Charles Gifford's first brush with history came in the summer of 1956, when he was returning from Europe with his family aboard the Andrea Doria ocean liner.
Not far from Massachusetts' Nantucket Island, the ship was rammed and sunk by a freighter, the Stockholm. And the mind of a 13-year-old boy took a turn toward fatalism.
"What's going to happen is going to happen," Mr. Gifford says now. "You do your best, but there are some things you can't control." That belief, he adds, "helps me to minimize worrying."
There were about 1,100 passengers on the Andrea Doria at the time it was hit, and 53 did not survive. Said Mr. Gifford: "If we'd left Naples 2.3 seconds earlier, the staterooms assigned to me and my parents would have been right at the point of impact."
Mr. Gifford and his family were returning from Naples, Italy, after a three-week vacation in Europe. "It was a foggy night," remembered Mr. Gifford's father, Clarence, a former bank chairman, who ran Rhode Island Hospital Trust from 1965 to 1974. "You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face.
"The Stockholm rammed us at 11 p.m. I had a glass of milk on the bureau in the stateroom, and that milk went flying across the room," he said.
Charles Gifford remembered the family huddled together on the sloping deck of the liner, wearing their lifejackets, as the ship slipped into the sea. He said it seemed like an exciting adventure until the crew separated women and children and sent them down rope ladders into lifeboats, while his father was left behind.
"When we had to leave Dad, that was the first time we all became seriously alarmed," he said. "We were on the upper side of the deck, and we went to the side listing toward the water. We went down rope ladders to a lifeboat that had way too many people in it. We were very fortunate that the sea was flat as a milkpond. Had there been any chop, we would have had trouble."
The lifeboats went to a nearby ocean liner, the Ile de France, where Clarence Gifford eventually rejoined his family.
Later that summer, a buoy from the Andrea Doria washed up on Nantucket and was found by one of the older Gifford sons. The boys borrowed a truck and dragged it to the family's summer home.
It sat in the backyard of the Gifford cottage for many years after that, a trophy of their survival.