The state of our Union
January 27, 2014
The State of the Union speech is tomorrow, at which several thousand media-types and politicians will take their accustomed places and either praise or condemn, and the other 200 million of us will offer a collective, exasperated sigh that things really have gotten this bad.
But I’ll still watch it, just as I’ve watched every State of the Union since I was ten. I’ll take my spot on the sofa and soak in every word and round of applause, every bit of analysis and rebuttal. Watching has become a tradition of mine, though politics has nothing at all to do with it. Martin Leonard Skutnik III does.
Lenny to his friends. If you’re forty and over, chances are pretty good you remember him. His face and story are likely stuck inside a dusty drawer in the back of your mind, one labeled BIG THINGS. Lenny was a big thing. Thirty-two years ago, he was maybe the biggest. And rightly so.
He was on his way to work on January 13, 1982. Just a regular guy trying to weave his regular car through regular traffic to get to his regular job. That changed when the jet fell out of the sky. Air Florida Flight 90 had taken off earlier from Washington National Airport, bound for Tampa. As Lenny neared work, the Boeing 737 struck the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac.
Lenny was only one of hundreds of people who watched as emergency personnel worked to save the victims, one of whom was a passenger named Priscilla Tirado. Frightened and cold and exhausted, Priscilla was too weak to grab hold of a line lowered by a rescue helicopter. She flailed and began to fade. Lenny and the great throng of others watched in horror. But as the rest of them looked on helplessly, Lenny Skutnik decided to do something.
He took off his coat and boots and jumped into the icy water, swimming the thirty feet or so to where Priscilla Tirado struggled in nothing but pants and short sleeves. Lenny got her to shore. Saved her life.
Two weeks later, Ronald Reagan delivered his State of the Union. I watched it only because my parents made me. Partway into his speech, Reagan mentioned an ordinary man named Lenny, sitting in the gallery next to the First Lady.
Lenny Skutnik stood. The chamber roared.
Everyone. Citizens and media alike. Democrats and Republicans. Liberals and conservatives. All of them united for one small moment, for one small man.
That’s why I watch the State of the Union each year. Because it kindles the memory of that ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing.
And you know what? I need that reminder. We all do. The dark side of man is on display for us to see at every moment. It stares at us with each news segment from Syria or Iraq. It dares us with every profile of a political prisoner or story of the hungry and cold and oppressed. It’s as close as a click on a link or a turn of the channel. Every day, everywhere, there is proof that we are less than we should be.
It’s easy to see the bad in us, and how we’ve made such a mess of the world. That’s why people like Lenny Skutnik are so important. Not simply because of the great things they do, but because of the great thing they prove: That there is evil in us, but there is goodness in us as well.
Immeasurable, unfathomable glory. Bravery and love and heroism.
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