Who the Hell Are You Simon Smith?
Chapter 1: “Near Miss”
The elevator doors split open abruptly, with the traditional accompanying “dong”. He slowly shuffled out of the elevator. “Are you also from the downtown office?” he asked, as his eyes met mine.
His voice was raspy and barely audible. His face was white with a thick layer of dust that covered him from head to toe. Not the typical character you would expect to bump into at the entrance to one of the uniquely high powered law firms in all of the United States. “No” I said apologetically, as we uncomfortably waited together to be buzzed into the shrine. I looked into his eyes and saw a mixture of fear, shock and horror. The contrast of his appearance compared to mine, sporting an impeccably designed Boss suit, was stark. He felt the need to explain: “I had nowhere else to go. There's no communication; no transportation. I had to walk all the way and fight the stampede getting here. Do you know what's going on??”
It is not every day that F-16's are heard buzzing 300 feet above the Manhattan skyline. I was beginning to recognize that this was indeed a monumental occurrence when I peered through the floor to ceiling windows and saw growing clusters of people walking, running in one direction, all uptown, in an endless stream like a herd without a leader. Looking into this stranger's startled eyes, the profound impact that this morning was to have on so many people's lives, was beginning to register, yet even then, I didn't appreciate that the world, as we knew it, was about to change.
As the glass door opened, letting us into the foyer to the shrine, the refuge seeker asked “do you know if anyone else made it out?”
“Out of where?” I asked. “Out of the downtown office, the 64th floor of the tower that exploded” he responded. “Only about half of us were in the office when it happened, and I haven't seen any of them since.” The only thing I heard were the words “64th floor”. His words hit my face like pelting rain, and it dawned on me: that's where I was supposed to be this morning, Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, if the change of venue for my 9 o'clock meeting hadn't been arranged for me. This stranger survived, but the fate of the poor souls who were trapped in the burning building was supposed to be mine too.
But then again, fate rules, and being another faceless victim of what will be recorded as possibly the world's most horrific act of terrorism, was not intended for me. Because I am Simon Smith.
And no, I am not another attorney at the supremely upscale waspy law firm of Sidney and Laurson. I am Simon Smith and 9:00 am on September 11th, 2001 was the kickoff of my road show for the venture capital fund I was raising. In ways that I am not at liberty to describe, I was able to coax the immovable Marvin Rice, a managing partner at the legendary 220 year old law firm, into giving me face time with a number of his prime clients, to pitch my fund. Seven, carefully selected, prospects were lined up 30 minutes apart, a casual delay worked into the schedule to ensure that the prospects bumped into each other, which was intended to create an impression of short supply in this exceptional investment. And who would not oblige the iconic Marvin Rice and turn down a ticket to his exclusive club of “insiders”. Super power Rice sent me an email the previous week asking me where I would be staying. I was indeed grateful that he did, since I was reserved at the prestigious Morgan on 32nd street. This was considerably beyond my means but it was necessary for me to convey the message that I wasn't merely another attorney, and this was a way to establish myself. In retrospect, boasting the Morgan was a good move, as Marvin replied that Sidney and Laurson had just acquired a new securities firm with offices in Mid town, closer to my hotel, with better parking and we could hold our meetings there, instead of at their traditional offices in the 1st building of the World Trade Center.
There are only a handful of people in the world like Marvin Rice, who can take a shot from anywhere on the court and it will end up a perfect swoosh, even if they aren't looking at the basket, or, as in this case, didn't even know where the basket was .The meetings began as scheduled, luckily for us both, as it later turned out, at the mid -town office. Things were actually going well for a while, until at 9:15 Marvin got a call to the conference room, to which he responded:
“So what do you want from me? Tell them to do exactly what they're told. Let me know if there are any developments. And make sure they all go back to work as soon as it's all over.” Marvin looked up at all present and said: “Weird. Apparently, a plane hit the first tower of the Trade Center”. It took me a split second to respond:
“it's probably one of those helicopter tours of the Statute of Liberty that hit a window or something”. I, of course, had no idea what I was talking about. It was just double talk, which in translation meant: “I have been preparing this pitch for months. We have everything lined up, I spent a shit load of money that I don't have, including on a room at the Morgan, so don't screw this up for me with small talk or silly anecdotes of a plane accident. Back to business. My business!”
Being the sharp guy he was, Marvin of course understood exactly what I was saying and pushed the meeting along as planned. Our mark was nicely warmed up and was headed toward the “strategic side benefits” talk, which in business vocabulary means : “Marvin, this guy walks the walk and talks the talk, but I have no idea what in fact he is saying and have no idea how or if it will be profitable for me. Nonetheless, Marvin, if you say it's a must in order for me to get into the Club, I'll do it, because you said so.” Just on cue.
But then another call came in to our room at 9:35. This time Marvin was more attentive. “What's going on?” He asked his PA. “Are you serious?” Another plane had hit, this time it was the second tower. That was when we all made our way to the window to see what was going on outside. And what a sight it was. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just a huge pillar of thick grey smoke. It took us no less than 10 minutes to get the window of the classy office tower to open, and then there were 6 of us leaning out the window trying to see what was going on downtown. We still didn't see much but the smell was overpowering. Gusts of fumes from the burnt jet fuel mixed with a greyish whitish dust covered everything in sight. Then, looking down to the street, we saw the hermetic grid lock, the trail of people making their way on foot uptown, and then came the ear shattering noise of F-16's flying just above our heads.
The PA burst into the room and announced that we won’t believe what she just heard on the news. Marvin was not even listening – “Get me the office manager of the downtown office, now!” he shouted. “And get me someone from City Hall and Harold at our Washington office”. The PA looked at him and with a cocky smirk that only PA's have, “I already tried that, but there are no phones”. All my efforts to remind those present of the religious obligation in the USA of making money under any circumstances, were futile.
This was 9/11, which was soon to be reported as a broad attack on U.S. key targets by Islamic fundamentalists .The meetings scheduled thereafter, of course, didn't take place and even reverence for Marvin Rice wasn't enough to keep anyone focused on my presentation. No one even bothered to cancel, as if the absence of phones, mobile connection and email is an excuse. What else was there left to do but order bagels and watch the developments on TV. After finishing my second tuna melt special was when I met our guy from the downtown office at the entrance.
I did feel compassion for this poor survivor in front of me and blurted out: “Those Fucking Arabs!”. He derived some solace from my statement.
Little did he know that I am Simon Smith, a hardened son of a bitch, unmoved by a little terror and a few innocent casualties. What I was really pissed off at, was that these pilgrims had wrecked my roadshow!
But it's not like Simon Smith to take such a hit sitting down. So I quickly bounced back. With all the transportation to and from Manhattan shut down and all the locals more interested in looking for the neighborhood Pakistani, upon which to release their frustrations, I quickly enlisted my ingenuity and reserved a table at “Beds” which was then the hottest club in town and at which I had no chance of getting a table on any other given night. And the cherry on top was that as a “survivor”, our party's tab was all on the house!
But even for Simon Smith, 9/11 was not all fun. My venture capital fund would need to wait another 24 months before it could get off the ground and little did I know at the time that the workings of global terrorism would soon be back to snare me in. Things didn't fair that well for Marvin either. He never made it off the treadmill one week later.
Chapter 2: “Real Near Miss”
The Royal Hampshire Regiment, part of the 8th Infantry Brigade is one of the fiercest infantry forces that the British army ever produced. This is a well-trained, highly motivated and highly efficient group of killing machines. Also known as Her Majesty's finest, regardless of the fact that most of the persons enlisted in this exclusive group are either brain dead or borderline psychopaths. Even those who for some reason may have started out otherwise, the thrashing, alcohol and behavioral acclimation overturned such uncommon statistical anomalies and set the lines straight with the rest of the degenerates.
Yes, I Simon Smith, am one of those statistical anomalies turned degenerate. Strange really, as I actually started out on the diametrically opposite side of the spectrum. It all started when I decided I wanted to fly a jet. This, of course, was the product of a completely coherent mental process, only marginally impacted by Tom Cruise on his motor cycle in Top Gun.
So there I was, doing the CBAT test, which is the pre-requisite for acceptance to the Royal Air Force pilot training school. When handed the complex multiple choice aptitude test, which included not only four possible responses for each grammatical, mathematical or psycho analytical question, but also combinations such as 'A and B may be correct', 'A and B are not correct' or 'some of the above are correct', I was set aback. Never had I encountered such a test. But that was only part of my surprise. Once overcoming my bewilderment at the questions, and while skimming through the pages trying to see how many of these were in the stack, I noticed that all the responses in the answer sheet seem to have been marked off already. To the best of my understanding, which was not much, the answers looked as correct as any.
Faced with this quandary, I quickly deduced that there could be three possible explanations for the situation – the marks could be the answers and this could be a test of my character to see if I would do the honorable thing and disclose the fact that my questionnaire was pre-answered; it could be someone else's test, in which case the answers may not be correct; or lastly, those numbskulls could have made a mistake and handed me the master with all the right answers, against which they inevitably mark all the other questionnaires.
I had to make a decision which option to go with. Since I was dwelling over the dilemma far too long, the option of owning up to it fell, for if it was a test of character, there would be the obvious question of why it took me so long to stand up. So I was left with either someone else's answers or the guys at OASC (The Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre) being complete fools. Since this was unlikely, I looked at the questions once more and figured that if it is someone else's answer sheet, there is no reason to believe that I would do any better than them, even if I did actually read through the test and try to answer it. I also had to pee already. So I got up after 45 minutes of a 3 hour test and gave in my answer sheet, as is.
It turned out, in fact, the OASC guys were simple, straight, AAA, first class idiots and that the form I got was the master form with all the right answers. Simon Smith got the highest score ever in the history of the RAF (Royal Air Force) aptitude tests, and in a record breaking 45 minutes. It takes most people longer than that just to read the questions, let alone the answers.
From that moment on, I was anointed as Ace of the next fighter jet course. Thereafter, a classic Pygmalion effect went into play. Simon Smith could do no wrong. Any statement I made was insightful, any question I had was brilliant and thought provoking. Even my flying skills proved to be good, regardless of the fact that I did not know the square root of 984,284 off by heart. So much so, that even I begun to believe I was born with a joystick between my fingers. This continued for the first eight months or so, until we started to hit the really complicated stuff, not directly related to operating the aircraft; intricate stuff like operating the radio, when and how to change frequencies and what the hell to do if the right wing falls off at exactly the same minute the fuel tank empties. Then the Pygmalion effect started to generate the reverse outcome. Instead of encouragement, all I got was disappointment, ridicule and that they expected better from someone with my capabilities. My instructors were abused by their superiors for not nurturing this great potential properly, and before I knew it, I was branded a loser, who, notwithstanding unprecedented potential, was below acceptable standards.
Since they were unable to make an Ace out of me, they went the only other possible route. A special example was to be made, and not only was I thrown out of the course, but of the RAF altogether. I was delivered to the Royal Hampshire Regiment to teach me a lesson! A lesson which I now know well – “Never believe your own bullshit!”
So it came to be, that after months of hazings, thrashings, and literally eating shit, I too became a hardened, brainless infantryman, worthy of being given a gun and stationed to be a live target to pull enemy fire. Given the fact that The Royal Hampshire Regiment roots go all the way back to the great battle of Gallipoli, I think that is where they perfected their brilliant tactics, of getting 70% of the outfit killed, just to save those few, who were ultimately the dumbest, least worthy to survive elements of the group; those which will subsequently have the most negative impact on society, when they finally make it back home.
Armed with these valuable principles and heritage as part of our weaponry, Her Majesties Finest, myself included, we were stationed for a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. No doubt the perfect match was made in heaven by assigning the perfect unit to the exact mission. Implementing a wonderful military tactic, known in our Regiment as “The Sitting Duck Thing”, I found myself one night, sitting on the top of an earth mound surrounding one of the most heavily attacked outposts in Londonderry. In order to make absolutely sure that the sentry would be in complete enemy visibility at all times, the tactic entailed not only sitting on the top of the mound itself, instead of behind it, but on a chair placed on the pinnacle of the mound. Well, it was not really a chair, because then the sitting duck may actually fall asleep on duty. Therefore, the position was fitted with the frame of a chair, just the metal pipe frame, but without the seat that you actually sit or lean on. Aside from the fact that it gave the person sitting on it the association of a bathroom and a constant desire to defecate, it was quite effective, as I don't know of anyone ever falling asleep while on this carefully crafted military device.
It was a clear spring night, not a cloud in the sky and cold to the bones, as only Northern Ireland has to offer. I was on the graveyard shift of 02:00 until 06:00 am, which I was perfectly happy with, as the Irish tend to throw less fire bombs during those hours, so there was consequently less action then. It was quite pleasant actually, the lights of Londonderry were bright, the skyline dark and a soft monotonous rumble of sleeping idiots behind me. Having the graveyard shift also gave me less face time with these people the next day which was also a relief. As I was sitting there fantasizing about the Dire Straits concert I was missing, I was filled with a mixture of self-pity and indifference, which tend to take the center stage when you have absolutely nothing to look forward to. I tried to philosophize about the situation, but after months of oppression, I was incapable of scraping enough IQ together to generate a coherent thought.
Out of the blue, or more accurately, out of the dark abyss in front of me, a sharp bright white flash pierced the night, and my melancholy. At first, it was just the single split second flash, but a second later, I heard the thunder that accompanies mortar fire. Being a trained soldier by then, I immediately jumped into action and was in combat position, with my rifle placed in the socket of my shoulder. And then came the ultimate question: “what now”? Depending on the distance and the size of the shell, I had between 2 to 4 seconds to make my move. But what is my move?? I could run for cover back inside the outpost, in which case I stood a good chance of being shot by the sergeant major, who was a mean SOB, for deserting my post; I could shoot back, which would be useless in the pitch dark and will not help much in saving me from what is already airborne and now flying at me; Another option was to change position on the mound, for the shell not to blow my ass off.
The latter seemed the best thing to do under the circumstances, so I held down my weapon and looked for the better spot. I looked left and looked right and took inventory of what I had in front of me. Amazing how many mental processes can be effectively performed in 2 to 4 seconds, while listening to the descending pitch of a whistling projectile headed in one's direction. Analyzing the inventory viewed on the mound, I recognized that mortar fire is not the most accurate of weapons, if I go left the shell could go exactly there, and if I go right, it could just as well go there as well.
That was the split second the conclusion hit me – my fate was already determined 2 whole seconds ago, when the shell was fired. I had no way of knowing where it would hit or how to avoid it. Armed with that enlightening conclusion, I consciously made a decision that I was going to handle this situation with Simon Smith style – I sat my sorry ass back down on the seatless chair, laid my rifle across my knees, folded my arms and smiled. My rifle and I sat that way for a whole second, which seemed more like an hour considering all the action going on between my ears; and then it came. An earth shattering noise erupted simultaneously with a flash, which was yellow this time. A wild concoction of mud, rocks and shrapnel flew in my direction in one synchronized shock wave. The point of impact wasn't really close, maybe 35 meters in front of me, outside the outpost. But my brilliant positioning on top of the chair, on the top of the mound put me in a perfect position to greet the shock wave and its accompanying debris with the brute force of my face. I was thrown some 20 meters back and landed on my back and ass. Lucky I was wearing my flak jacket, otherwise the pole I landed against would have pierced right through me.
The outpost was jolted to life, people sprang to action, running to and fro all around me, shooting in all directions, as no one knew or could have known what was happening. I was busy taking inventory – toes were OK, fingers too. Legs were fine. I don’t think I peed on myself either. Ears had a loud ring to them so I could not hear much else. It seemed that I was fine actually and I then started to think not of my physical shape but how my crew would tear me apart for being such a pansy. But then the medic looked at me and yelled something. All of the sudden there were 10 people looking at me with worried faces. “I am OK” I said, “go do your stuff”. But they dragged me to the mess room and started ripping off my clothes. I was thinking what's next: Do they beat the shit out of me or are they actually concerned?
Apparently, my face was all black and my eye lashes and eye brows had all been burnt off, creating a great visual effect of a war hero. I tried to brush them off telling them all to go away, since the last thing I wanted was for them to find out that there is nothing wrong with me. But they insisted, and thus, I became the hero, best Sitting Duck Guy the Regiment has had that year, a card which I played well from then on.