Saturday, June 09, 2007

The banality of heroism.

I've counted myself lucky that, at the age of 61, I could only recall three instances in which I was, or believed myself to be, in immediate danger of death. The first occurred when I was seven, living in rural England. I was taking a walk one summer day and spotted Bonnie, our neighbors' draft mare, grazing in pasture. Full of boyish spirit, I decided to have sport with her. I ran a couple of figure eights around her legs, crisscrossing under her belly. Her response came on my second or third iteration: I can still clearly picture in my mind the leg lifting a few inches and the precisely calibrated flick of the hoof, enough to knock me away and cause a small abrasion to my shin, but no more. It's what I think of now whenever I hear the expression "surgical strike." I've since had great respect and admiration for horses, though I've never owned one or learned to ride.

The second was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. I was sixteen, a junior in high school in Tampa, within easy range of the missiles in Cuba. We lived about a mile from MacDill Air Force Base, an obvious target. One night, my parents and I were in the living room, watching TV news, when a siren began to blare nearby. I looked at my father, a retired U.S. Air Force officer, and said, "Do you think this is it?" He looked back at me, and I felt a chill when I saw on his face an expression I had never seen before, one of hopeless resignation, as he said, "Yes, I think maybe it is."

The third was when I was 24, driving on an interstate highway near Binghamton, New York in a torrential rainstorm, when I saw a sign for the exit I wanted and jerked the wheel. The car went into a spin; I could see other cars close behind, but, fortunately, none hit me. Almost before I knew what had happened, I found the car stopped, pointed directly onto the exit ramp I needed to take.

Now, thanks to this article, I know of one other instance, of which I was unaware at the time, in which I dodged the bullet (as did millions of others). While it is not certain that, had Lieutenant Colonel Petrov reported the radar sighting up the chain of command, this would have resulted in a thermonuclear strike against the U.S., the probability seems high given the reported paranoid mindset of the Soviet leadership at the time (see here).

What I find interesting about this story, besides its obvious relevance to my present day existence, is the fact that the person at the lowest point in the relevant chain of command, the one I would think most likely to want to prove his worth to his superiors by quickly reporting any suspicious sighting, instead exercised restraint. As a military veteran, I can't but wonder how I, having been trained to react quickly and aggressively to any perceived threat, would have acted had I been in Petrov's place.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Origins of a couple of well-worn phrases.

1. Keep it under your hat. I'm now reading Agincourt - Henry V and the Battle That Made England, by Juliet Barker (Little & Brown, 2005). At page 88, she describes the makings of the English long bow:

The best bow-staves were cut from a single piece of straight-grained yew, imported from Spain, Italy or Scandinavia, and shaved into shape. Unstrung, the bow would be some six feet long and tapered, with the softer, more flexible sap-wood on the outside and a thicker layer of heart-wood on the inside, a combination that gave the bow its natural elasticity. ... A regular maintenance regime of waxing and polishing ensured that the bow did not dry out or crack under the pressure of being strung or fired. Bow-strings, made of hemp or gut, were also waxed or oiled to keep them weather-proof, though this was not always successful. ... The English, perhaps because they were more accustomed to rain, had learned to deal with such possibilities. According to the French chronicler Jean de Vennette, they "protected their bows by putting the strings on their heads under their helmets," a habit that is said to have given rise to the expression "keep it under your hat."

2. Got the shaft. Nothing to do with bows or arrows. Paul Hoffman, late Lion's Head regular, wrote a book back in the early 1970's titled Lions in the Street - the Inside Stories of the Great Wall Street Law Firms. In his chapter on Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, he recounted the time when the firm had its offices in the old Equitable Building at 120 Broadway, which was built before air conditioning and consequently was designed in an "H" shape, with two large air shafts facing to the east and west. Anyway, the story went, when a lawyer fresh from law school started with the firm, he (as it almost always was in those days) was put in a "bullpen", a large room where he and other young associates had individual desks but otherwise shared space. After a few years, a winnowing would happen. The associates would be given individual offices. But, herein hangs a tale. Those who had been judged worthy of eventual partnership would be given offices with windows facing a street, while those destined to be asked to find other employment were given offices facing an airshaft. So, after these annual separations of the wheat from the chaff took place, word would rush throught the bullpen: "Did you hear about Joe? He got the shaft!"