911: Choose to Remember
The separation between many a collegiate GPA is one’s ability—or lack thereof—to understand such existentialist authors as Sartre, O’Connor, Kafka or Kierkegaard. Those folks wrote some pretty deep stuff, left best to minds like Ben Fulton’s, not to minds like my own. Ben has a penchant for trying to demystify just about everything, to find structure among random events. I figure it’s all about minimizing the confusion. He reads material that is confusing to me. I, meanwhile, confuse him by not being mystified by things I can’t control. Ben’s fate is my coincidence. Some things are both.
Like one year ago when our lives became a veritable vertigo: Jet airplanes flying at over 500 miles per hour broadside into the tallest buildings in New York City, exploding tons of fuel over scores of passengers, burning into offices, then down the very corridors, stairways and elevators meant as escape routes for the hundreds of people trapped above the impact points, instantly separating them even by just a few feet from fellow workers below them who would survive; a situation so dire that many of them would jump nearly a quarter mile to the earth, some perhaps thinking they might arrive on the back of Apollo, safely, yet willing to take the chance because remaining above the inferno was no chance at all, crashing hard in just a few seconds, thus missing the greatest spectacle that most Americans have ever seen, or should ever want to: the World Trade Center collapsing into the ground.
In just moments, we all sought answers. Some looked to the Bible or other religious tomes. Some looked to the existentialists. Some looked to seers and fakirs. More than will admit looked to the famed French astrologer Nostradamus, picking up not a whit of insight, but at least adding the word “quatrain”—his literary format—to their vocabularies. Ben asked lots of questions. Me? I read the names of the dead.
Pilot and crew manifests. Passenger lists. Not all at once, mind you, as many names would take weeks or months to reveal themselves, but in time I’d read most of the names of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. I looked for Greek names and sure enough, I found them. I found other easy-to-identify foreign names, a cataloguing of sorts, a barometer of which other countries would want revenge. I read the names not out of some morbid fatalism, but out of respect for them and the families they left behind. Where did they live? How many kids did they have? Who else would miss them?
It was something I had done for decades, actually, drawn to reading the names of Americans killed in Vietnam. It was in the paper every week anyway; just the Utah guys. Once though, Life or Look magazine printed a week’s worth of war dead with photos, ages and hometowns. With that issue, I pretty much turned against the war. In 1965, my sixth grade class would get these gigantic, weekly maps that our teacher would hang over the chalkboard, make us study and then give us a test on world events. I remember just one name from those map assignments: Pleiku. It always stuck with me and it wasn’t even the name of a person. It stuck with me because it sounded so foreign, even though where I grew up in Bingham Canyon, I heard foreign words daily in Greek, Japanese, Italian, Spanish and even the occasional Slavic tongue. For nearly 40 years, Pleiku has been a wool sock on my velcro temporal lobe. Whenever I would talk with a returning vet, I would ask, “Oh, is that by Pleiku?”
Pleiku is a city and province in the Highlands of Vietnam. If I didn’t get anything else from the sixth-grade map-reading assignments, I got a thirst for reading about the Vietnam War. Who knows how many books by now—Halberstam, Webb, Caputo, O’Brien, Sheehan, Karnow, Del Vecchio, Timberg, Atkinson, plus scores of battlefield bio-histories—those men taught me more about existentialism than I could ever have learned in college. It was only a matter of time before I would pick up and read We Were Soldiers Once … and Young by Lt. Gen. Harold (Hal) Moore and Joseph Galloway. I did so last year, drawn to it by the knowledge that the setting was near Pleiku (that word again), and by the jacket cover of the book itself: a soldier peering keenly forward to the ambiguous situation before him. Will he live? Will he die? Will he cower? Who is he?
The man on the cover, which I didn’t know at the time, is Cyril “Rick” Rescorla. The photo credit only mentions the photographer, Peter Arnett, but there are plenty of Rick Rescorla mentions in the book. Moore and Galloway tell the story of the bloody November 1965 battles at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany in the Ia Drang Valley, just south of Pleiku. Lt. Rescorla led the 1st Platoon of Bravo Company, 2nd Batallion, that was held in reserve in the early going at LZ X-Ray, primarily protecting the mortar pits and landing zone. In time, his troopers were called to reinforce the major impact points. His efforts helped save scores of U.S. soldiers. Rescorla so excelled in battle and at rallying and motivating his men, that Moore, the battle commander, would proclaim him to be “fearless … inspiring … the best platoon leader I ever saw. High praise for a man born in Hayle, Cornwall, England.
Rescorla would retire from the army as a colonel in 1990. He went to work in corporate security for Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Center. In 1993, he was the last man out of those buildings when terrorists tried to blow them up, making sure everyone made it to safety before him. He knew those buildings well, and produced a paper that all but predicted how the next attack would take place, even the use of planes laden with the maximum amount of jet fuel. No one listened.
Last Sept. 11, they should have listened. Rescorla, at 62 and carrying more girth than he bore in 1965, quickly took charge of the evacuation of Morgan Stanley employees. He encouraged them to stay calm and sang “God Bless America” to them over a bullhorn (if you saw the movie We Were Soldiers, a soldier discovers a French bugle at LZ X-Ray—Rescorla actually found it days later at LZ Albany, and he used it similarly during his Vietnam tour). On Sept. 11, 2001, Morgan Stanley had nearly 4,000 employees in the World Trade Center. Rescorla had to get them out. He simply refused to leave the buildings until all were safe. Someone saw him on the 10th floor. When it ended, only 15 Morgan Stanley employees were missing.
Rick Rescorla was one of them.
I’m one who marvels at fate and coincidence when I see someone I know on a street corner while on vacation in a big city. Then I just move on and wait for the next one. Counter, Ben would likely immerse himself in the Great Works if he found himself riding for the fifth time with the same cabbie in Mazatlan. It’s beyond my comprehension to understand why fate--or Zeus--would transport one of the bravest men from the Ia Drang, the embryonic battle that shaped the Vietnam War, to WTC2 where he would become one of the bravest men during the neo-embryonic events that shape America now.
I guess Rescorla was made to save lives. Hero is a word that heroes don’t even like to use. “The heroes are all dead,” they say. Well, Rick Rescorla is dead now. A dead hero. He saved lives, he’s a hero, his story fodder for the minds of existentialists. There’s not a lot that I, or this paper, can add to what is about to become a major media event: the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. I hope it doesn’t become a maudlin travesty. For my part I will simply remember, and I choose to remember men like Rick Rescorla.