Some people are born to fame. Some people grow into it. Nowadays, when it's possible to make anyone in America a celebrity for 15 minutes, some people are famous just for being famous.
Nothing ever prepared Lenny Skutnik to be famous, not even his name. Lenny Skutnik is a name like Stanley Kowalski, blissfully ordinary. Lenny Skutnik, 28, has a nervous smile and sad, deep eyes and a blocky body and a job running copy machines in the Congressional Budget Office. But poets find their poems, and heroes find their moments. For a single moment last Jan. 13, a man lived instantly in history. He transfixed us all. On a day when nature alone seemed in control, and a plane was sinking in the Potomac, Lenny Skutnik threw his coat to the ground and dove into the river and flailed desperately toward a woman whose eyes had rolled back in her head.
This past weekend that same man came, with some ambivalence, to Louisiana to participate in something called the American Academy of Achievement. The program notes billed him as "a new and instantaneous American hero." Gene Autry was in the hospital, and Alex Haley had to go to Germany at the last minute, and John Sirica doesn't much like to travel any more. "You always lose a few," explained one of the organizers.
At the banquet on Saturday night, tuxedoed and beribboned like all the rest, Lenny Skutnik sat wedged between Brooke Shields and the conquering basketball coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. Down the dias were Dr. Edward Teller and the founder of Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Brig. Gen. James Dozier and Tom Landry and a 21-year-old hockey phenom and somebody from Utah who sold his company for $100 million and somebody else who invented, or at least developed, the human-powered airplane.
In a way Lenny Skutnik was having none of it. "I know when all this is over I'm just going to be Lenny Skutnik again," he said. "It's about over now. Heroes don't think of themselves as heroes. That's just a word other people want to call them. I have never felt like a hero. When I was in school, I was scared to get up and read a paper. I would put the paper in front of my face and tremble."
In the 5 1/2 months since the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, Lenny Skutnik has tried to remain Lenny Skutnik. He has neither left his wife nor announced he is being handled by International Creative Management. In those first mad days, the president called him up. A joint session of Congress stood and applauded him. One afternoon, he and his wife Linda sat and counted: The phone rang every 10 seconds. There has been the laying on of new watches, and trips in the private jets of governors and stints on "That's Incredible." (Hasn't aired yet.) This spring he went out to Chicago to throw out the first ball for the White Sox, but a blizzard canceled the game.
One day an Arlington developer called up to offer free rent. "He gave us a chance for a new car or rent for two years. We took the rent because we couldn't afford the car insurance and anyway we already had a car."
Lenny Skutnik is sitting in a room on the 19th floor of a New Orleans hotel. Down below, the Mississippi River glowers darkly to the Gulf. He clears his throat, tamps another Marlboro on a table top. He is trying to get this right. He is talking about a suitcase in the closet of a townhouse in Lorton, Va. There are 2,000 letters in that suitcase, carefully stowed.
"These letters are private. There are deep emotions in them. People wrote and told me they were jumping up and down in their living rooms in front of the television that day, crying, screaming, watching that girl drown, saying, 'Do something, do something.' So I was really acting for them, don't you see? That's what it boils down to. Some of these people told me they were terrified of expressing true feelings about anything. And what that day did was bring those true feelings right out of them. They cared for that girl as much as I did."
So an anonymous federal employe, a car-pooler on I-395, with two kids and a high-school education and an annual wage of $14,000, leaps out of instinct and frustration and caring into the Potomac River because someone in front of him is dying. Then or now, he doesn't know any more than this why he did it: He was there. He was healthy. Someone was crying out.
And that night a secretary from ABC's "Nightline" show arrives in Lorton in a limousine (Lenny is still not home) to tell Linda Skutnik that 10 million people, absolute minimum, are waiting to see her husband interviewed live by Ted Koppel, and that if Lenny doesn't do the show, she'll lose her job. (The next day Koppel issues denials; the secretary had only been joking in that part about the job.)
"And you think they're bad, ha," Lenny Skutnik laughs savagely. "Channel 9, I call those folks the furniture movers. They come in, they move this here, they say, 'Move that there.' They go right for the telephone. A network correspondent I won't name brought over Priscilla's father-in-law and stuck him in front of me on the sofa. That poor man's tear ducts were out to here. They were just waiting for him to break down in my house in front of the cameras. I wanted to take that correspondent in the back room and beat the hell out of him. That's one thing this whole experience has done for me. I can speak up now."
Priscilla is Priscilla Tirado, the woman with the stricken eyes in a nation's TV consciousness. She couldn't grab the lifeline; she got a human one instead. Now, six months later, Priscilla Tirado is down in Florida with her family, still recuperating. On Jan. 13, Flight 90 was bringing her and her new Spanish husband of two months to America to start a life together.
"I called her up just yesterday. It was basically, 'How are you doing, how are you coping?' She sounded . . . far away. She's still kind of lost. It's still emotionally hurting her. I don't call her a lot. I don't want her to feel she owes me anything, because she doesn't. That would be just one more thing for her to get over."
Lenny Skutnik was going to pass up the 21st annual convening of the American Academy of Achievement. For one thing, he had never even heard of AAA, as it is known by some people. A lot of people have never heard of it, which is one of its problems. In the past weeks and months, Skutnik has turned down offers to see Hawaii and Canada and Puerto Rico.
But then he figured he had never been to New Orleans. And he wanted to meet Gen. Dozier, worldwide celebrity/hero (currently) who was held hostage for 42 days by Italy's Red Brigade terrorists. Also, he was curious about Brooke Shields, who he supposed got chosen for reasons other than his own. Then, too, his mother and stepfather live in southern Mississippi and would be able to come over for the weekend to see him.
The American Academy of Achievement is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization that holds a "gathering of the greats" once a year in a different city. Honorees seem to get chosen for a variety of reasons: who's "hot," who's rich, who's beautiful. It's the watery line where destiny and timing converge to create fame, or at least the illusion of it. The aims of the Academy are to "inspire youth with new dreams of achievement in a world of boundless opportunity. To salute all men who give their best efforts to their daily tasks. To rekindle the ideals and principles that made America grow and prosper."
Said Wayne Reynolds, managing director of AAA: "Maybe Lenny Skutnik is not the chairman of ATT, maybe he's not a famous hockey player, he's just a little guy doing the best he can."
Said Madelyn Franklyn, Lenny Skutnik's mother: "I think God used him to show we could care."
Said Lonny Franklyn III, Lenny Skutnik's kid stepbrother: "Kids at school ask me, 'Why don't he take all that money?' 'Why don't he take all them trips?' "
Over in a photo gallery in the French Quarter, an old Louisiana black man sweeping the floor says, more to himself than to somebody who has ventured in: "The way I see it, living is an adventure. Surviving is an art."