Thanking the Anonymous Helpers


Yesterday, my oldest kid graduated high school. (Congrats to him!) It was a great moment — so much so that I didn’t mind spending two hours sitting on a football field in 90-degree (32 degrees Celsius) heat that felt easily 10% warmer because, well, you’re sitting on a football field.

A lot of people gave a lot of speeches — it was a a commencement ceremony, after all — and there are two snippets I want to share with you, and my takeaway. The first came from the district’s superintendent of schools. She talked about how she learned a ton from the protagonists of books, and at one point quoted Nobel laureate Alice Munro, who (per the superintendent) had a gift for brevity. Munro’s quote: “The constant happiness is curiosity.” As the superintendent explained, learning new things gives our brains a sense of fulfillment, and the best way to keep learning is to constantly be curious.

If you’ve been reading Now I Know for a while — and if you’ve been reading my Weekenders — you know I see myself as an insatiably curious lifelong learner; to a large degree, curiosity is my superpower. I had never heard that Munro quote before but it spoke to me immediately. And I put it into action not long after the graduation ceremony. How? Because of another speech, that of the high school principal.

The principal shared a version of the story below (which I found on Forbes):

Charles Plumb was a U.S. Navy jet pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands. He was captured and spent six years in a communist Vietnamese prison. He survived the ordeal and now speaks on the lessons learned from that experience.

One day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. “You were shot down!” “How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb.

“I packed your parachute,” the man replied.

Plumb gasped in surprise and gratitude. The man pumped his hand and said, “I guess it worked!”

Plumb assured him, “It sure did. If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The principal shared this story to make two points, both of which I agree with. One was that you should always be helping others when you can, even if you’re not going to get credit — that is, you should be packing other people’s parachutes. You may never know it, but there’s a good chance your acts will have a profound impact on someone else’s life. Don’t take for granted your power to impact the lives of others.

The second one was not to overlook those who “packed your parachute” — the people who have silently, and perhaps unknowingly, supported you in ways big and small. None of us have gotten to where we are by ourselves. While we should always be the protagonists of our own stories and proud of our accomplishments, we shouldn’t forget that someone, somewhere, did something mundane or overlooked that managed to help us succeed or in the case of Captain Plumb and his final combat flight, avoid peril. Again, a great point.

And yet, something felt off to me. It only took me a few moments to figure out what it was. When the principal told the story of Captain Plumb happening to meet the man who packed the parachute, he didn’t mention the packers’ name. My bet was that the principal didn’t make an error here, but rather, the name of the man who packed Captain Plumb’s parachute was never reported or shared in a retelling of this story. I did some Googling and the like — this is my curiosity taking over, by the way — and while I can’t confirm my hunch is correct, I can tell you that I couldn’t find the name of the guy who packed the parachute.

At first, this seemed like a serious omission, one that undercuts the lesson of the story. The tale teaches us not to overlook the helpers, and yet, that’s kind of what happened here, right? But after a few moments of reflection, while I’m kind of right, that’s not the real takeaway. Plumb’s meeting with the parachute packer was an unlikely coincidence, to say the least. In almost all cases, the two never should have met, but that doesn’t change the fact that Plumb is only alive because someone took pride in their work and packed his parachute in a way that kept him alive. We should be appreciative of those who help us, even if — and even though — the vast majority will almost always be anonymous to us.

So, thank you to everyone who helped me along the way, wherever — and whoever — you are.

And: congrats to the class of 2024!

The Now I Know Week In Review

Monday: How To Make a Blockbuster Movie (Without Really Trying): This is a COVID-era story. I’ve shied away from them because the difficulties of the pandemic are still too fresh, but that may change over the next few months and years. It definitely felt okay to share this one.

Tuesday: The Dead Parrot Society: In my Gmail inbox, I have about 100 unread emails and 500 that I’ve looked at but haven’t figured out what to do with. (I have another 50 to 100 in my Now I Know inbox. Oy.) Many of the older ones are potential Now I Know stories that people like you have sent in. This one was inspired by one of those — from 2012.

Wednesday: Freed But Not Free: This is a story about a freed slave who isn’t willing to work for free afterward, but I didn’t realize that the title I chose could have been interpreted differently.

Thursday: The Nobel Prize Winner Who Bet Against Himself: The timing in this story — it happened weeks before the clock ran out! — is truly magical.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend:

1) “See No Evil” (Texas Monthly, 47 minutes, May 1993). This is a true crime story and as you’d expect, it’s dark. The subhead: “How does a perfect gentleman become a vicious murderer? For Charles Albright, it all began with an obsession with eyes.”

2) “How an American Dream of Housing Became a Reality in Sweden” (New York Times, 11 minutes, June 2024). The link is a gift link, so it should get you past the paywall. The story is nominally political but that’s not why I’m sharing it — the engineering is very interesting, making it a worthy longread despite its policy focus. The subhead: “The U.S. once looked to modular construction as an efficient way to build lots of housing at scale, but Sweden picked up the idea and put it into practice.”

3) “The Battle of Fishkill” (Curbed, 25 minutes, July 2023). Fishkill is the name of a town in upstate New York, and it has nothing to do with killing fish — “kill” comes from the Dutch word for “body of water” or “riverbed,” and is a common suffix for places in the area. It’s a story about pancakes, actually. Here’s how it starts: “Domenic Broccoli, the IHOP kingpin of the Bronx, lives a good life. He drives a nice car, spends time with his six grandkids, and golfs often enough to have a tan for most of the year. He owns a four-bedroom home in Pelham Manor, a house upstate, and IHOPs throughout the borough where he grew up, each of which runs smoothly enough to give Broccoli the time and resources to devote himself, at the age of 66, to the animating force in his life: destroying his enemies. This mission came as a surprise to Broccoli, who had little reason to expect that trying to expand his pancake empire into upstate New York — and to build his grandest IHOP yet — would lead to such conflict. But sometimes that’s what happens when you find a dead body.” (Oh, and if you can’t get past the Curbed paywall, sorry, not much I can do there.)

Have a great weekend!