Rudy Boesch, 72-year-old retired Navy SEAL and the nation's most famous grumpy old man, may have lost the $1 million prize on CBS's adventure show, "Survivor." But he won millions of hearts. At a town hall meeting hosted by Bryant Gumbel this week, Boesch showed why Rudymania is all the rage.
Explaining why he cast his final vote for "Survivor" champion Richard Hatch, a gay man whose lifestyle Boesch objects to, but with whom he had allied, Boesch said plainly: "My word is my word, and my word is good."
The Internet is clogged with web sites and message boards devoted to Boesch's biography and blunt quips (dubbed "Rudyisms") on everything from corporal punishment to out-of-wedlock birth. The reasons for Rudymania are simple:
America is sick of draft dodgers and word benders and promise breakers.
We're sick of character chameleons.
We're sick of political leaders whose lips quiver on cue.
We're sick of know-it-alls who filibuster when they should just admit, as Boesch often did, "I dunno."
We're sick of men who use hairspray. And men with manicured hands. And men who don't know how to salute.
If my generation learns anything from Rudy Boesch, it is that we owe men like him -- veterans who risked their lives for their pampered grandkids -- a lot more than a paycheck and 15 minutes of fame. We owe them praise. We owe them respect. We owe them eternal gratitude.
The producers of "Survivor" presented Mr. Boesch as an irritable slacker who rose from his hammock only when it was time to cook rice for his young fellow castaways. Anyone who knows the Navy SEALs (Sea-Air-Land) knows that the depiction was a gross distortion. Mr. Boesch -- Master Chief Petty Officer Boesch to his colleagues in the military -- dedicated 45 years of his life to actively serving others.
The SEALs, who trace their heritage all the way back to the Minutemen, are the ultimate survivors. And Rudy is the ultimate SEAL. He dropped out of high school to join the military, and in the early 1960s was hand-picked to become a charter member of the SEALs in Vietnam. The Atlantic Fleet team was renowned for its unconventional warfare tactics by air and by water.
Boesch battled communist Viet Cong guerrillas on 45 missions during two combat deployments. He earned two Bronze Stars, 22 service ribbons and 11 gold stripes for his valor and leadership. And he wasn't done yet.
In the late 1980s, the military named Boesch a Naval Special Warfare Community "Bull Frog," awarded to the SEAL serving the longest time on active duty. He was honorably discharged in 1990, and then quickly went to work volunteering for the Red Cross, the Virginia Beach Police Department, and the 1996 Summer Olympics. Never one to do things the easy way, Boesch traveled to the SEAL museum in Fort Pierce, Fla., recently for an annual Veterans Day event by taking a raft down the Intracoastal Waterway from his home in Virginia Beach, Va.
In the era of PETA and political correctness and President Clinton, it's refreshing to see a man who makes no apology for eating steak for dinner. Who doesn't let Bryant Gumbel bully him into changing his mind about what he thinks is right and wrong. Who says without blushing that his favorite dessert is apple pie. Who says if he had to choose one person from whom he'd like to receive a letter on a deserted island, it would be his wife. Who says he'd miss the simple things the most, like his living room chair.
One of the island castaways from "Survivor" said, dismissively, that Rudy Boesch is from the "old school." It's a shame he would never change, the castaway observed. The shame is that we take for granted the special, immutable qualities of the retired SEAL next door, the aging Marine down the street, the Army man in the family.
"The only easy day was yesterday," a favorite SEAL slogan goes. Rudy and his comrades in arms possess an unbending honesty and honor, decency and dedication that seem quaint and entertaining. But it is their public service without fanfare that allows today's Whatever Generation to enjoy easy freedom and its endless frivolities.