The passing of President Reagan brought me back to Jan. 26, 1982. That was the date the "Great Communicator" first inspired me. I was 11 years old.
In his State of the Union address that evening, Reagan spoke of recessions, regulations, entitlements, Soviets and sanctions. My parents nodded vigorously in agreement. I almost nodded off. Toward the end of the televised speech, however, Reagan lifted America's spirits -- and piqued a child's interest -- by talking about something elementary: American heroes.
With his twinkling eyes and unabashed patriotism, Reagan reminded me of my late maternal grandfather. Lolo 'Zario had fought alongside American troops against the Japanese and survived the Bataan Death March during World War II. He had a hearty laugh, but was deadly serious when he held forth on freedom and sacrifice. My grandfather commanded my attention and respect when he spoke of these things. So did the president.
"We don't have to turn to our history books for heroes," Reagan said that night. "They're all around us."
The president looked into the audience and singled out Jeremiah Denton, an American pilot shot down by North Vietnamese troops and imprisoned for eight brutal years. He was beaten, starved and thrown into solitary confinement. In 1966, during a televised propaganda interview with a pro-Commie journalist arranged by his captors, Denton was pressured to condemn American wartime "atrocities."
Instead, Denton stood by his country: "(W)hatever the position of my government is, I believe in it, I support it, and I will support it as long as I live." Denton pretended the camera lighting bothered his eyes. With his clueless jailers surrounding him, Denton looked into the lens, blinked his eyes in Morse Code, and covertly broadcast the truth to the world -- Jane Fonda be damned -- by spelling out "T-O-R-T-U-R-E."
In his speech, Reagan recounted Denton's words upon landing in the Philippines after being freed: "The plane door opened and Jeremiah Denton came slowly down the ramp. He caught sight of our flag, saluted it, said, 'God bless America,' and then thanked us for bringing him home."
Reagan next pointed out Lenny Skutnik, a man whose name and story remain etched in my mind after all these years. "Just two weeks ago," Reagan recounted, "in the midst of a terrible tragedy on the Potomac, we saw again the spirit of American heroism at its finest -- the heroism of dedicated rescue workers saving crash victims from icy waters. We saw the heroism of one of our young government employees, Lenny Skutnik, who, when he saw a woman lose her grip on the helicopter line, dived into the water and dragged her to safety."