The passing of President Reagan brought me back to Jan. 26, 1982. That was the date the “Great Communicator” first inspired me. I was 11 years old.
In his State of the Union address that evening, Reagan spoke of recessions, regulations, entitlements, Soviets and sanctions. My parents nodded vigorously in agreement. I almost nodded off. Toward the end of the televised speech, however, Reagan lifted America’s spirits — and piqued a child’s interest — by talking about something elementary: American heroes.
With his twinkling eyes and unabashed patriotism, Reagan reminded me of my late maternal grandfather. Lolo ‘Zario had fought alongside American troops against the Japanese and survived the Bataan Death March during World War II. He had a hearty laugh, but was deadly serious when he held forth on freedom and sacrifice. My grandfather commanded my attention and respect when he spoke of these things. So did the president.
“We don’t have to turn to our history books for heroes,” Reagan said that night. “They’re all around us.”
The president looked into the audience and singled out Jeremiah Denton, an American pilot shot down by North Vietnamese troops and imprisoned for eight brutal years. He was beaten, starved and thrown into solitary confinement. In 1966, during a televised propaganda interview with a pro-Commie journalist arranged by his captors, Denton was pressured to condemn American wartime “atrocities.”
Instead, Denton stood by his country: “(W)hatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live.” Denton pretended the camera lighting bothered his eyes. With his clueless jailers surrounding him, Denton looked into the lens, blinked his eyes in Morse Code, and covertly broadcast the truth to the world — Jane Fonda be damned — by spelling out “T-O-R-T-U-R-E.”
In his speech, Reagan recounted Denton’s words upon landing in the Philippines after being freed: “The plane door opened and Jeremiah Denton came slowly down the ramp. He caught sight of our flag, saluted it, said, ‘God bless America,’ and then thanked us for bringing him home.”
Reagan next pointed out Lenny Skutnik, a man whose name and story remain etched in my mind after all these years. “Just two weeks ago,” Reagan recounted, “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.”
Reagan’s stirring salute to Skutnik inspired me to research and memorize his story for a seventh-grade English class assignment. Skutnik was a young worker at the Congressional Budget Office. He had been driving home from work when Air Florida Flight 90 fell from the sky just 20 seconds after takeoff from Washington National Airport.
Skutnik jumped out of his car near the Fourteenth Street Bridge, where a crowd watched helplessly as a female passenger screamed for help in the icy waters. A helicopter rescue team had tossed her a line, but she was unable to hold on. Skutnik instinctively ripped off his overcoat, kicked off his shoes, dove into the river, and pulled 22-year-old flight attendant Priscilla Tirado to safety. She and four others survived. (Skutnik, a remarkably humble man who refused to be called a hero, still lives and works in the nation’s capital.)
After Reagan’s speech, a cynical press referred sneeringly to the “Lenny Skutnik moment.” This elitist disdain for recognizing everyday heroes persists. Just last year, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg complained in The New York Times about “bathetic ‘Skutnik moments.'”
“Bathetic”? I didn’t know that condescending word when I was 11. But I do know that on a chilly night in January 1982, the president ignited a young heart. It was my “Ronald Reagan moment” — an indelible moment when the exceptional goodness of America, and the boundless capacity of ordinary Americans to do extraordinary things, came alive. The flame endures.