A friend of mine enduring a patch of unrelieved adversity once said, “I need some good news.” So too the nation, enduring since last September an unremitting march of defeat. The event of the 11th. A “war” waged in far-off countries with unpronounceable names. At home, little girls, taken from their homes to be violated, murdered. Lead stories of boardroom betrayals, proliferating “polls” indicating a weakening of the national pulse as consumer confidence matched the diving indices of Wall Street.
Until, that is, this last weekend of July 2002. Nine men 240 feet below the surface of Pennsylvania, and scores of others working around the clock above them, vindicated and resuscitated the engine of optimism that drives America. You know the story. But during the frustrating commute, the toils of husbandry and householdry, it would bear repeated rehearsal and re-telling. The nine trapped in a niche of rock and coal, flooding with cold water, their miners’ lamps winking out as time passed. Nine men huddling together to share what warmth was left in their fading bodies. In darkness total. Above ground, the fears were mounting. A drill bit broke far above them. Another one was sent for. The first paragraphs of tragedy were being typed. The tapping heard the first day had stopped. The waiting families were sequestered from the press and prying curious in a nearby church. The governor of the state began to echo somber cares reflected in the would-be rescuers faces.
Another bit was secured, more drilling commenced. Two hundred forty feet, all over again. An air shaft going down in tandem with the rescue shaft contained warm air under pressure. What began as rescue was metamorphosing into “recovery,” the word of defeat. America was almost getting used to this. It hadn’t reckoned with what Rudyard Kipling heard a cowboy in Wyoming say to him in the 1890s. A neologism then unknown to the English-speaking world. Know-how. Kipling introduced that very American word to the world.
The rescue teams in Pennsylvania had know-how. They managed with the second giant bit gently to crack the tomb of the nine, who through their own know-how had managed to keep one another alive, and sane. Hope was vanishing to the point that one of the men asked his boss for a pen with which to write a note to his wife and children. He may now embrace them and tell them himself what was in his heart. One by one, all nine were brought up the 240 feet in a little mesh rescue basket. It had been tried successfully but once before, in Idaho.
It bears retelling because it is what it is: good news. It reminds that there lives beneath the headlines a strength of character that surpasses those messages of alarms and defeats. The lamps have not gone out. And we still have what the cowboy gave the world: the know-how.