One of my favorite essayists has published a novel: Roger Rosenblatt, a longtime contributor of essays to Time magazine and an equally-longtime essayist for the Macneill-Lehrer Newshour on PBS when those two gentlemen were still running it, has written Thomas Murphy, a fictional study of a ruminating Irish poet. I look forward to reading it.
It is as an essayist, however, that I will always remember Rosenblatt. After writing my Master’s thesis on Paradise Lost and becoming an Instructor in the English department at Texas Tech (before I went to Illinois), I ran across an obituary essay Rosenblatt wrote on Professor Douglas Bush at Harvard, the man who taught the man who taught me, Arnold Stein, at Illinois. I remember being deeply envious of Rosenblatt (“Christ, he knew Douglas Bush!”) but, deeper still, I felt a kinship with him, and was grateful that he shared the knowledge he gained from actually knowing a man I knew only through his work and his influence on my honored teacher. I saved that memorial essay on Professor Bush, and I may post it here some day soon.
For most readers, however, Rosenblatt was at his best handling the topical, general essay. One of his best wound up on both the Newshour and in Time, an essay called “The Man In The Water,” Rosenblatt’s reflections on a plane crash into the Potomac River in January of 1982, and on the heroic actions of an anonymous passenger who saved lives that day. From that time to this, I’ve always remembered “The Man In The Water”; I alluded to it as recently as last December, in the post called “The Epistle of Jude.” It’s a short piece, but Rosenblatt builds it masterfully, and the penultimate clause of the penultimate sentence, “he fought it with charity,” with its clear Pauline echo of human love at work, is great enough to break my heart every time I read it:
“As disasters go, this one was terrible, but not unique, certainly not among the worst on the roster of U.S. air crashes. There was the unusual element of the bridge, of course, and the fact that the plane clipped it at a moment of high traffic, one routine thus intersecting another and disrupting both. Then, too, there was the location of the event. Washington, the city of form and regulations, turned chaotic, deregulated, by a blast of real winter and a single slap of metal on metal. The jets from Washington National Airport that normally swoop around the presidential monuments like famished gulls are, for the moment, emblemized by the one that fell; so there is that detail. And there was the aesthetic clash as well—blue-and-green Air Florida, the name a flying garden, sunk down among gray chunks in a black river. All that was worth noticing, to be sure. Still, there was nothing very special in any of it, except death, which, while always special, does not necessarily bring millions to tears or to attention. Why, then, the shock here?
Perhaps because the nation saw in this disaster something more than a mechanical failure. Perhaps because people saw in it no failure at all, but rather something successful about their makeup. Here, after all, were two forms of nature in collision: the elements and human character. Last Wednesday, the elements, indifferent as ever, brought down Flight 90. And on that same afternoon, human nature—groping and flailing in mysteries of its own—rose to the occasion.
Of the four acknowledged heroes of the event, three are able to account for their behavior. Donald Usher and Eugene Windsor, a park police helicopter team, risked their lives every time they dipped the skids into the water to pick up survivors. On television, side by side in bright blue jumpsuits, they described their courage as all in the line of duty. Lenny Skutnik, a 28year-old employee of the Congressional Budget Office, said: “It’s something I never thought I would do”— referring to his jumping into the water to drag an injured woman to shore. Skutnik added that “somebody had to go in the water,” delivering every hero’s line nobody is no less admirable for its repetitions. In fact, nobody had to of into the water. That somebody actually did so is part of the reason this particular tragedy sticks in the mind.
But the person most responsible for the emotional impact of the disaster is the one known at first simply as “the man in the water.” (Balding, probably in his 50s, an extravagant mustache.) He was seen clinging with five other survivors to the tail section of the airplane. This man was described by Usher and Windsor as appearing alert and in control. Every time they lowered a lifeline and flotation ring to him, he passed it on to another of the passengers. In a mass casualty, you’ll find people like him,” said Windsor. “But I’ve never seen one with that commitment.” When the helicopter came back for him, the man had gone under. His selflessness was one reason the story held national attention; his anonymity another. The fact that he went unidentified invested him with a universal character. For a while he was Everyman, and with a universal character. For a while he was Everyman, and thus proof (as if one needed it) that no man is ordinary.
Still, he could never have imagined such a capacity in himself. Only minutes before his character was tested, he was sitting in the ordinary plane among the ordinary passengers, dutifully listening to the stewardess telling him to fasten his seat belt and saying something about the “no smoking sign.” So our man relaxed with the others, some of whom would owe their lives to him. Perhaps he started to read, or to doze, or to regret some harsh remark made in the office that morning. Then suddenly he knew that the trip would not be ordinary. Like every other person on that flight, he was desperate to live, which makes his final act so stunning.
For at some moment in the water he must have realized that he would not live if he continued to hand over the rope and ring to others. He had to know it, no matter how gradual the effect of the cold. In his judgment he had no choice. When the helicopter took off with what was to be the last survivor, he watched everything in the world move away from him, and he deliberately let it happen.
Yet there was something else about the man that kept our thoughts on him, and which keeps our thoughts on him still. He was there, in the essential, classic circumstance. Man in nature. The man in the water. For its part, nature cared nothing about the five passengers. Our man, on the other hand, cared totally. So the timeless battle commenced in the Potomac. For as long as that man could last, they went at each other, nature and man; the one making no distinctions of good and evil, acting on no principles, offering no lifelines; the other acting wholly on distinctions, principles and, one supposes, on faith.
Since it was he who lost the fight, we ought to come again to the conclusion that people are powerless in the world. In reality, we believe the reverse, and it takes the act of the man in the water to remind us of our true feelings in this matter. It is not to say that everyone would have acted as he did, or as Usher, Windsor and Skutnik. Yet whatever moved these men to challenge death on behalf of their fellows is not peculiar to them. Everyone feels the possibility in himself. That is the abiding wonder of the story. That is why we would not let go of it. If the man in the water gave a lifeline to the people gasping for survival, he was likewise giving a lifeline to those who observed him.
The odd thing is that we do not even really believe that the man in the water lost his fight. “Everything in Nature contains all the powers of Nature,” said Emerson. Exactly. So the man in the water had his own natural powers. He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger, and that is a power of nature too. The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can do.”
[Who was “the Man In The Water?” He was later identified as Mr. Arland D. Williams, Jr., 46, born in Matoon, Illinois, just outside of Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois, where I was to go two years after reading Rosenblatt’s essay.]