That US Airways jet made quite a splash in the Hudson River, both literally and figuratively. On the editorial pages of the January 17 New York Times, one letter-writer celebrated the outcome but wondered what it says that the feel-good story of the week was a plane crash.
Oh, but consider the week. It was a full of bad news about the economy, homes and jobs lost, retirement plans fizzling. And that was just the news that didn't involve literal death and destruction. It was a bloody week in the Gaza strip,in a world in which the seeds of war can spread as easily as exotic viruses. It was also the last week of the presidency of George W. Bush. A letter to the editors of the Houston Chronicle on January 19 summarized the faults and crimes of eight years of the Bush administration. Succinct as the letter was, mostly consisting of barbed sentence fragments, it ran to eleven column inches in the newspaper's Letters section.
Last week, we citizens and residents in the United States were trapped aboard a disaster in progress, like the passengers on US Airways Flight 1549.
Flight 1549 crashed but all 155 people aboard survived. Kudos to Captain Sullenberger, who did a remarkable job, in part owing to his proficiency in gliders. He was an Air Force Academy Cadet glider pilot; he is a Certified Flight Instructor in gliders; and a pilot like him knows from training, intelligence and sheer instinct just what do to if an airplane becomes a glider on short notice. But the happy ending owes much to a larger cast of characters. The pilots and flight attendants all did their jobs superbly well. The people who instructed and trained them did their unsung jobs equally well. Likewise the air traffic controllers. Ditto for the ferry captains and crew, who had trained for water rescue all the way down to practicing how to make a ferry keep pace with objects adrift in strong currents. Captain Sullenberger bore in mind that it's a good idea to ditch an airplane in the vicinity of boats who can help. The ferry personnel expedited to the crash site and did what they had trained to do. Enough of the passengers managed to keep their wits about them to get the doors open and the rafts and babies out, ride herd on the panicky or uncooperative people, and fish out the individuals who fell into the icy water. Everybody together made a miracle.
Now comes this week and President Obama. On Inauguration morning, one of the people being interviewed on NPR had a most interesting remark. He said that now feels more like the start of the new millennium than 2000 did. So it does. And how. The millennium began in 2000, but that was the year Bush got elected, more or less. If you peg the new millennium at 2001, well, that was the year his father's Supreme Court and his brother's Florida officials resolved the election issues to hand him the Oval Office. 2003? The misbegotten invasion of Iraq. And on and on. But January of 2009 sees a new President who didn't ride dynastic coattails into the job. His inauguration speech explicitly steered clear of the Bush administration's doings.
President Obama painted the current situation of the USA in grim colors. He may be right. Maybe our crash landing lies immediately ahead. One financial planner I know thinks the worst by far is yet to come, with massive foreclosures encroaching into the prime mortgages. In the end the United States may no longer be the most powerful, king-of-the-world nation. Nor is that the most important thing in the world. What is utterly important is that we all work well and hard on the right things, help each other, make sacrifices, and hang onto hope.
That's what saved the people on Flight 1549, why all of them made it to shore alive. Granted their travel plans and their luggage got ruined. Evidently, everybody felt that being alive was enough of a plus that they could leave the luggage behind.
A lot of people in the United States may end up doing the same thing: losing a lot of stuff. Many heretofore sheltered citizens may soon realize how inhospitable and soul-chilling cold this world can be for those who aren't so lucky. On the other hand, the United States is full of the descendants of people who contended with adversity. Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander evoked their shades in "Praise Song for the Day." "Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here..." Our ancestors, and plenty of our relatives still living, went through immigration from far ends of the world, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, and poverty in various circumstances. Our peoples experienced anti-immigrant prejudice, backlash against women's suffrage, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, violence against the Civil Rights movement, Stonewall. Also the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the San Francisco Earthquake, epidemics of influenza, polio, and AIDS, and many other disasters. In our elders' wisdom and in the marrow of our own bones, we know how to be rich in what matters: courage and curiosity, compassion and honesty, hard work, faith, hope and love.
If we are incredibly lucky, the President will be a good enough pilot to turn the damaged ship of state toward the safest place to crash. And if all the rest of us, his administration, his political opponents, and ordinary Americans, rise to the occasion, we'll all come through OK. So USA Flight 1549 is as hopeful parable as I can imagine for our nation.