Made out of Mettle?


Filed Under General on Jun 8 

Made out of Mettle?

© 2017, Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.

I don’t know if it’s a male-female thing or not. Probably somewhat—I’d venture an off-the-cuff guess and say that nearly every guy thinks about this from time to time, but probably far fewer women give this any thought at all. Some do, no question, but less than half, I’d say.

Now that my totally subjective, unfounded impressions are out of the way, let’s get down to the subject at hand. The thought that has continually crossed my mind from my late teens right through today is this: How would I fare in a life-or-death combat situation? Combat, where my own life depended on my own actions. Combat, where I could choose to put myself in danger in service to a greater good or play it safe, save myself, but come up short with regard to a good situational outcome.

Note that I’m not talking about a deadly situation that involves protecting loved ones or a circumstance where self-preservation or self-defense is at play. In those cases, the survival-protective instinct takes over and most people will automatically do what they need to do to ensure the continued existence of their family or themselves.

The combat-type situation I’m talking about is very different. This situation requires action on your part that puts you in potential life-threatening danger in order to complete a task for the benefit of others. Military combat, fire fighting, police work—these are the situations I’m referring to. These are the life tests that many people think about but may never know the answer to for sure. On some deep level, it matters, but for some, it’s easier to simply repress the question since the likelihood of a situational test presenting itself is almost nonexistent and if the person has even the slightest reason to doubt themselves, they’ll simply choose not to think about it.

I had the opportunity recently to meet Chris “Tanto” Paranto, a U.S Ranger and Blackwater Security operative who defended the American Embassy in Libya on September 11, 2012 against a horde of attacking terrorists. The attack resulted in the deaths of American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, but the unbelievably courageous, heroic actions of Paranto, along with the few other American defenders, kept the attackers at bay long enough for twenty other Americans to escape to safety.

This is not a political article. The circumstances that led to the terrorists’ attack, whether or not any American military assistance could have arrived in time, whether any after-action reports were politically-motivated or not, none of that is germane to this discussion. Enough has already been said on those topics.

However, as Paranto spoke to us, I was struck by his commitment to the task at hand, the responsibility he felt to aid others in a larger cause beyond just himself as an individual and the humorous, ironic joy he and his compatriots experienced in their overwhelmingly dire situation. “You never think about dying,” he told us that night. “If you think about dying—about how you can avoid dying—you’re going to die. We simply did what we had to do, what the circumstances demanded of us. When we had time to think about things—which wasn’t often—we simply cracked each other up with off-the-wall jokes.”

He continued, “We had a military scanner to monitor the U.S. communications taking place. Problem was, our scanner was about a minute or two delayed from real time, so it was useless. The scanner would say, ‘100’s of hostiles approaching from a mile away,’ when we were already killing the b*st*rds as they tried to scale the walls. Then the scanner would say, ‘Spectre [C-130 gunship] is on the way,’ but it never showed up. Then the scanner would say, ‘F-16’s incoming from Aviano’ [the U.S. Air Force base in southern Italy, the closest airbase to Libya], but they never came. Pretty soon we were joking, ‘Hey, Christmas is coming,’ because that’s what you do, that’s how you react in these situations. You never think about dying or how to stay alive; you just think about what you have to do and you stay loose.”

Could I do that? Could I pass that test and simply do what had to be done without regard for myself? I’ve never served in the military or been a firefighter or a policeman. My dad was on the front lines in combat in World War II, as a member of the 338th Field Artillery Battalion in Italy. He was literally on the very front lines of combat, serving as a forward observer, watching as his company’s cannon shells fell on German positions and relaying radio instructions back to the gun battery, so they could adjust their fire for the best results. The Germans hated the American forward observers, obviously, because they were the ones zero’ing in the destructive artillery fire down on their heads.

One day, the Germans spotted the house on the hill where my Dad and his squadmates were, and they trained their 88mm artillery on that house and leveled it with explosive fire. There were lots of American casualties and that event was where my Dad earned his Purple Heart for being wounded in action. He didn’t speak about his actual combat experiences very much at all and I never pressed him on it. But the soldiers did their jobs, without hesitation, day in and day out, without any fanfare or expectation of attention or adulation. My dad did, however, have a never-ending stream of amusing wartime stories to tell me, about finding food in the countryside as they traveled northward up Italy during the Po campaign, about going off on wild Jeep joyrides in their off hours, about grabbing small souvenirs along the way and then being told, “Hey, you can’t take that,” and many other tales of friendships and shenanigans. Perfectly in keeping with Paranto’s telling of crazy jokes to keep them balanced and focused.

There is nothing in my life experience that compares to this. The “question” for me is frustratingly unanswered. Yet I do have one instance to draw upon, however peripheral and superficial it might be.

It is this:

Way back in 1980, I went to work for Panasonic, the big Japanese electronics company. It was an outside sales position and Panasonic provided company cars to their on-the-road sales force. I was only 26 at the time and having a major-league sales position with a major-league company like Panasonic was a really, really big deal to me at that time. The company car was icing on the cake—I used to think that only big-time salespeople who’d been with their company for 20 or 30 years and were really high achievers got a company car. Our neighbor when I was growing up, Sherm Cohen, was a long-time salesman for one of the big paint companies (I think it was Sherwin-Williams). He was the prototypical 1960’s salesperson—gregarious, aggressive, humorous, larger-than-life. Every year, a brand-new Pontiac Gran Prix graced his driveway at 26 Lawler Road. I was always in awe.

My Panasonic car was a brand-new Chevrolet Monte Carlo, a 2-door coupe with air, a big V-6 and fancy wheels. Quite a car. I never could’ve afforded this kind of car on my own at that point in my life. I felt almost uncomfortable driving around in it, as if people were thinking to themselves, “What is that young kid doing with a car like that?” when I got out of the car in a shopping center parking lot after stopping for lunch.

I’d been with Panasonic for maybe a month or two when I went to visit my sister. My sister was three years older than me, and had always been, shall we say, “spirited.” She’d led an incredibly tumultuous life, with substance issues, relationship issues, kids at a very young age, all kinds of things. You can fill in the blanks in your mind and you wouldn’t be far off. If at all.

Anyway, she and her husband at that time had just lost their apartment, for the usual reasons. They were barely earning enough to maintain a household, much less one that included three kids, ages four, six and eight. Out of money and options, they were on public assistance and newly living in the so-called “projects,” in a small ground floor 4-room apartment in a two-story building. I went to visit, quite mindful that this was the bad side of town, so to speak, but this was my sister and I wanted to be there.

I pulled up in front of the building and parked on the opposite side of the street, the only side parking was allowed. It’s dusk-ish and the sun will set in about an hour. The street is buzzing with people from the neighborhood, playing ball, laughing, talking, hanging out. My shiny new Monte is as out of place in this setting as a tuxedo is in the Fenway bleachers. As I walk up to my sister’s front door, I feel the piercing stare of 40 eyes on my back. It’s a relief to be inside.

We visit. The kids are happy to see Uncle Steve. The youngest two are delightfully unaware of their circumstances; the oldest, close to nine, knows what’s happening and is very quiet. My sister, her husband and I exchange stories: they tell me of their overly-optimistic, somewhat unrealistic plans to make things better for themselves; I tell them pleasant generalities about my new job and some of the amusing people I work with, including my Mafioso/Godfather-like sales manager at Panasonic. It’s a nice enough visit.

I’m there for easily two hours, maybe more. All the time I’m there, I’m keenly aware of where I am and I’m listening intently out of the corner of my ear to see if anything untoward is happening outside. All the while, it looks like my full attention is focused on the conversation with my sister and her kids, but I’m always surveilling the situation, on the lookout. For what, I don’t know. Just on the lookout.

It’s probably a little after 10:00 p.m.. It’s totally dark outside. I’m thinking I should be going. I hear the sound of kids’ voices, not little kids, older kids, around 10-14. They’re laughing. It’s a malevolent laugh, an up-to-no-good laugh. I’m thinking to myself, “Kids that young should not be out on the street alone at that time of night.” It’s a weeknight—a “school night.”

The laughing seems to be coming from right in front of my sister’s apartment, right where my car is parked. I hear the sound of breaking glass, like a bottle dropping onto the pavement, followed by high-pitched, frenzied laughter and what sounds like the commotion of kids running away in all directions when they’re fearful of being caught committing vandalism.

I jump to my feet when I hear the breaking glass and bolt to the apartment’s front window. There, I see a broken, flaming wine bottle—a crude Molotov cocktail—rolling toward my car. In about two or three seconds, the flaming bottle will be right underneath my car—my brand-new Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the one I’ve had for all of two months at my new job.

It’s funny how fast—lightening fast—your mind works in extreme crisis situations. Thought after thought, scenario after scenario, outcome after outcome are all ricocheting through my consciousness:

  • “The bottle will just roll to the curb on the other side of the car. Nothing will happen”
  • “The road is pretty flat. It’ll come to rest right under the car.”
  • “If it stops under the car, how long will it take for the fire from the bottle to ignite the grease and oil on the underside of the car’s chassis?”
  • “If the car catches fire, the fire spreads to the gas tank and the car blows up, will I get fired?”
  • “If I run across the street now, can I unlock the door with the key (that’s the way it was done in 1980), get in, put the key in the ignition without fumbling from nervousness, get it into Drive and pull safely down the street, away from the flaming bottle?”
  • “What if the car catches fire while I’m in it? Will it blow up? Will I die? Is this worth it? Shouldn’t I just let whatever’s going to happen happen?”

I didn’t hesitate. As I looked out of the front window of my sister’s apartment and all these thoughts raced through my mind, I decided I had enough time, it was worth the risk, and my chances of success were high enough to satisfy my instantaneous risk-reward analysis.

So I ran across the street, key in hand. Incredibly nervous but steady-handed enough, I inserted the key correct-side up into the door and unlocked it. I sat down very quickly behind the wheel and put the key into the ignition, wondering if I was about to be blown up or engulfed by flames (“Please let me die rather than be horribly disfigured by fire but still alive.”). The car started unhesitatingly and I pulled the column-mounted shift lever down to D without an uncontrolled adrenaline-induced overshoot to D2 or L. In a second or two, I was two houses down the street and the flaming bottle was safely in my rearview mirror, burning itself out.

From the time I heard the bottle break while talking to my sister until I was safely away from the bottle’s flame was probably 8-10 seconds, maybe less.

It seemed like a lifetime. Perhaps it was.