This Memorial Day holiday finds me admitting to you and the world that I am decidedly not showy when it comes to my patriotism. I don’t wear a flag pin on my lapels and Old Glory rarely comes out on holidays commemorating those who fought and died for my country.
But I humbly appreciate everything ANY human being has had to sacrificed–be it a limb or a life.
I love this country, despite my rather non-demonstrative nature. There are freedoms here that don’t exist anywhere else. America, in spite of its many problems, still offers amazing things. It allows left of center people to exist. Even those who choose to live off the grid may do just that.
We live here under a red, white and blue roof. For well over a century, we’ve officially welcomed the tired, the hungry, the disenfranchized…and offered them options. But it was up to them to find them and make them work to their advantage. That’s the free enterprise system. They came to this country and each added their own flavor to the melting pot we’ve become and we co-existed, despite having differing opinions, different tastes, different political leanings. Even those who wish to turn this country over to Socialists and other regimes, still continue to enjoy their freedoms here, while lambasting the very governmental hand that theoretically feeds them.
See? That’s freedom. We can speak out about what we feel are problems without fear of retribution. We may get audited, but never thrown in the clink for political heresy. We can criticize a president and his or her administration and not risk being forcibly removed from our beds at night and hustled to some dark, dank bunker lit by a single light bulb which shines dimly above a chair with arm restraints, the spot where we’ll be interrogated by some Adolph Menjou looking commandant in jodhpurs and donning a riding crop demanding that we answer his questions unt zat vee zine zee papuhs.
We can drive across the entire country without governmental checkpoints; bureaucratic checkpoints perhaps, but none established to capture political dissidents. And while I don’t like riots, protests and boycotts, it’s our constitutional right to participate in them…peaceably, but that’s rarely part of the equation when injustice is perceived to have been committed. Despite the blemishes, inflicted by her own people and 19 Islamic sociopaths with an unholy desire to destroy values and principles they could never have, I’m quite proud of my country, Americans don’t live a utopian existence–we never have, we never will. Utopia is a concept that’s damned impossible to describe much less attain. And why should we expect perfection? America is an incredible place. Her landscape amazes me, her natural beauty takes my breath away and so do the people who comprise her populace.
And oh, how varied are her people.
I think of so many Americans and can’t help but think of “heroes”. It’s a word that’s been bandied about quite a bit in recent years. It’s what we call New York City firemen and other rescuers workers after 9/11. It’s how some Americans refer to U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and these make up only the very tip of the hero iceberg. There are so many more heroes to name. Especially those who we have personally encountered.
I’m talking about the quiet, unassuming types who become heroes unwittingly…merely for doing their jobs. They are ordinary people who for a brief memory did an extraordinary thing. Why? Sometimes it’s simply because they were in the right place at the right time.
Take Lenny Skutnik for example.
It was the winter of 1982. January 12th was a particularly cold and snowy day in Washington, DC. Skutnik was a young worker at the Congressional Budget Office. He’d been driving home from work when Air Florida Flight 90, fated by improper de-icing of the wings, fell from the sky and into the semi-frozen Potomac, just 20 seconds after takeoff from Washington National Airport. Skutnik saw what happened, jumped out of his car stopped in traffic near the Fourteenth Street Bridge, where a crowd had gathered, watching as a female passenger screamed for help as she and a few other survivors thrashed about in the icy waters.
Two weeks later at a State of The Union address, President Ronald Reagan turned and looked up into the gallery where Lenny was seated and said:
“Just two weeks ago, in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest — the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety.”
Few Americans knew who Lenny Skutnik was before that fateful day and these days, his name is largely forgotten, save for White House insiders–namely among speechwriters. Many speeches these days include what is referred to as a “Skutnik”, a warm, inspirational story about a man who had the presence of mind to do something others around him only thought about.
THE CASE OF CHARLES WHITMAN
I remember that day well. I was six, home from school on summer break and it was particularly hot that day. I was inside basking in air-conditioned comfort and the TV went blank and then a network anchor broke in and went live to The University of Texas campus at Austin. KLRN, a public TV outlet that was based on campus, had somehow managed to take a live camera outside and positioned it towards the top of the tower.
The news files from the Huntley/Brinkley Report as it aired on NBC late one August afternoon in 1966. The news report merely says that Whitman was taken out; it is remiss in not conveying how that was done.
It was just after noon when the first shot rang out and the campus, as one might imagine, was in utter chaos. Charles Whitman, a UT student who’d already killed his mother and his young wife, had taken a cache of weapons, ammo,food, water and a radio to the top of the observation deck of the famed UT Tower.
He was a Marine sharpshooter and that, plus he had a 360-degree view of campus from all four sides of the deck, some 25 stories up, made him the most treacherous of snipers. The observation deck with its thick walls was 25 stories up, meant he had a keen vantage point. He was able to shoot through open turrets in the deck’s cement barrier. I remember video of Whitman taken by the APD chopper. I could see his shocking platinum blond head of hair lying down on the floor, rifle poised at the ready. He was wearing a jumpsuit.
It was 1966; the Austin Police Department had a helicopter, but it wasn’t equipped offensive purposes, so the key in stopping Whitman would be to do so on the observation deck.
Face to face.
Gun to gun.
Austin Police Officer Jerry Day was the first officer to travel up the tower’s elevator. He and volunteer University Co-Op employee Allen Crum (who Day deputized on the spot), went up with off duty Officer Ramiro Martinez. They followed Martinez and Officer Houston McCoy to the observation deck, they stayed at the door to guard it. Martinez went out first and McCoy followed.
Martinez decided to go alone around the SE corner in a crawling position with his .38 revolver drawn. McCoy realized that he would need back-up and rounded the corner with his shotgun. They two men proceeded to the northeast corner of the deck. Martinez spotted Whitman sitting on the floor of the northwest corner watching for any signs of police. Martinez jumped into the walkway in a split-position, firing his .38 revolver in the direction of Whitman, who was partially shielded by a floor light ballast.
McCoy ascertained the direction in which Martinez was firing, and stepped out and away from Martinez, and saw Whitman’s head above the ballast, just as the gunman was aiming his M-1 carbine around towards them. As Martinez was firing, McCoy fired his riot shotgun at the at Whitman, clad in a white head-band, effectively killing the sniper with the first blast.
These people woke up on the mornings of these events, not expecting to do anything but endure the mundane sameness of their everyday existences. However, they went to sleep that night as entirely different people. Or did they? Surely, something was “in them”…perhaps something congenital made them different. They acted; they reacted and that made the difference, but why? What made Lenny Skutnik–a regular schlub, kick off his shoes and jump in 27-degree water to save a stranger?
Granted law enforcement types and soldiers are sworn to duty, but even so, what was it exactly that made these two Austin Police Officers in particular, risk life and limb to keep a madman from killing more innocent people?
There are scores of people who do heroic things every day and they do so without a Presidential award mention or Congressional recognition.
You have animal rescuers. There are police, firemen, social workers, doctors, nurses and EMT’s are heroes on an hourly basis. So are soldiers. There are whistle blowers who help end corruption. Researchers who find cures to diseases. Philanthropists who give generously to incredibly worthwhile causes which help minions and these people do so without a press release or a camera crew chronicling their every move.
And still, there are other heroes composed of everyday people who unwittingly change our lives in the most unheralded of ways. Again, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Like the Sophomore English teacher in a very small South Texas High School who in 1975, told one forlorn, petite, brown-eyed blond who was rife with doubts and insecurities, traumatized by her parents’ horrific divorce, that she had the power to change the world, her world anyway, through the written word.
I saw Mrs. Purser at a funeral a few years ago. God love her, she barely remembered me.
But I will never forget her.