The Line in the Sand

The Line in the Sand

Be a Lenny Skutnik.

On January 26, 1982, Lenny Skutnik sat in the Presidential Gallery, next to the First Lady during the Inaugural Address, receiving a standing ovation.

Who was Lenny Skutnik?

Washington National Airport: Two weeks earlier.

The weather was uncooperative, heavy snowfall grounded airplanes for much of the day. Thousands of passengers sat in the terminals, unsure if their flights would be further delayed, or canceled completely. In the pre-9/11 era, entire families would wait alongside the traveler to see their plane soar into the air. Dads, who wanted to sound funny to their children would mimic Tattoo from “Fantasy Island” as they shouted, “De plane! De plane!” Air Florida Flight 90 was among those planes. It was scheduled to depart Washington National and headed for Ft. Lauderdale. It would never reach the Sunshine State. Once conditions improved, planes were deiced and readied for takeoff. Air Florida’s 74 passengers, relieved that their itinerary was underway—boarded. Inside, they placed their belongings overhead, sat, belts fastened, thrilled for the short trip south. Flight Attendants worked their way up-and-down the aisles, checking and double checking every seat and overhead bin. The Pilots made their final preparations, communicating with Air Traffic Control; it was supposed to be a flight like any other. Instead, it would join the tragic list of flights that were not.

At 4:01 PM EST, only having been airborne for thirty seconds, Flight 90 collided with the 14th Street Bridge and crashed into the icy Potomac River. Nothing can prepare you for an airplane crash, nothing. No matter how closely you pay attention to the Flight Attendants before takeoff, no matter how diligently you study the readiness card behind the seat in front of you, no matter how many times you play the what-if scenario in your head—you’re not ready. The casualties were high that day. Both pilots, 70 of the 74 passengers and four motorists below lost their lives. Some, upon impact and others, swallowed by the unforgiving cold of the River. Then, there’s Lenny Skutnik.

Lenny was an employee of the Congressional Budget Office, as well a bystander; one of the hundreds. A helicopter hovered over the river to rescue passengers from the wreckage. One woman—weakened and disoriented from the crash—lost her grip on the line that was to pull her to safety. She plunged into the hypothermia-inducing void of the Potomac. Lenny Skutnik—a bureaucrat—dove in, pulling her to the river shore, jeopardizing his own life in the process. What possesses a person to perform such acts of self-sacrifice? Does it intensify the question when we learn that the woman was a stranger to Lenny? She wasn’t his wife, his daughter, or his sister; she was a face among a thousand other faces. When you consider that he could have had a wife or a daughter of his own—that he may never have seen again—does it make him courageous or irresponsible? When thinking about acts of heroism, when we think of Flight 90, and about Lenny, the latter doesn’t dare enter our minds. When we see acts of this nature, we don’t think “Oh, that guy is so irresponsible.” We think, “Thank God for Lenny Skutniks.”

In my line of work, I have the privilege of attending charity events where the philanthropically-minded gather. Yes, there are hors-d’oeuvres and plenty of champagne toasts, but a lot of Good takes place inside those walls. One night, the emcee says, “for X amount of money, you can put an orphaned child through a semester of college.” A hand goes up. In another event, “for X amount of money, you can provide care for an elderly person, afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease…for a full year.” A hand goes up. The generosity inside these people’s hearts is astonishing and worthy of our praise. Eventually, the high rollers put their hands down, and the emcees work the dollar amounts down to the levels that folks like me can reach. Once they get to the hundred-dollar tier, the sky lights up with hands, as if the emcee asked: “who knows the sum of one-plus-one?” Is it all self-idolatry and narcissism disguised as charity or heroism? That’s what the cynic would say.

I propose a different motive: it’s our conscience manifested in the virtue of Justice—real Justice; no adjectives required. When we were children, our parents, attempting to make us eat our vegetables, would say “Eat your Brussels sprouts. There are starving people in such-and-such place.” I wager that—although the places may have changed—the sentiment is still shared across American households; assuming families still dine together. Even children, who normally operate in a framework of selfishness, find something inherently wrong with similar-aged children going hungry. If, for whatever reason, the lesson failed; we threaten to withhold dessert, which usually does the trick. What about when we watched National Geographic as kids? We’d see the cheetah chasing the gazelle. We didn’t want the gazelle to get eaten, but we didn’t want the cheetah and her family to starve. It was a conflict of Justice that we didn’t know which side to take.

Whether self-constructed or divinely-given, we draw lines between good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice, healthy and unhealthy. For this discussion, the reference point for the lines—the ontic referent—is of little value. Sometimes, the lines shift over time. The migration of the lines should be due to increased virtue and knowledge, not emotional impulsiveness. Whether changed or unchanged, the lines matter. Reading about a robbery in the newspaper is one thing, seeing one take place outside your window is another. Hearing about a plane crash on television is one thing, seeing one in front of you, and someone clinging to life inside a cold, watery grave, is another. What we do when the lines are crossed—matters. As children, knowing that there are hungry children out there—somewhere—makes us clean our plates. As adults, we can feed them, clothe them and educate them. As children, we held our breath waiting to hear our parents respond to the question, “are all the Tigers disappearing?” As adults, we prosecute poachers. As children, we fantasize about saving the damsel in distress or running into a burning building to save the puppy. As adults, we dive into waters, from which there may be no return, to save the stranger.

A few days ago, my mother suffered a stroke. In the morning, she was speaking with coworkers, in a slightly slurred speech, soaked in sweat. Her coworker said, “You’re not the same Cheri. What’s the matter?”

“I’m tired. I’ll be ok,” my mother stoically replies—always the soldier.

“You’re not ok. Sit down, let me take your blood pressure.”

Hypertensive Crisis, that’s what they call it when your blood pressure exceeds 180/120; she exceeded both, by a mile.

9-1-1.

A text message jumps on my screen:

“Your mother has been taken to the emergency room.”

Doctors and nurses swarm her, running every analysis possible. By all mathematical judgment, she shouldn’t be alive. Unlike the lines between right and wrong, the line between healthy and unhealthy can remain hidden and undetectable until it’s too late. They call hypertension the “silent killer.” The invisible assassin had my mother dead-to-rights. If not for her steadfast coworker responding as she did; the assassin would have succeeded. I don’t know where the lines separating healthy and unhealthy came from or who drew them, but they matter; all the lines matter. What mattered most, is that something was done once the lines were crossed. That’s what her coworker did. That’s what the medical team did. That’s what the little kids do at dinner. That’s what the philanthropists do. That’s what Lenny Skutnik did.

We all want to look good. Why not? It feels great to receive a compliment. It is a nice feeling to face the mirror and be pleased with the reflection. However, we must not allow our hunt for a non-existent aesthetic perfection to drive us away from the healthy, and across the line to the desolate wastelands of the unhealthy. Your weight nor your body fat percentage will tell you what’s happening underneath the surface; your blood will. People will stand in line once a week to check their body fat, hoping for the number to budge—but will resist an annual check-up. Get it done and listen to what your doctor says. If they are anything like my doctor, be prepared for a big-hearted, yet scathing lecture. You don’t need to sacrifice your true health for the appearance of it.

So, who saved my mom? It was the line. It was Lenny Skutnik.