We could be a long time waiting for a hero to rescue us

Thu, Jan 22, 2009, 00:00

Like all racial and social barriers, once broken, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about, writes QUENTIN FOTTRELL.

A PLANE crashes into a river in the middle of a crowded American metropolis. There is snow on the ground and it’s not possible to survive in the icy water for very long.

The passengers are just like you and me, ordinary people, probably chewed up by relationship dramas and financial worries, and maybe rushed out of the house that morning with something left unsaid. And then their plane suddenly falls out of the sky and all of that became irrelevant, or maybe more painfully urgent than ever before. And now? The passengers just want to get home.

As the wreckage of US Airways flight 1549 was being salvaged from the Hudson river, I was compelled by the stories of casual and modest heroism of Captain Chesley B Sullenberger and those on boats who went to the floating Airbus. I also thought of Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed into the Potomac river in Washington DC 27 years ago this month. While all 155 passengers and crew survived last week, only five people survived the other flight and 78 people were killed, including four motorists on the 14th Street Bridge.

The November 1998 edition of American Esquirewas devoted to “New American Heroes.” Inside was Michael Paterniti’s profile of Lenny Skutnik.

On January 13th, 1982, on his way home from work, Skutnik took off his cowboy boots and jumped into the freezing water to pull Priscilla Tirado out. Her husband and baby were on the bottom of the river bed.

Paterniti begins: “So wake now in Lorton, Virginia, Invisible. Wake in this 45-year-old body with a walrus moustache, your waist thickening, skin loosening, the whole fleshy ornament of you beginning to schlump earthward . . . ”

Skutnik was a 28-year-old low-ranking government employee in 1982. As survivors clung to the tail section of the submerged plane, a helicopter repeatedly tried to pull Tirado from a river filled with blinding jet fuel and snow. People watched at home on their televisions – then Skutnik waded into the water.

Paterniti writes: “Suddenly they were jumping up and down in their living rooms, screaming, blubbering at the television. You came out of nowhere, dove into that dark river for them, pulled them out too.”

So starved of heroes are we that I could never throw that magazine away.

America knows how to create heroes.

Passing through JFK airport this week, I bought the latest issue of Esquirewith cover star Barack Obama. (Heroes frequently follow hot on the heels of villains . . .) It is that red, white and blue pop art portrait that will become as iconic as Jim Fitzpatrick’s Che Guevara.

For the image alone of the first black family in the White House and the socially transformative effect that will have on millions of children of all colours, he is heroic. His gift? Like all racial and social barriers, once broken, we are left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Ireland is obsessed with villains. We don’t have the American optimism or largesse. We love to hate Charlie Haughey. Bertie Ahern? He ran a fiefdom for developers, yet voters couldn’t get enough of him.

We are stuck in the mud of half-finished estates and negative equity. We don’t do heroes, unless they’re dead like Michael Collins. We risk our affections on working- class heroes like the late Tony Gregory, who was more widely appreciated by his own constituents, and sporting heroes like Ray Houghton after his goal (against England) in Stuttgart in 1988.

Even our national symbol, the leprechaun, is a villain and chancer on the make, a roguish developer, politician, banker or shopaholic in green britches. He hopes to win us over with an unrepentant flinty smile. He is more than a crude cliché. Those of us who bought into the property market bubble took our cue from him. We on Main Street are just as culpable as Wall Street. But if you want an I Have A Dream speech from anyone inside Leinster House to rouse us from our complacency and cynicism, you may be a long time waiting.

It is now left to Obama to do a Skutnik and pull us out.

When the clock struck noon on Tuesday in Washington DC, that same city that brought us the heroism of Lenny Skutnik, Obama sat silently listening to music when he officially became the 44th president of the United States. Most Irish eyes turned from the squabbling in the Dáil as Obama later spoke of those who have “a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves”. Heroes appear to come out of nowhere. Some do. But it would help if we lived in an open, socially tolerant culture that looks for the good in people, one that values heroes and welcomes them.

The greatest American heroes, charismatic world leaders or ordinary men who perform random acts of selflessness, leave the sentiment to us. They are not, as Obama said, those who seek out the pleasures of riches or fame.

The worst Irish villains, who are part of our national psyche, never leave the self-interest of local government behind when they stalk the halls of Leinster House. One is dreaming of bluebirds, looking skyward at rainbows, while the other is looking downward, forever searching for a brown paper bag or a pot of gold at the end of one.