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Rebel Hero: A Captain’s Tale

5 Nov
Phillips with wife,Andrea, meeting Pres. Obama (May 2009)

Phillips and wife, Andrea, meet Pres. Obama (May 2009)

Is Captain Richard Phillips an intrepid and courageous American, as proclaimed by President Obama in 2009? Or is he a reckless and irresponsible mariner, as many of his crew allege?  And, can these questions be addressed by looking at his early life?

When I called Mrs. Virginia Phillips at her home in Florida earlier this year, she was tentative, but soon warmed up to talking about her son.  Captain Phillips is back in the spotlight because renowned thespian Tom Hanks produced and starred in the title role of the movie, Captain Phillips.  As you may already know, Phillips captained the MV Maersk Alabama when it was overtaken by pirates on April 8th, 2009 in the Gulf of Aden.  Using cunning and ingenuity, the captain and his crew took back their ship.  Phillips was captured and held on a lifeboat anchored a hundred yards from his mothership.  A stand-off ensued; and when he attempted to escape, the pirates almost fatally shot him.  Through incredible perseverance, he survived until he was rescued by the U.S. Navy on day five of his ordeal.  Richard Phillips became a hero.  President Obama echoed this sentiment, “I share the country’s admiration for the bravery of Captain Phillips and his selfless concern for his crew…His courage is a model for all.”

Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips in "Captain Phillips (2013)

Tom Hanks as Richard Phillips in “Captain Phillips” (2013)

Mrs. Phillips enthusiastically described the movie as “a high adventure,” but it has its share of controversy.  First is the lack of recognition for the Navy commander of the rescue team:  A double minority, Michelle Howard would be a compelling heroine in any story, but was ignored in both Phillips’ memoir and the movie.  The larger dispute has to do with nine crew members’ contention that Phillips exposed them to danger, which he vehemently denies.  According to their lawsuit against his employer, Maersk Line and Waterman Steamship Corp, Phillips deliberately ignored several pirate warnings.  NJ Newsday informs us the suit charges that, as Maersk and Waterman’s agent, Phillips was negligent: They “’had begged Phillips not to go so close,’ ‘He told them he wouldn’t let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast’.”  In a statement to ABC News, crewman Sagba asserts that at only 240 miles out, instead of the recommended 600 miles, “Phillips did not follow orders, the ship was attacked and he was responsible.”  Indeed, Chief Engineer Mike Perry says, “He’s not a hero — he’s a villain.”

Phillips’ mother dismissed these accusations against her son as pure “jealousy and greed.” However, she deferred praise for having raised a hero, saying it was all his father’s influence: “Rich emulated his father.  James was strong, intense and believed in hard work.” Yet in A Captain’s Duty, Richard extols his mom as “the proverbial glue that kept the family together…she kept the family balanced.”  I asked Virginia what life was like in their house on Wilson Street in Winchester, MA.  She painted a picture of a modest household with shared chores and a strict father.  “He was tough on the kids,” she said ruefully, “but that was just the way it was back then.”  Richard himself remembers his father as a person who “didn’t smother you with affection.”  He jokes that living with James was “like growing up with Vince Lombardi in a bad mood.”

Rich Phillips yearbook (1973)

Rich Phillips Winchester High School yearbook (1973)

The Phillipses had eight children, divided equally by gender. Both taught; she, grade school, and he the local high school Rich attended — Business and Math while coaching basketball and football.  Rich, an indifferent student, “[lurked] at the bottom of the class.”  But the family’s codes of hard work and education were etched into the children from early on.  Fights between the boys were resolved by their father, while Rich turned to his mom when he needed help with a problem or a warm hug.  She taught them to love reading; his father taught them to “Do it right, do it once or not do it at all.”  Though his father never coached him, sports were “the biggest thing” to him growing up.  He gave up football to play the saxophone, (his mom proudly confirms he still plays) because he resented the discipline required.  In spite of this, Phillips attributes sports to how he turned out, “I learned about life, about leaders and followers, by playing sports.  Hell, I learned everything by playing sports.”  Fiercely competitive, he and his brothers were always challenging each other. “I wanted to beat them at games just as much as they wanted to beat me.  You competed among your friends, your street competed against the next street, and your school lived or died by who won the game.”

Captain Richard Phillips (April 2010)

Captain Richard Phillips (April 2010)

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Irish neighborhoods in Boston had a reputation for teenage brawling, where boys (especially) were constantly challenged to be rough and tough.  Richard and his brothers were no exception.  Their mom recalls an easy, independent infant, who “did his own thing in his own laidback way;” growing into an adventurous, strong-minded teen.  Accordingly, Richard admits he was something of a rambunctious wise-guy, prone to rebellion.  Most evenings ended with him and his friends in fights or being thrown out of bars for carousing.

Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Buzzards Bay, MA

Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Buzzards Bay, MA

Richard’s boisterous lifestyle resulted in his dropping out of college.  He spent a few months driving a cab until two chance encounters with merchant marines, plus a recommendation from his brother, Michael, propelled him toward the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.  He describes “a year of constant hazing” in an institution where discipline and regimentation were required at all times.  Richard remembers “It’s a true blue military school, where they broke you down before they build you into a merchant marine.”  Of the 350 entrants who started with Phillips, only 180 men graduated.  He succeeded because, “I was tough, I was a hard worker, and I knew how to learn.” Mrs. Phillips concedes that he came into his own at the MMA.  He was ready – for life as an adult, and for life on the high seas.

Family After Rescue (Virginia Phillips at far left) April 2009

Family After Rescue (Virginia Phillips at far left) April 2009

Before she signed off, I asked Mrs. Phillips how she coped during his capture:  She told me all she had were her faith, prayers and her belief that if anyone could emerge from this, it would be Rich.  It was her confidence in her son’s character and training that kept her hopeful.  According to The Guardian, she was “…sure it’s going to be OK. I know my son. He’s a survivor.”  He himself said in his book’s introduction:  “I should have told the pirates:  I’m too stubborn to die that easily. You’re going to have to try harder.”  Satisfied that she’d shared just enough with me, Mrs. Phillips had a smile in her voice as she said goodbye.

Alas, I was left with still more questions than answers.  My conversations with Mrs. Phillips were shorter than my usual interviews, so I have drawn much of my material from Captain Phillip’s memoir; which confirmed Mrs. Phillips anecdotal musings, but also illuminates a more complicated persona. Flouting authority appears to be an innate part of Richard’s personality:  He “was known for being someone who didn’t back down from a fight;” and seems to think “The need to wander [as a mariner] and the need to rebel go hand in hand.”   In the book, Phillips come across as oft time confrontational, always pig-headed, inherently defiant, intensely competitive:  Similarly, crew members separately describe him as arrogantnegligentstubborn and difficult.

MV Maersk Alabama

MV Maersk Alabama (April 2009)

It may be that Phillip’s primary learning environments helped to produce the Captain Phillips these sailors describe:  We know his dad never verbalized his love for him; we know he grew up in a neighborhood that spurs competitiveness; and we know his coming of age involved uncompromising militaristic training.  Could these factors, coupled with an already intense personality, have sharpened his caustic independence to a perversely dangerous point?  Many could argue that such dysfunctional conditions precipitated Phillips’ fateful pirate encounter.

On the other hand, one could also make a strong case that these very same circumstances fostered a hard worker with determination, leadership skills, a strong personality, self-confidence, and fearlessness. These, too, are all qualities for which Richard is known — he is “meticulous and highly competent,” as The New York Times learned.  One does not, after all, become captain of a 17,000-ton cargo ship without having proved one’s mettle. Shashank Bengali of Mcclatchy Newspapers reported at the time, “Phillips wasn’t the easiest man to work for; “He’s in charge, and he wants you to know he’s in charge,” said Ken Quinn, a crew member. His weekly, taskmaster-style drills, however, probably saved them all.”

Personally, it is hard not to see Captain Phillips as a hero. He did survive five harrowing days as a captive.  And it was under his shrewd command that the crew reclaimed the Alabama.  (This is probably the only such successful case in modern history.)  Things could have ended tragically different had Phillips not exercised his take-charge, fight-back attitude.  What do you think?  Is Captain Phillips a hero or a villain?  And how do you think his upbringing figures into this?


11 Sep

Todd Beamer

Todd Beamer is an American Hero.  On September 11th 2001, he, along with other passengers on United Flight 93, was able to deflect a second planned terrorist attack on Washington, DC.  They lost their lives doing so.

Todd is unique in that his last moments were recorded during his conversation with Lisa Jefferson, a random, but now historic, GTE mobile carrier operator who took his call.  Before Todd was an American Hero, he was merely a father, a brother, a husband, a son:  So said his father, David Beamer, when I caught up with him in late August this year.  Thirty-two year old Todd was a wonderful person to all who knew him, but did he show any early signs of heroism?  My call to his father was to find the answers to this, and other questions.  Who was Todd Beamer, what was he like as a child, and under what circumstances and conditions did he grow up?

I was understandably flustered when I placed the call.  That Mr. Beamer had agreed to chat didn’t make it any easier.  Here I was, about to speak to the father of a man who had sacrificed his life to save so many people.  Sensing my nerves (maybe from my babbling), Mr. Beamer immediately took control and made me comfortable,

“Let me talk for a while”, he said.  “You just listen, and if after a while you have questions from your notes, I’ll be glad to address them”.  Relieved, I settled down to hear Todd’s story.

Todd had a normal mid-west childhood and was a “blessed” child in Wheaton, Illinois.  His father was a successful, hardworking executive able to provide private school education for most of Todd’s school career.  His mother was a stay at home mom.  A middle child, bookmarked by two sisters, the young Beamer was an avid sportsman, a great team player and a good student.  According to David Beamer, Todd was a “laid-back guy with a calm demeanor, but he was a competitor”.   He was a leader who didn’t like losing, and he would likely strategize with his team to avoid failure at all cost.  Todd played soccer, basketball and baseball, the latter through college.  David Beamer considers his coaches excellent influences for Todd.

Todd and his dad, David (undated)

Todd grew up with both parents — his dad, and mom, Peggy; married for almost 50 years, they were part of, and still are, a faith-filled family.  Coming from generations of active Christians, Todd was himself a Sunday School teacher at his church in New Jersey.   They like to laugh (and it’s one of the things they still miss) and spend family time together.  His parents encouraged Christian principles and a strong value system.

Mr. Beamer believes it is Todd’s teachers, coaches, mentors, Youth Pastors, and other community role models who reinforced what he was being taught at home,  and contributed to the person Todd turned out to be.  Self-responsibility and consequences were emphasized.

I asked if Todd was different or special as a child.  Mr. Beamer said he showed no undue signs of heroism, with “no S on his chest”, and was a regular, normal kid.  “Todd was not a perfect son, but he was an ideal son”.  I asked for one story which captures who Todd was, and he chuckled as he recounts a great anecdote from Todd’s 5th Grade teacher.  At the start of the semester, as was her custom, she asked all the children in the class to submit their preferred seat-mate by secret ballot – every child in that classroom chose Todd!  He was wildly popular, well-liked and favored.  He lived a Christian and died a hero.  Won’t you want to sit beside Todd Beamer?

In truth, however, after our thirty minute conversation, I gleaned more of who Todd Beamer was, not so much from what David Beamer shared, but from whom I perceive David Beamer IS.  The elder Beamer struck me as a measured, thoughtful, man of integrity.  A displaced farm boy from Sebring, OH, he worked his way up to his current success as a leader in the tech industry and was proud to see Todd doing the same.  He thinks that the community, (teachers, coaches, churches) plays a major role in how children turn out and is grateful Todd had such outstanding influences in his life.  He expressed the hope that this blog encourages teachers and other role models to continue their good work, because they matter in our children’s future.

Panel S-68 of the National September 11 Memorial’s South Pool

He reiterated that he and Peggy consider it a blessing that Todd was on that flight and was able to change the course of history.  They consider it a blessing Lisa Jefferson could speak to their son in his last moments.  It was a blessing, he said, that Todd’s final words were recorded.  It was a blessing Todd knew what was going on – that terrorists had taken over the plane.  It was a blessing Todd could ask for divine mercy at the end, and it’s a blessing that Todd died to save thousands of lives.

blessing???!!!!  In spite of such a heartrending loss, this is his attitude – humble, Christian, and inspiring.  It is clear David Beamer is committed to the old-fashion American Ideals:  Hard work leading to success combined with a deep-seated faith in Christ, counting your blessings, having a strong camp of role models, and doing the best by your country.  By all accounts, and by his actions on 9/11, his only son reflected these same ideals.  Indeed, Mr. Beamer sent me an email this morning, in which he said,

“A major blessing for us on 9/11 was that Todd was Christian on  9/10 … ready to meet God that fateful morning. On this day, the 11th anniversary of the Islamic attack, Todd is having a much better day than I am.”

The Beamers’ formula for bringing up excellence was faith-based, and on September 11, 2001, as Lisa Jefferson recalls in her book, Todd declared he had no choice but to “go out on faith”. Todd Beamer manifested the faith formula to the very end and thus, with his last words, “Let’s Roll!” became a national hero.

Below are some basic stats on Todd Beamer’s early life:

DOB:  November 24, 1968

Place of Birth:  Flint, Michigan

Complications at birth: None

Birth:  Natural

Birth weight:  Normal

Breast or bottle:  No Comment

Talked when: Normal

Walked when:  Normal

Potty trained when:  N/A

Siblings:  2 sisters

Birth order:  middle child

Raised in:  Wheaton, IL

Race: White

Religion:  Christian

College:  Fresno State University, CA, and Wheaton College, IL

Grad School:  Master’s in business administration from DePaul University, Chicago, IL

Date of Death:  September 11, 2001

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