An American Hero Speaks

Yesterday was the first anniversary of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s dazzling landing of Flight 1549 in (on?) New York’s Hudson River.

The 155 passengers and crew members who had been on that flight celebrated the milestone aboard a ferry boat. Much has happened to that blessed band in the year since the miracle on the Hudson. For one, two people who met on the flight are now dating. For another, Barbara Walters selected Captain Sully as one of her Ten Most Fascinating People of the year. (Also named: Lady Gaga).

For me the anniversary was an opportunity to dust off a story I wrote shortly after the event. I was prompted by a photo of the plane floating on the river with a crowd of folks standing on its wings. I tried to imagine what that would have been like.

I never got around to finishing the story, and eventually it seemed silly to post it. It was no longer timely and fresh after everyone's attention had moved on to more important news, such as Michael Jackson and the Balloon Boy. I was afraid it was so much packaged bologna on the shelf of a shabby convenience store, long past its pull date. Now that we're at an anniversary, you're in luck.


OBSERVATIONS OF AN AMERICAN HERO

I was standing ankle-deep in the Hudson River thinking about a dirty martini. At that moment, what I wanted badly was some cold gin poured right to the rim of the glass. A splash of olive juice to muddy things up would be nice. I suppose my hankering for that particular beverage was inspired by the chill of the green water and the chunks of ice swirling around my feet. It didn’t help that I could see the neon lights of a bar from where I was standing. My dilemma was how to get to there from where I was at the time, which was on an airplane wing in the middle of a fucking river. My feet were turning numb as hell.

We were drifting downstream, rocked by the wakes of passing boats. You can't tell when you're standing on the side watching crap float by, but that river really moves along. You try standing on wet aluminum in your stocking feet while bobbing up and down, then you’ll know what I had to deal with. I was wishing I’d slipped my shoes back on before I climbed over all those seats to get to the emergency door. A cut on my knee was stinging and I wondered what diseases were finding their way into me and who was going to be responsible if I got cancer in my knee. I must have scraped it on that kid’s headgear on my way out.

You want to know the worst part? The lady holding the baby who was yelling hysterically three feet from my ear. The lady, not the baby. The baby was asleep or already dead. I thought, “Look lady, we get that you’re scared. Now shut the hell up.” I suppose I could have gone over and said something comforting. Or let her cry on my shoulder. She looked high maintenance though. I know the type and it’s not worth it.

To my left, some fat guy was clutching tight to his seat cushion looking like he wanted to cry or barf. On my right was the old dude who sat next to me in the terminal before the flight loaded up. I swear he just sat down next to me, sucking his teeth and talking about how great “The Da Vinci Code” is. I had to fake a phone call to get him to stop yapping. Now here he was, out on the wing muttering prayers and probably wishing he hadn’t spent his final hours on earth reading that book.

Jesus Christ, it was cold out there. You don’t know.

A big yellow raft bumped up against us, full of sorry people you wouldn’t want to sit next to under the best conditions. The back end of the raft sagged and was taking on greasy water. As much as I was ready to get the hell out of there, I didn’t want to get my ass wet sitting in that boat. The fat guy made a jump for it and disappeared in the murk. A few seconds later, he lunges up gasping and flopping like a marlin at the end of a gaff. A bunch of guys on the raft grabbed him under the arms and hauled him in like a manatee. Practically sunk the whole thing. Friends for life now, I guess.

I saw that the bastard was still holding on to his seat cushion even though he was in the raft. I’m pretty sure it was my seat cushion. Does that seem fair to you? When all I had out there on the wing was my garment bag, a rolly bag and my laptop? I yelled at him to toss me the cushion, but he pretended not to hear me.

I told myself to stay calm, even when the wing tilted and people were grabbing each other. I figured I’d be okay because things always work out for me. I’m like the curious cat: Always getting killed but landing on my feet because of all the extra lives and everything. My mother, bless her heart, always says to me, “I’m surprised you’re not dead already.”

I wasn’t going to start blubbering about the situation. By the way, that’s what the news people call events like this– “a situation”. I could see their vans with the satellite dishes and bright lights on poles clustering up along the seawall like seagulls waiting for the fish guts to be tossed out. You know they were hoping to get a big story and I guess they did. That kind of thing is golden to news people. “TRAGEDY ON THE HUDSON.” I’ll bet they already had the graphics and theme music ready to roll three minutes after we were in the water. God knows they had plenty of time to work on the story. We must have been standing there for hours. What the hell were our so-called rescuers doing that whole time?

Let me be clear: This was no tragedy. A tragedy is Bear Stearns collapsing and watching your year-end bonus vaporize. Tragedy is watching them tow your Ferrari because Bernie Madoff lost his mojo and your savings. Tragedy is having to fly home to Charlotte and explaining to your old man why he has to move his crap out of your former bedroom until you get back on your feet and, no, the basement den won’t work because you’re allergic to mildew and your mother comes down to run the laundry at 2:00 in the morning rather than putting her head in the oven.

Between the smell of jet fuel and the normal stink of the Hudson, I was starting to feel nauseous...or is it nauseated? I can never remember and screw it anyway, I’ll tell my story my way. Maybe I was just hungry. I sure as hell was cold with the water coming up above my knees.

When we spotted a ferryboat headed our way everyone started cheering until they figured out they planned to rescue the people on the other wing first. Then it got quiet. It looked like we were getting screwed like those Katrina people at the Dome.

When the boat finally came around to our side, I spotted this dignified looking dude in a pilot costume standing at the railing. The gunwale? Whatever. He’s got a clipboard in his hand and he’s counting passengers as they get pulled off the wing. Somebody yells, “We just pulled six more out of that raft, Captain” and he checks something off like it’s a shopping list on that clipboard.

“Only twelve more and we’ve found them all!” the Captain yells back. I do a quick headcount, and see there are a dozen of us still on the wing. Did that include the baby? Whatever. Our nightmare was almost over.

I’m standing there watching all this and thinking I should be taking pictures. I wished I’d taken some inside the plane while we were ditching because those would be worth something. Anyway, there was no point because my iPhone was toast as soon as the water reached my waist.

I think it was heroic to be the last one rescued, though that wasn't my choice. Every time I tried to get on the boat that Captain guy –you know the one I’m talking about? Mister Moustache? Sully?—anyway, he keeps pushing me back like he doesn’t want anything to do with me. Like I’m some piece of garbage floating in that river. I’m shouting like hell and telling him what I think, but he keeps pushing me aside and letting other people on first. Then he yells something like, “Okay, that’s it!” and the damned boat starts to pull away. I’m still on the goddamn wing thinking, “Hold on a second, you’re forgetting somebody here.” I’m not one to be disregarded.

Some of the other passengers are shouting and pointing. I see the pilot dude shrug his shoulders and the boat finally comes back to get me. When I'm on board I see people crowding around the captain trying to shake his hand and hug him. I just want to know if they’re planning to put us up in a hotel for the night and are we getting a refund, but he won’t even talk to me.

Are we heroes? Sometimes I’m not sure if that’s a fair characterization. But then I remember that something bad happened to us and we survived, so I guess that’s what being a hero is. I’m hoping to be able to talk about it more on the Today Show if they’ll invite me. I've got some ideas for a book too.

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