All through this long holiday period, I have been thinking of people who set an example for the rest of us.
Now I wish I had not found this one.
In the final week of an unsettling year, a young soldier – an immigrant, yes – risked his life once, twice, three times, four times, to save people in a horrendous fire in the Bronx. And then he went back a fifth time and did not survive.
A week before, I had filed my final post of the year -- a reminder (to myself) to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. (Whole lot of cursing going on.)
Emmanuel Mensah from Ghana personified the selflessness we all like to think we could demonstrate, if we had to….if it presented itself….
I came up with other examples, people I actually know.
My friend Mendel of Jerusalem is a rabbi and family therapist (and writer, and runner, and Mets fan from Queens) who volunteers as a counselor with EMT units.
We met for lunch on Long Island during his home visit. He told me that while trained medics deal with the physical part of a crisis, Mendel finds anybody who needs support.
He never knows what language or accent he will hear when he takes somebody’s hand. They could be Jewish or Muslim or Christian. He does not care. He ministers. He lights the candle.
Then I thought about my wife’s uncle Harold from Maine. He recently turned 95 and can no longer have home-made fish chowder and pie waiting for us when we drive up U.S. 1.
Harold says he would like to be “with family” – aging, scattered -- but his “family” is right there in Bath, where he has lived most of his life.
There is Ace, a surrogate son who returns regularly from the Southwest, and Cookie, a surrogate daughter who drives up from southern New England; they have skillfully handled the complicated details of a loved one who lives a very long time.
There is Eric, whose family has been intertwined with Harold and his late wife Barbara. There is Martha, who drives Harold to the doctor even as she works full-time. There is Ann, the friend and nurse who has given diligent counsel.
There is Germane and her daughter Diane, and Rich and Suzanne, and Bill, an in-law, and Kristi, retired Army colonel and nurse, who watched over Harold in a lovely retirement complex, as long as it was feasible.
We have witnessed the best example of a classic American town, actually bustling with work (building warships on the Kennebec River, which Harold dredged in 1941) and the good will of people who know who they are, where they are from.
But let’s double back to Emmanuel Mensah, from Ghana. The Times says he joined the Army National Guard and recently passed basic training. He planned to go on active duty, but before he did, there was a fire in the building.
At the end of a dark year, I visualized Emmanuel Mensah’s military training – the preparation to protect people, to back up your buddies, to serve. In the months to come, I count on that developed impulse to follow rules.
I suspect Emmanuel Mensah’s fine instincts as a human being, from his homeland of Ghana, were encouraged by the American military: when bad stuff is happening, go toward it.
Emmanuel Mensah, an immigrant, saved lives in his final minutes on this earth. In the new year, his example shines.
(Above: the good old days for the Trump-Flynn axis.)
He continued to make a fool of himself in public this week with crude comments in front of hallowed veterans and ignorant tweets using fraudulent posts, disturbing our closest allies.
More and more people are speculating that President Trump is showing signs of dementia or some kind of breakdown.
Now his legal problems are at his front door, with the news that Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. and is likely to sing about the few people who were above him in that sordid chain of command.
Meantime, the Republicans are following their eight-year vilification of Barack Obama by ignoring disturbing behavior by their guy. Trump is their meal ticket to taking money away from most of America (including the deluded folks who voted for him) and, patriots that they are, they are going to ride him as long as he is in office.
Remember: I speculated he would be gone within 18 months.
I could write a post about North Korea -- or the football Giants humiliating Eli Manning and not living up to Mara family loyalties – or how bright the moon is in very late autumn. But what else is there but the menace in this "administration?"
(This is what I wrote earlier in the week:)
He debases the nation every time he opens his mouth.
On Monday there was a ceremony honoring three surviving members of the Navajo Code Talkers from World War Two.
The President of the United States used the occasion to take another jab at Sen. Elizabeth Warren, once again referring to her as "Pocahantas." (He is currently trying to destroy the consumer protection agency she helped create.)
His disturbed behavior drags us all down. Even while the leader of the Navajo group was giving a stirring history of the unit -- which saved lives during the Pacific campaign -- he fidgeted on the sideline, his facial tics reminding us that he is always nervous when the talk is not about him.
What a contrast between loyal Americans who sacrificed for all of us -- The Greatest Generation -- and a schemer who wants to make this a better world for the Mnuchins and Wilburs and Ivankas -- The Gunnysack Generation.
On the Memorial Day weekend, it is only right to suspend hostilities and remember the people who served.
I’m thinking of the story Harold Grundy tells us every time we visit Maine. My wife’s uncle was a master carpenter working for the military during “the war,” mostly on ships delivering goods and ammunition.
On one mission in the South Pacific, the closest ship was hit by a bomb or torpedo and split in two sections, both doomed.
One half floated in his direction.
“The men were on deck, waving to us,” he says. “They knew they were going down. The only thing we could do was wave back.”
Think of it – dozens, perhaps hundreds, of doomed sailors, hailing their comrades.
They all served. I think of two West Point football teammates who came home from Vietnam and discovered they had been serving (in different branches) way up north, during murderous fighting. Later, they learned the civilian government had figured out the war was not winnable, but did not bother telling anybody.
“Their little epiphany,” one called it. He may be visiting the Academy this weekend, to honor classmates who died over there.
I think of a man I did not know, a fraternity brother of sorts, buried in the military cemetery on Long Island. A friend of his from college visits the grave on the day he died in Vietnam, and organizes a scholarship in his name.
I think of a journalist pal, Jim Smith, who served on the Stars and Stripes. For decades, he did not talk about Vietnam but now he has written a very nice book about what he saw, and gives the proceeds to veterans’ causes.
I think about John Fernandez, the West Point lacrosse player who lost the lower parts of his legs in in Iraq --“bad day at the office,” he called it. Later, he played in alumni lacrosse games, on prosthetic feet and worked for veterans’ causes.
I think about Tammy Duckworth, the pilot who lost parts of both legs on a mission in Iraq. She is now a senator from Illinois.
I think about John McCain, who crashed in Vietnam and spent a few years in prison in Hanoi. I interviewed him once and told him my wife had learned McCain and his buddies quietly ran a pipeline of goods into Vietnam.
Why? I asked him. His answer was a highly eloquent shrug with his broken arms and shoulders.
* * *
I think about heroes who served, not civilians who did not (like me), or ones who think people who get captured or shot down are not heroes, or ones who shove their way to the front of the pack and preen, as if they had done something mighty. This is the weekend for heroes.
I was stunned by the outpouring of love for Eusebio when I wrote his obituary for the Times on January 6. There were 64 comments before the NYT closed the dialogue, almost uniformly knowledgeable and reverential.
What was the attraction of the Portuguese star from Africa that made him a folk hero, more than 47 years after his marvelous World Cup? Why do soccer stars touch this nerve? I know soccer has its share of louts, and goodness knows, American sport has its A-Rods plus football stars making jackasses of themselves in public.
Beyond that is the love – there is no other word – for some soccer players of the past, who showed humanity and talent. Part of the appeal is the relative modest size of soccer players, then and now. Another part is the relative nakedness – men in shorts and jerseys, out there alone in the world. And the third part is the creativity, making something from nothing, on a field, un-manipulated by that American authority figure known as Coach.
I was touched by two emails I received from a lawyer in Miami, Peter Cunha, age 28, whom I have known for several years. I have his permission to use excerpts:
(By Peter Cunha)
“I was asleep last Sunday morning when my phone started ringing. It was my Dad, and I knew that something was wrong based on the timing of the call. He delivered the news through tears that Eusebio had passed away the night before. I was crushed. Not just because a legend had died, but also because my father’s childhood hero was gone.
“My father grew up the youngest of seven kids during the ‘50s and ‘60s in Salazar’s Portugal. His father was a farmer, and though they were happy as a family and respected in the community, they were really, really, poor, and they experienced a level of poverty that I doubt my mind will ever truly comprehend. As a child my father went Christmases without presents, and grew up in a house without running water. He recently told me this past summer, when we visited his hometown on vacation, that as a kid he never thought he would own a car or a house in his lifetime. The fact that he was able to overcome this poverty and become a successful and good person is only one of the reasons he’s the greatest man I’ve ever known.
“In these conditions of his youth, the brightest spot was soccer, and, more specifically, the 1966 World Cup. My father was eleven years old when it occurred, and to this day when he recounts his memories from that tournament his eyes illuminate like no other.
“In the U.S., every kid has heroes they draw from sports. The average fifth grader today probably goes from being Albert Pujols to Lebron James to Peyton Manning on a single Sunday afternoon when they’re playing in the local park. But to poor kids in Portugal in 1966, Eusebio wasn’t just a star, he was the sun: the brightest object visible to man and the center of the Portuguese universe.
“My Dad can still recite the starting lineup that Portugal fielded for that tournament, but more importantly, the personal memories he recalls spent watching and experiencing that tournament illustrate why sports is so important to society and why it’s more than just a game. The first time my father ever saw any instance of soccer on television was the Brazil-Portugal match that took place during that World Cup. It wasn’t his TV: a local priest had somehow obtained one for the match and relocated it to the local parish. For the equivalent of a nickel donation for admission, my father saw Pele, Eusebio, and televised soccer for the first time in the same 90 minutes.
“During the North Korea game, when Portugal went down, 3-0, my Dad left the house in tears to give some hay to the animals on the farm and get a jump start on the next day’s chores, convinced that Portugal were finished. When he had come back, my uncle told him that, led by the now legendary performance of Eusebio, Portugal had fought back and won. My Dad also remembered the England game when Portugal was eliminated, and how hard he cried when the final whistle blew.
“I’m pretty sure last Sunday, when my father called to tell me the news, were the first soccer-related tears he cried since 1966, including the heartbreaking loss we had to Greece in 2004 (he expressed more frustration than sadness in the latter). Later that day, I called him to see if he was coping. He was a bit better, but he was still upset, and he was holding back tears. He told me words I’ll never forget: “Taking away my parents, it was the only thing we had growing up. We were poor. We had no money for gifts or sweets. But we had Eusebio.’”
“Sports are a lot of different things to a lot of people. Some good, some bad. But for some people, it’s the only thing, and not in a Vince Lombardi or Bill Shankly way. I mean, quite literally, sport is the only thing that brings them joy in their lives. And that’s a powerful thing, which is why we’re sad to see it go when it’s gone.
“Though I was born in 1985, I was lucky enough to see Eusebio play twice in charity matches in Newark in the early ‘90s. I’m attaching a picture I took with him when I was no more than eight years old. I’m the one on the far left with Eusebio’s right hand on my shoulder, the same hand he used to pull the ball out of the net twice in that North Korea game.”
Eusebio famously rushed into the net to retrieve the ball while turning a 3-0 deficit into a 5-3 victory. People still talk about that game, and Eusebio, 47 years later. I think Cunha nails the connection between the people and the people's sport.
The World Cup is coming around again in June.
The obituary and the comments:
I’ve seen worse on New Year’s Day – death in the snow one year, hearing of death in the Caribbean two years later.
The fiscal-cliff frolics are a passing diversion. The schmendricks of Congress will eventually be shamed into pretending to be rational adults for a while.
It’s all made-for-television fare, like the musty pageant of Kathy Griffin trying to de-pants poor Anderson Cooper on CNN. Are they not ashamed? Well, Boehner and McConnell don’t seem ashamed. Why should a network?
But I’ve seen worse days.
New Year’s Day of 1971 started with my being marooned in a mountaintop motel in Harlan after a snowfall. I had rushed to the coal-mine explosion in Hyden on the night of Dec. 30th, and spent the next day unable to drive because of the snow.
Now in the early hours of a new year, I tried to learn how thirty-eight miners had met their doom in an explosion. I went to the first funeral the next day, a rush job for the shot man of that crew.
It took people a while to figure out he had been using outdoor explosives, with a live spark, underground. Mixed with rising methane gas, it blew the mine to kingdom come.
Happy new year.
Two years later, we had moved from Kentucky back home to Long Island. The temperature was close to 60 on New Year’s morning and I went running in my shorts. When I got home I discovered Roberto Clemente had died the night before when his plane dove into the sea off San Juan, while ferrying goods to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. That striking man with Harry Belafonte looks and the best right-field arm in baseball was gone.
The next day my photographer friend Luis Requeña told me how people were staging impromptu memorials in the barrio.
Clemente vive aún.
Forty years ago I was mourning a hero. Today, what do we have? Schmendricks in the House. Happy new year.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.