Women and children first

WASHINGTON -- The train from New York City was jammed as Matthew Chancey traveled back to the nation's capital after this spring's meeting of the Titanic Historical Society.

Lucky passengers sat shoulder-to-shoulder while others spent four hours on their feet. As he stood, Chancey quietly became angry when he noticed those seated included young and middle-aged men, while the throng swaying in the aisles included several elderly women. One pregnant woman eventually slumped to the floor to rest. No one offered her a seat.

"I saw the same thing in other cars," he said. "I started thinking about the Titanic. Certain principles are eternal. They are timeless. They deserve to be defended. One such principle is the idea that men are supposed to make sacrifices on behalf of women and children. What I saw on that train was just another sign of what we've lost."

This hasn't been an easy year to talk about the Titanic and traditional values, in the wake of director James Cameron's blockbuster about romance, modern art, class warfare and social rebellion. Nevertheless, Chancey and others in the Christian Boys' and Men's Titanic Society are doing everything they can to resurrect an earlier interpretation of April 15, 1912. This message is summed up in a sermon delivered only three days after the tragedy.

The Rev. Henry Van Dyke of Princeton, N.J., stressed that the Titanic left behind more than debts, sorrow and bitter lessons about North Atlantic icebergs, lifeboats and technology. This was a morality play that taught a sobering rule for life.

"It is the rule that 'the strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak'," he said. "Without it, no doubt, we may have riches and power and dominion. But what a world to live in! Only through the belief that the strong are bound to protect and save the weak because God wills it so, can we hope to keep self- sacrifice, and love, and heroism, and all the things that make us glad to live and not afraid to die."

To promote this unabashedly old-fashioned message, the Christian Boys' and Men's Titanic Society has reprinted one of the first books about the tragedy, "The Sinking of the Titanic," and is producing a documentary, "Women and Children First: The True Legacy of the R.M.S. Titanic."

One reason the Titanic story remains so intriguing is its blend of human drama with cosmic themes of fate, sacrifice and sin. It is the "closest thing we have to a modern Bible story," said Douglas Phillips, president of the two-year-old society. Also, this was the "the last stand of an older order" of cultural values, the last time when people heard the cry "women and children first" and obeyed without challenging its basic assumptions, he said.

"It isn't our goal to project a pristine, idealized view of the Titanic. That wouldn't be true," said Phillips. "And we know there were all kinds of people on that ship -- Christians, Jews, agnostics and everybody else. What we are saying is that there were certain values, certain absolutes that these people accepted and were willing to die for. One of those truths was that the groom dies to save the bride."

Here in Washington, an 18-foot granite statue symbolizes how this message has slipped into obscurity. It shows a robed man rising out of the waves, his arms outstretched like a cross. At least 25,000 women, led by First Lady Helen Taft, donated $1 each to build it. The engraving reads: "To the brave men who gave their lives that women and children might be saved."

This Titanic memorial once had a prominent position near the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge. Today it's hidden behind Fort McNair, next to the waters of the Washington Channel. Few people see it, other than occasional fishermen and joggers. On a recent afternoon, the back was stained where men had used it as a urinal. A soiled condom marked the spot.

"If you ask a cabbie to bring you to the Titanic Memorial, they'll drive around for an hour or more. You could end up just about anywhere," said Chancey. "It seems like nobody has a clue where this statue is and what it stands for."