The Memoir of Sydney Highland – by John Mueter

(c) 2017, John Mueter

In the years afterwards I was often asked whether we felt anything at the moment of impact. I remember feeling a slight shudder–we all felt it, I think. I was on duty in the pantry, inspecting and stacking dinner plates. For a minute or so they all rattled a bit. It was so unusual–I mean, the ship normally ran so wonderfully smooth–that we were all perplexed at first. Arthur looked up and said, “What the hell was that?” William shrugged it off (he always had a clever answer for everything), and went on with some theory about the propellers. What did we care? We just wanted to finish our work and go below. When I finally got out of there it was nearly midnight. Edwin was waiting for me in the passage. He always did, dear boy.

Ned and I met and served together on the RMS Adriatic, another White Star Line ship. It was equally fine, but not as grand as Titanic. We were assigned the same cabin, along with four other blokes. There is no privacy for the crew on a ship; if you want to be alone you have to be creative. We were drawn to each other from the beginning, but when our mates were around we never dared to show any more affection than a friendly arm around the shoulder. When we couldn’t stand it any longer we arranged, through a sympathetic mate, to get into the passenger baggage hold, about the only place to get away from everybody. I still remember that first kiss in the dark (sitting on a steamer trunk), the hum and vibration of the engines, the faint smell of burning coal. To us it was romantic. We didn’t need any more, certainly not the finery of the first class types. Later we got more intimate; it was the first time for the both of us. Edwin was nineteen and I was twenty-three at the time.

We made a half dozen crossings together on the Adriatic, sailing from Liverpool, and then decided to take a little break. It was the best thing we ever did. We had no idea at the time that those four weeks would be our entire lives together. Who could have known?

We took rooms in Southhampton, the only place we knew. A fancy holiday was out of the question anyway as we both sent money home to our parents. When our savings starting running low we decided to sign up for Titanic. They were looking for experienced men, and since we both had good records with White Star, we were both hired. We didn’t dare ask to room together, that was going too far. Although Ned was a kitchen porter, and I was assigned assistant pantryman steward, our schedules were nearly the same.

It was exciting to explore a brand new ship. Everything was so nice and clean, the ship was so big. We soon found a few places where one could be alone. We enjoyed those five days and looked forward to the festive arrival in New York. Of course, we never arrived there. That is, I did–but Edwin did not.

On that last night, after our work was done, we were in the cabin with our mates. At about 12:30 William burst in and told us that the ship had struck an iceberg and that we were sinking. We could tell that the ship was listing slightly towards the bow, but even so there was derisive, incredulous laughter. Titanic sink? Impossible! Soon thereafter word came that we were to stay below. Ned and I, with our knowledge of the ship, knew how to sneak up on deck. We wanted to see what was going on. We changed out of our uniforms and put on civilian clothes. When we made it to the Boat Deck we found a chaotic scene: people milling about, shouting, pushing, crying. The lifeboats were already being filled, almost all were women and children–and all were first or second class. Our hearts sank as we knew then that there would be no hope for us.

We were determined to stay together, no matter what, and clung to each other in an out-of-the-way corner. With the ship listing ever more severely we couldn’t hold on any longer and slid down the deck. In the tumble of other bodies, and deck chairs careening down with us, Ned slipped out of my grip. I saw the look of terror on his face. I called after him, frantic, but he was swallowed up in the confusion.

The water was frightfully cold. I swam a ways and luckily found a wooden grating. I hung onto it for dear life, calling out for Ned again and again. The water was churning with all kinds of debris; lifeboats were pulling away as quickly as possible, individuals were thrashing about, trying to stay afloat. From a distance I saw the ship, its stern rising out of the water, heard the screams of desperate people. It was a scene from hell.

I soon became numb, don’t know how long I was in the water. It became eerily quiet. Collapsible boat A came by, appearing out of the darkness, looking for survivors. They hauled me aboard and threw a blanket around me. We drifted for hours, all cold and miserable, in shock from what we had just experienced.

The RMS Carpathia arrived and took us aboard. After a few days in New York I was put on a boat back to England. I learned later that I was one of the few crew members saved–nearly seven hundred of us had perished. One of them was Edwin Crispin, my sweet boy, whose body was never recovered. I have missed him every day of my life.

I never went to sea again.


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John Mueter is a pianist, composer, educator and writer. His short fiction has appeared in many journals including the American Athenaeum, Lowestoft Chronicle, Halfway Down the Stairs, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Simone Press Publishing, Wilde Oats, and the Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable. 


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