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When It’s Not Enough To Be a Hero

Posted by sdrury on January 3, 2010

On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into an icy Potomac River moments after taking off from Washington National Airport. The weather in the Washington, DC area that day was frigid, with the temperature in the low-20s and the region had been blanketed by snow from a record-setting blizzard. Washington National, since re-named after Ronald Reagan, who ironically was president at the time of the tragedy, had been closed for a few hours that day due to the inclement conditions. A subsequent investigation into the accident revealed that the plane had not been properly de-iced and should never have taken off.

All but five of the passengers and crew were killed. Before coming to rest in the Potomac, the plane struck several cars on the 14th Street Bridge, killing four people.

Amid the senseless loss of life, what emerged from that day were stories of incredible acts of heroism.

Two such stories were those of Lenny Skutnik and Roger Olian, neither of whom was affiliated with the flight or with emergency personnel. Olian was parked on the 14th Street Bridge on his way home from work as a sheet metal foreman. Seeing what was happening, he leapt out of his car, ran down an embankment, and upon hearing the desperate shrieks from the river, jumped into the Potomac while bystanders looked on. Navigating through ice floes, he yelled words of encouragement and told the survivors that help was on the way even though he wasn’t sure if it was. In retrospect, it seems that Olian was attempting to comfort people, complete strangers, as they neared a horrific death. They later reported that his actions gave them the hope and impetus to struggle on.  Once Olian’s own act of humanity had been completed, he was later pulled to safety himself.

Skutnik was working in a nearby office at the time, and like many others, went close to the river bank to watch the rescue operation unfold. Once at the scene, it became apparent to him that one passenger was too weak to grab the rescue line that had been thrown to her from a helicopter. Even though numerous rescue personnel were nearby, he refused to stand by idly, watching someone drown or freeze to death. So, he tore off his coat and boots and jumped into the river and assisted the woman in reaching the life line that led to her rescue. The woman was then taken to a local hospital, her life saved by a complete stranger.

To make it plain, both Olian and Skutnik threw themselves into frozen water to save the lives of people they did not know.

This past Christmas day another air tragedy, albeit of a different kind, may have occurred aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253 were it not for another act of heroism. Above Ontario, Canada, as an Airbus with 290 passengers on board was making its final descent to Detroit, a 23 year-old Nigerian terrorist named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite an explosive device he had sewn to his underwear. Fortunately, the device did not detonate properly, but it still created a small fire and passengers later reported hearing a popping sound. As the terrorist was attempting to re-ignite the device, he was grabbed and subdued by another passenger, Jasper Schuringa, preventing him from doing any more damage. The fire was extinguished in short order and the perpetrator, later identified as a member of Al-Qaeda, was handcuffed by a member of the crew with assistance from Schuringa who had endured minor burns to his hands. The plane landed just after noon, without further incident. Schuringa was applauded by his fellow passengers as a hero.

By the afternoon, as word about the near-cataclysm had spread, an associate of Schuringa contacted CNN, informing the network that there were pictures of the incident, taken from a cell phone, available for sale. The following day, Schuringa, who is a Dutch national, signed an agreement with CNN, giving them the rights to the photograph in exchange for an undisclosed sum of money. In the next few days, Schuringa made similar arrangements with the New York Post and ABC News. Other news organizations reported that they also were approached by Schuringa, or his representatives, with the offer of rights to photos in exchange for financial considerations.

When news of Schuringa’s post-flight maneuverings gained traction on the Internet, many wondered if he was exploiting a national security failure for personal gain. Nevertheless, he continued to appear on media outlets, without compensation, to describe his story. It should be noted that Schuringa lists his profession as a film director and told interviewers that what had happened to him over Canada bore an eerie resemblance to a script he had written several years earlier, not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of their efforts, Olian and Skutnick were given Carnegie Hero’s Medals, (among the many honors they received) and were lauded by President Reagan during his State of the Union address two weeks after the disaster. In 1984, a television movie aired,  paying tribute to their actions along with the many other feats of bravery that occurred that day. While many books have been written that mention both men for inspirational or spiritual purposes, neither Olian nor Skutnick has written a book to call his own. As of 2009, both men were in the same line of work as they were that day they plunged themselves into the Potomac.

It almost goes without saying that Schuringa would not be the first person to profit from an act of heroism and he most certainly will not be the last. Yet the alacrity with which he seized his moment gives one pause. How long after suppressing the threat did Schuringa think he think he ought to promote his own bravery? Would he have acted in such a manner had he thought there was a chance he wouldn’t be recognized? The answer to the latter is “of course he would” and only Schuringa knows the answer to the former. Schuringa’s accomplishments should not be minimized, for his fellow air travelers are undoubtedly grateful for his presence on their flight. But a distinction must be made, particularly in comparing his deeds to those of Olian and Skutnik nearly 28 years earlier. When Schuringa thwarted the terrorist, first among the lives he saved was his own. Conversely, Olian and Skutnik intentionally risked their own lives for the benefit of people they did not know. On the hierarchy of heroic altruists they rate a notch or two higher than Schuringa. The specific acts of gallantry aren’t so much the point here as are the responses that followed and the conditions that created them.

Commentators are quick to point to events where things “change”, as if drawing a circle around a date on a calendar will clarify complex human behavior. However, in considering Schuringa’s conduct post facto vis a-vis Olian’s and Skutnik’s, it is apparent that a fundamental change has taken place.

Previously, in a more Romantic era, people did things (worked, prayed, cared for their family, maintained good health, etc) because, in an empirical sense, they were the “right” things to do. You did the right thing as a matter of course, indifferent as to whether someone else was watching you, with no expectation of praise. Ted Williams, the great Boston Red Sox slugger from the 1940s and 1950s, once remarked that it’s easy to give it your all when the stands are full, with thousands watching your every move, but it was the truly great players that gave their maximum effort regardless of circumstance. Often, doing the “right” thing meant putting the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the individual.

Things are different now, different than they were in 1982 and a mere silhouette of what they were in Ted Williams’ day. Now, one can’t help but wonder if the only reason people do the “right” thing at all is so they’ll get credit for it. By extension, one wonders if being acknowledged for a heroic deed has become more important than the deed itself.

In 1982, MTV, CNN, and ESPN were in their infancy. Their success was far from assured. Watching any of these channels today, as they document the endless parade of people with insatiable desires to do something worthy of the camera’s gaze, that’s hard to believe. There are no shortage of subjects who feel themselves worthy of notice.

To be fair, human beings are, and have always been, social animals that seek feedback, and we do all manner of things to get it. To be sure, positive feedback is preferred, but some attention is better than none at all. With the explosion of media in the last generation, there’s more opportunity than ever before to be appreciated. The problem is, that although the number of places a person can be appreciated has multiplied exponentially, the things that merit such appreciation haven’t.

So, scenarios were manufactured to produce them. Television screens are now filled with phony conflicts, callously billed as reality shows, which exist solely for the purpose of designating winners, who, by definition, must be feted. The shows are populated by dozens, if not hundreds, of people, who seem hard-wired to engage in activities meant to elicit some response, irrespective of form. Can it be a coincidence that almost all of the “characters” in these shows were born after 1982 and, therefore, know only a world of cable television?

Lacking the prodding of producers and cameramen, some among us have taken matters into our hands by devising false crises on our own. A few months ago, a Colorado man informed authorities that his son had blown away in a balloon setting off a search and rescue mission that was followed, step by step on live television. Except the boy was perfectly fine, sequestered away so that when he was found by his father, his dad could be hailed as a hero in the news media, and therefore launching a reality of his own.

The most popular “reality” shows of them all, are, of course, sporting events, whose participants are routinely dubbed “heroic.” Let’s take this moment to be clear. No athlete, ever, while in pursuit of victory for his or her team, can have performed in a way that could be described as heroic. Admirable? Perhaps. Heroic? No. Using such terminology is an insult to people, like Lenny Skutnik and Roger Olian, and, yes, Jasper Schuringa, who actually have performed heroically when something more than a win or a loss was at stake.

And then there are the numerous websites where even the most quotidian of choices can be met with chords of approval, be it a knowing remark or an apparitional thumbs up. Facebook, specifically, with its 350 million users (and growing), is the king of the affirmation, allowing “friends” to pile plaudits on our choice of breakfast or our taste in music or our inclination to take a nap. Or whatever else we choose to share. How long did it take Jasper Schuringa to type, “Just foiled a terrorist plot from another one of those crazy Muslim suicide bombers!!!” into his Facebook status?

We shouldn’t be offended by Schuringa because we created him. And given the chance, most of us would have mimicked his actions—including what he did after the plane landed. We are entitled, after all.

Before anyone rings a death knell for heroes, be advised that as long as there are police officers and firefighters there will be acts of unselfishness. But in our current landscape, where the line between competing character traits—like narcissism and altruism—is blurred, determining who or what makes a hero has become virtually impossible and by necessity we need someone to tell us who they are, thereby diminishing the heroes in the process.

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Posted in Current Events, Essays, We're Doomed - Americans, We're Doomed - Humanity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Cavett Rocks On

Posted by sdrury on November 1, 2009

Imagine a talk show where the host’s face is, often, momentarily obscured by a plume of smoke from one of his guest’s cigarettes. Or a boom mike quite obviously dropping into a stoned guest’s personal space so as to better capture his incoherent ramblings. Or the host, again, being caught off guard by an impending commercial and then making little attempt to hide his frustration about yet another interruption to his conversation; crankily, and through rings of smoke, he announces the show will return after a brief commercial message.

Nowadays such qualities in a show would be openly mocked by a media-literate audience. Any imperfections that do occur in the dozens of talk shows that now poison the airwaves are well-planned attempts by the host or producer to keep it “real” or to convey an air of spontaneity or off-the-cuffery. Perhaps that’s why the fall-back technique for most non-fiction programs is to illuminate the production flaws, thereby perpetuating the myth that what is being viewed has not been plotted with meticulous precision. It didn’t used to be this way. People who worked in non-fiction television didn’t always try to dupe their viewers.

Lest anyone suspect I’m about to launch into a nostalgic riff about the glories of live television, that era was well before my time. I’m referring to the Dick Cavett Show, which in its various incarnations aired on seven different networks, most memorably for five years on ABC starting in 1969 and then in a scaled down version on PBS from 1977-1982.

The talk show has been around since the earliest days of television. For as much as television has changed in the last 50 years the talk show has changed very little. Neither have TV executive’s admiration for it. The reason talk shows are held so dear by the suits is not because they are a more highly evolved form of entertainment. It’s because they’re cheap. The only major outlay is the salary of the host, which is not insubstantial, but it pales in comparison to the cost of shooting on location, where a cast and crew must be paid, fed, housed and insured. In a time when viewers of prime time network television are dwindling like a 401k it should come as no surprise that a popular host landed a gig at 10 o’clock five nights a week.

Even though hundreds of channels are now available for every imaginable niche group, as a format, the talk show remains much it like it did at its inception. There is an opening monologue, a sidekick, a desk (usually), a band and invited guests (who are paid a few hundred dollars for their troubles). The guests, generally, are actors, musicians or comics. Occasionally, politicians, authors or athletes find their way onto the seat next to the host. Other variables include skits, stunts, and conceits that invite audience participation.

Dick Cavett made every effort to reject these clichés over the course of a forty year career. 

I recall my mother watching the Dick Cavett Show during the PBS iteration, but I can’t honestly recall a specific episode or guest from that period. Later, I heard my mother draw a comparison between Cavett and Charlie Rose. Since I’ve always admired her taste in anything cultural, I put myself on notice for anything bearing his name.

In 2005 Shout! Factory released several theme-based multi-disc DVD sets of Cavett’s old shows. They include specials with blandish titles like “Hollywood Greats” and “Comic Legends.” I recently rented the three-disc “Rock Icons” set through my Netflix account and I expected that the discs would feature only music performances and interviews, but the shows are available in their entirety, with a brief introduction from Cavett himself. Presently, he writes semi-regularly for The New York Times website and often includes clips from his old shows in his column.

In all the clips I’ve seen of Cavett’s shows I can’t help but having the impression that the only reason he had a talk show to begin with was because it gave him an excuse to meet and chat with a lot of really interesting people. The opening monologues from the ABC shows are terrible. They are too often referring to events germain only to New York, which is where the show was shot; garbage strikes, the incompetence of Mayor John Lindsay and local weather are common topics. He had a bandleader/sidekick who he tried, usually without success, to engage in witty repartee. Cavett himself could barely conceal his distaste in these talk show tropes. The PBS version of his show suited him much better as it dispensed with bandleader banter (there was no band to lead) and the opening monologue was more of an introduction than a series of one-liners. Cavett is at ease in this format, a mood that was probably exacerbated by a very small audience as opposed to the large studio audience that greeted him on the ABC version. There’s little doubt as to which version Cavettheads prefer.

Nevertheless, the ABC show aired during what could be fairly described as the salad days of popular music in America. The first program on the Rock Icons disc aired the day after Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix was slated to appear but had back out since his performance had lasted into the early morning hours of the day of shooting. The guest appeared more or less together. Joni Mitchell, looking childlike, sang three songs, one of which was performed a cappella. She had declined an appearance at Woodstock in favor of preparing for her appearance on Cavett’s show. A scheduling faux pas that her career was able to overcome. The other guests were David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Jefferson Airplane, whose singer, Grace Slick, referred to Cavett as Jim. Crosby is his usual grating self, commanding attention through the quantity, rather than the quality of his thoughts.

What’s interesting about this show is neither the guests nor the now-classic music, it’s Cavett. He and the musicians are seated in a circle, on what look to be pillows. Cavett, ignoring his usual jacket and tie, briefly dons an ascot—which he tosses into the crowd, recognizing the absurdity of its presence around his neck—and opens at least two buttons on his shirt. He looks like a complete square—to use the parlance—yet the musicians see that his curiosity is genuine. Watching this scene, I tried to imagine fellow talk-show host (and fellow Nebraskan) Johnny Carson in such a setting. And this, really, was the essence of the difference between the two men. Carson, who had his beginnings as a game show host was a master at making his guests feel comfortable and the best way to do that was to exude an air of comfort himself. He had great timing as a comic, and his monologues expertly combined self-deprecation with Midwestern sensibilities. Mostly though, Carson loved the Hollywood-ness of being the host of The Tonight Show. Sure, occasionally a topical guest found a spot between him and Ed McMahon, but he loved talking to Jimmy Stewart and Buddy Hackett and Shelley Winters and Phyllis Diller, about their latest movie or vacation or pet or hilarious circumstance. Very few people, besides Tiny Tim, made news on The Tonight Show. Carson specialized in being familiar.

By contrast, Cavett was willing to step out of his comfort zone if it meant he could book non-traditional guests. While it’s possible this was for the sake of ratings, it’s more likely that he was fascinated by people like Salvador Dali and Ingemar Bergman. Not only was Cavett willing to rattle his own cage he was not above rattling his guest’s when he felt it was merited. He interviewed Lester Maddox and Angela Davis, until she was forced to cancel. A guest, Jerome Rodale, died on his show (it was never aired) and he talked bluntly about pornography. He had no reservations about playing a role in the “Symphony of Emotions.” Try to imagine Carson doing this.

The first disc of the “Rock Icons” series concludes with interviews of David Bowie and Sly Stone. I’ve never been much of a fan of Bowie, but his appearance with Cavett was mesmerizing. He’s probably high at the time of the interview and once seated, his frame is so lean his bones seem ready to burst through his suit. As Cavett questions him, he grips a cane for balance, emotional or otherwise. Whether it’s Cavett’s presence or the narcotic effect, Bowie is as forthright any rock star I’ve ever seen. His very British smile (cosmetic dentistry apparently was not among Bowie’s expenses at the time) reveals an air of uncertainty about his well-established career. It’s Bowie as raw as he’s ever been.

Of all the performances on the set, Sly Stone’s is the best. He and the Family Stone are vibrant, enthusiastic and utterly charming. Unfortunately, Sly seems to also be under the influence when chatting with Cavett, his beaming smile providing little clue to what was actually coming from his mouth. At one point, Cavett looks like he has no clue what Sly just said—a very un-Carson like loss of poise—but plows on, knowing that another musical number will render this lapse in coherence irrelevant.

The second disk is dedicated to Janis Joplin. As with Bowie, I’ve admired her music more than I’ve enjoyed it, but here she is heartbreakingly endearing. Of course, I know what fate awaits her, but Cavett, who has acknowledged his own battles with depression, senses that this is a woman worn out. Cavett tries to build her up through praise, but then Janis talks about the loneliness of the road. He sympathizes with her complaint about overly cerebral European audiences. He lights her cigarette. In one memorable sequence, seated among Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and Chet Huntley, she and Racquel Welch talk about current events and overzealous fans. Try to imagine say, Lady Gaga, talking with, say Harrison Ford, Tom Brokaw and Kate Winslet. It would be impossible in today’s heavily regimented, self-promotion environment, where guests have been trained to speak only of themselves.

Later, Janis finds herself on the same set as Gloria Swanson. Cavett seems to make an effort to include her in every conversation like an older brother guarding his baby sister in her first days in high school. He wants to indulge her and protect her.

The final disk opens with Paul Simon performing, talking about songwriting and working out an early version of “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Once Simon departs Cavett himself is interviewed by three authors—Jerzy Kosinski, Barbara Howar and Anthony Burgess—on the occasion of the printing of his own memoir. The authors critique the book and  Burgess is wonderfully frank while Kosinski attempts, with moderate success, to penetrate Cavett’s psyche. In a moment of meta-media, Howar reminds Cavett that what he does on a nightly basis as a talk show will quickly be forgotten, having written a book will be a more permanent accomplishment. I wonder which sells more these days, the book or DVDs of old shows?

The next artist featured is the effervescent Stevie Wonder. Even when writing about inner-city violence and despair, he manages to remain bubbly. Here, Cavett is somewhat placating, he appears unsure of how to refer, if at all, to Wonder’s blindness. The format of the traditional talk show, demanding some sort of acknowledgement of the obvious, is something Cavett would rather ignore, and I got the feeling that there many questions that went unspoken.

Finally, the series concludes with the quiet Beatle, George Harrison (Cavett’s interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono comprise a separate series on Shout!). Harrison performs anonymously as a guitarist with Gary Wright. The interview with him is all-encompassing. He and Cavett talk about the Concert for Bangladesh (and what a hassle it was to manage the money), why the Beatles broke up (he was tired of his “quota” of one or two songs per album and wanted to perform his own material), drug use and Ravi Shankar. Harrison mocks the convention of talk shows by reading from the commercial cues before Cavett. Cavett groans at every station break like a child being told to go to bed on Christmas Eve. “Commercial??? Can’t you see I’m talking to George Harrison!!!”

Whatever his frustrations, he is clearly enjoying his time with Harrison (and later, Shankar) so much so that he seems sincerely disappointed when Harrison compares his appearance on the show to a performance. “Do you really look at this as a conversation or a performance?” he asks. When Harrison assured him it’s the former, I felt Cavett’s relief. And that really was why Cavett endured. He understood that smart people respond to other smart people and a smart audience would understand and appreciate that. While he never garnered the audience of Carson, the devotion of his fans has never faded.

Posted in Music, Television | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »