Thursday, January 20, 2005

"I've Never Been Happier"

The Mudville Gazette has a special on Rick Rescorla, the man who fought in, among other things, the battle made into the movie We Were Soldiers Once, And Young. But being in a particular place at certain time was nothing so special as being a particular kind of man in every place and time.

The survivors of the 7th Cavalry still tell awestruck stories about Rescorla. Like the time he stumbled into a hooch full of enemy soldiers on a reconnaissance patrol in Bon Song. "Oh, pardon me," he said, before firing a few rounds and racing away. "Oh, comma, pardon me," repeats Dennis Deal, who followed Rescorla that day in April 1966. "Like he had walked into a ladies' tea party!"  ...

After fighting in Vietnam, he returned to the United States and used his military benefits to study creative writing at the University of Oklahoma. Literary minded, even before college he had read all fifty-one volumes of the Harvard Classics and could recite Shakespeare and quote Churchill. He had started writing a novel about a mobile-air-cavalry unit, and had several stories published in Western-themed magazines. He eventually earned a bachelor's, a master's in literature, and a law degree.

Later he took jobs in corporate security and become vice-president for security at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter -- the largest tenant in the World Trade Center. And he was Rick Rescorla on September 11, 2001 too. After the plane hit, he made the decision to evacuate everyone he could from the tower despite a request from the Port Authority to hold in place, but Rescorla knew better.

"What'd you say?" Hill (a colleague he had called by phone to help him on that day) asked.

"I said, 'Piss off, you son of a bitch,' " Rescorla replied. "Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it's going to take the whole building with it. I'm getting my people the fuck out of here." Then he said, "I got to go. Get your shit in one basket and get ready to come up."

When the second plane slammed into the South Tower, Rescorla knew he had been right. It had been no accident.  Rescorla made one final call to his wife and spoke words which to many will seem curious yet from a certain point of view were perfectly natural.

"Stop crying," he told her. "I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I've never been happier. You made my life."

There was a time when stories like this were special; they are special still but not quite so unique. Too many men all over the world -- in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the Horn of Africa or in Southeast Asia -- have said words to keep them company.

Hill reached Susan (Rescorla's wife), who had just got off the phone with Sullivan. "Take it easy," he said, as she continued to sob. "He's been through tight spots before, a million times." Suddenly Susan screamed. Hill turned to look at his own television and saw the south tower collapse. He thought of the words Rescorla had so often used to comfort dying soldiers. "Susan, he'll be O.K.," he said gently. "Take deep breaths. Take it easy. If anyone will survive, Rick will survive." When Hill hung up, he turned to his wife. Her face was ashen. "Shit," he said. "Rescorla is dead."

But he was wrong. Only we the living can still betray; Rick will survive as Rescorla until the end of time; undiminished and forever who he was.