Bringing up the rear necessarily carries with it, however, a certain responsibility. Lasts are burdened with the sense that if they don't do it, nobody else will. In their case there is nobody else.
No one, perhaps, knew this better than Eva Hart, who died last year on Valentine's Day, at the age of ninety-one. Hart attained some measure of renown for being the last survivor of the Titanic who could remember the disaster (the other remaining survivors had all been too young in 1912 or are too old now to do so). In an interview for a documentary, and later in her autobiography, she recalled being awakened by her father in the middle of the night. She was then seven years old; her father wrapped her in a blanket, carried her outside, and told her to "hold Mummy's hand and be a good girl." She never saw him again. But she watched from a lifeboat as the luxury liner slipped below the ocean's black surface and into the realm of legend. The sight, she said, was something no one could ever forget.
It would be enough for many people to become an interesting footnote to history -- to squeeze a spot on TV and a publishing deal out of it, and then disappear. But as a last, Hart knew she had an opportunity and a responsibility, and so she used her small allotment of fame to lobby for greater maritime safety and the preservation of the disaster victims' dignity. She lambasted the White Star Line for not providing enough lifeboats to save her father and the rest of the ship's 1,500 passengers who drowned. She criticized the commercial venture to raise the Titanic's sunken hull and salvage its artifacts, likening those who would profit from such undertakings to grave robbers. And she kept up her crusade until she died.
Eva Hart's death was not the first loss of a last that year. A month earlier a man named Carlos Westez had died, without much fanfare, in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the age of seventy-six. Westez, a Native American of Catawba ancestry, was also known as Red Thunder Cloud. According to the Catawba Nation, there are still about 2,500 Catawbas around, most of them in South Carolina. But to a certain extent the Catawbas died with Red Thunder Cloud: he was thought to be the last living speaker of the Catawba language, an ancient tongue with no written form. Even when Red Thunder Cloud was a child, it was dying, a victim of prejudice. Catawbas were discouraged from learning and speaking their language, for fear that they would become targets of discrimination and derision. By the time Red Thunder Cloud was thirty-six, there was no one left who could converse with him in the language of his ancestors.
Nevertheless, by all accounts he led a full and happy life -- no easy feat for a man who throughout his last four decades was well aware that he alone was carrying the burden of his people's history and culture. He did his best to keep it alive, telling Catawba stories, performing Catawba dances, singing Catawba songs; he even made a few recordings in Catawba. Since his death Red Thunder Cloud's fluency in the Catawba language and the extent of his Catawba heritage itself (he was not a registered member of the tribe) have been called into question. If he was in fact fluent in Catawba, his death, on January 8, 1996, would represent the official death of the Catawba language, and it is an exceedingly rare thing to know the exact date of a language's demise. If, however, he was not actually fluent in the tongue -- if he merely spoke it to a limited degree, and had committed long passages to memory -- he became a surrogate for the last fluent speaker of Catawba. In either case Red Thunder Cloud's life and death are a stern reminder that America has over the course of the past few centuries lost many languages, and that others -- we can never know just how many -- are on the verge of disappearing permanently. That is, unfortunately, not an exceedingly rare occurrence.