This has been a splendid summer for wrecks. The Titanic kept her perennial place in the headlines when the Texas oilman Jack Grimm sank -- excuse the expression -- another $500,000 in searching for the most legendary of lost liners, 300 miles off Newfoundland, 12,000 feet down, 69 years later.
After a quarter of a century the Andrea Doria made the news again when an expedition succeeded in raising a little china -- take note, Nancy Reagan -- as well as a Bank of Rome safe from the italian passenger liner that sank in the fog off Nantucket after colliding with the Swedish liner Stockholm on the evening of July 25, 1956.
And across the Atlantic marine archeologists continued to salvage the Mary Rose, which keeled over and rather mysteriously sank in 65 feet of water in Portsmouth Harbor while under weigh to fight French men-of-war on July 19, 1545.
The enormous expense and monotonous, uncomfortable, and dangerous labor involved in diving for a wreck have to be given a rationale.
In the case of the Titanic there is a fabled safe, rumored to be simply stuffed with $300 million worth of diamonds from Antwerp.
A "media angle" always figures among the calculations. The Titanic expedition has been led by Michael Harris, a Florida filmmaker. An adventurous fellow who also tried to track down Pancho Villa's treasure, Harris ought to be able to pan out a modest profit with his cameras.
Peter Gimbel, who led the Andrea Doria expedition, is also a filmmaker, and that Bank of Rome safe, now in the waters of the New York Aquarium, will be opened only on camera, at the climax of a television documentary Gimbel is now compiling.
But beyond the gambler's appetite for a long-shot fortune, beyond the P. T. Barnum hoopla, there is an irresistible urge to reclaim for the whole human race what the ocean swallowed up with apparent finality generations ago.
The Mary Rose provides the best illustration of what "salvage" means -- the marvelous, passionate word for retrieving slowly and patiently the once-floating objects that the sea snatched so rudely and prematurely. Over 10,000 artifacts have been brought out of Portsmouth harbor during the past two summers, from hats and wool socks, to pea pods and pork, to dominoes, bronze cannon, and the oldest mariner's compass in the Western world, all superbly preserved by the clay bottom.
The sea may be a cruel taker, but, like the lava of Pompeii, it can care for what it takes. Eventually, it is hoped, the 300-ton hull of the Mary Rose will be hoisted out, more or less intact.
There is something impudent, something valiant about England in the hard-pressed '80s spending an estimated $7.1 million to resurrect this buried treasure of Tudor glory. Donors from Armand Hammer to Barclays Bank have contributed to the fund. On the Portsmouth air -- on the air off Newfoundland and Nantucket -- there hovers the sweet smell of tax write-off, free publicity, careers cunningly self-promited: all the operations known to late 20th century ambition.
But more is going on too.
The diver, our emissary, enters an alternative universe -- penetrates the boundary and keeps on going, floating down and down. The layers of water pass by like archeological strata. The diver goes deeper into time as well as space -- further from the sun. And then, at the bottom of this alien airless world, suddenly he finds a familiar object misplaced and lost. A fork. A glove. A watch.
The diver brings the object up with an excitement that cannot be quite explained. Up and up -- back to the world of the human. One final lunge and the hand thrusts that fork, that glove, that watch, into the sun.
An elemental defeat has been belatedly averted.