However, he was not going to be aboard for Olympic’s sea trials. Most of the guarantee group would be aboard. He was sending Ed Wilding in his place to run things. He could depend on a thorough report from Ed regarding the ship’s performance. Tom was conflicted about this. The Olympic was up to then the largest ship ever to sail, and her trials would last two days and be unaccountably thorough. In fact, if he had not been privy to future knowledge, and already aware that the Olympic would function perfectly, he didn’t know if he could have stayed away. But Lord Pirrie expected him to personally handle the launching details for Titanic, and for that he had to be at the yard, not at sea.

Until the Olympic sailed for her trials, Tom was able to depend on Ham to substitute for him as they prepared for Titanic’s launch. They had handled many launchings, and Ham knew the process frontwards and backwards. They met two or three times a day to quickly go over details, but all was proceeding smoothly, and Tom felt able to concentrate on the Olympic. After Olympic sailed off for her trials, he settled into the launching procedure and last-minute details for Titanic. They expected around a hundred thousand people to view the launch from various points around town, and several thousand of them would be watching from the shipyard itself. Three sets of bleachers were erected to hold them. One set alone was reserved for journalists, who would be coming from all points of the globe.

The millions of details that went into the launching of a ship had one important goal: to make Lord Pirrie look good when he gave the signal to release the ship, and she settled into the water for the first time. If they succeeded with this, then Harland & Wolff also looked good, and the people of Belfast could point with pride to what they could accomplish.

***

On the thirty-first, Tom was at the shipyard by five in the morning, having gone to bed close to midnight. Before leaving, he held each of his sleeping children for a minute. He would be gone six weeks, and already every moment he would miss was pushing down on him.

The day dawned bright, the sky a deep blue, and the air already warm at eight o’clock. Lord and Lady Pirrie arrived with J.P. Morgan and Bruce Ismay. Tom continued to supervise the final steps taking place on the dock and in the water, including the removal of any buoys, and placement of tugs and flagboats to move the ship after her launch. He made sure the flagpole was secure in the stern, and with George helping him, they unfurled the flags and hooked them to the pole: the flag for the White Star Line and a series of white flags spelling out the word “SUCCESS.” The flags would be raised moments before the ship was launched.

At eleven, they opened the gate for spectators to take their places. Jack Andrews reported to his uncle on the dock, ready for duty. Tom inspected him sternly, shirt tucked in, hair combed underneath the cap, shoes clean. Jack bore the inspection well, standing tall and straight, torn between gawking with wonder at the huge ship just a few feet in front of him, and watching his uncle for any sign of displeasure, which could result in his being packed off to the stands with his Aunt Casey and Dr. Altair. Tom made him bear it only for a moment. Then he smiled and clapped the lad’s shoulder, turning to the foreman standing nearby. “Ho, Albright. Here’s your final worker to help with the blocks.”

“Aye, Mr. Andrews.” Albright motioned for Jack to follow him, and Tom sent him on before continuing his inspection of the boilers. He looked up in time to see Jack join the crew, take a hammer, nod seriously at the instruction given him, and with an authoritative whack!, send the block falling onto the dock away from the ship. The men cheered and Tom flushed in delight at the look on Jack’s face. Such a simple thing, but the boy would remember it his entire life.

They were ready. Lord Pirrie began his final inspection of the ship, walking along both sides and then looking over the hydraulic launching equipment. He and Tom then walked back to the owner’s gallery, and Lord Pirrie gave the signal.

A rocket was fired and the flags were raised. In the stands, Casey held onto Sam’s hand with a fierce grip and stared in near horror as the ship that in another time had claimed her husband’s life, slowly moved back and settled into the water. In just over a minute, the Titanic was floating, and the anchors and ropes easily brought her to a halt. The excited crowd roared its approval. Jack, next to Sam, jumped up and down, yelling with delight. Standing still amid the tumult, Casey had eyes only for her husband, as he stood in the owner’s gallery and accepted congratulations from those around him.

***

After the celebratory lunch, Tom hooked an arm around Casey’s waist and guided her to his office. It was empty since Ham was already on board Olympic; he would be sailing as far as Southampton to help with the administrative work until the ship left for New York. Tom took a moment to gaze at Casey as she leaned against his desk. She wore a new green dress that demanded his constant attention. A tiny smile moved the corners of her mouth. She had removed her hat. Her hair was up, but shorter strands of red framed her face with curls. Her eyes were large and intensely green, matching the dress. He allowed himself a good long look, then gripped both her shoulders as he smiled down at her.

“That dress is all eyes and cleavage, do you know that?” he asked her teasingly. She laughed and slipped her arms around his neck. Any reply she might have made was forgotten in the kiss that followed. It was all they had time for. He had inspections to do and papers to sign on Olympic before she sailed, but they made that kiss worthwhile. They held each other a moment longer, memorizing the feel of the other’s body before Casey returned to Dunallon, and Tom boarded his ship.

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