Vol. 50: Thank heaven for little girls
The case for hope in 2024
In December 1983, a New York City fireman named Gene Pugliese chopped his way into a burning sixth-floor loft in Soho, then crawled on his stomach through the smoke to rescue a four-year-old girl. The child was already unconscious when Pugliese reached her, but he revived her with two quick mouth-to-mouth breaths and then carried her downstairs to a resuscitator on the street.
Years passed. The grateful girl, named Deirdre Taylor, dedicated her life to service. When she turned 17, Deirdre joined the Connecticut Army National Guard. Over the next 12 years, she rose to the rank of captain and became a helicopter pilot. In flight school, she met her future husband.
More years passed. At age 29, Deirdre left the service, got married, had children, and moved with her new family to Virginia. There she went back to school and became an emergency room nurse.
More years passed. When the Covid pandemic struck in 2020, Deirdre returned to New York to offer her services at New York University’s Langone-Tisch Hospital. During her eight-week stint in the Langone emergency room, she tracked down, for the first time, the fireman who had saved her life 36 years earlier.
Queen of the Internet
Why do stories like this— and there are plenty; just Google “fireman saves baby”— invariably bring tears to my eyes? I think it’s because it reminds me that each of us touches countless lives in ways we don’t realize. Gene Pugliese didn’t merely save a baby’s life; the baby ultimately saved many more lives, both as a pilot and as a nurse. And she’s still only 44. When we save a baby, we’re saving the future.
Yes, I know. Some babies grow up into Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot. Yet even as I write this, some former baby, unknown to the rest of us, may be sitting in a lab or in front of a computer in search of a cure for cancer, or a solution to global hunger, or even a more sensible approach to criminal justice.
I think here of another four-year-old girl I first encountered in the ‘60s as a young journalist in the rural town of Portland, Indiana. Mary Grace Meeker was the late-life daughter of an executive at a local factory. In 1968, when Mary was eight, her father’s company was acquired by Teledyne, an international industrial conglomerate whose stock was publicly traded. As a result, Mary’s father began investing his proceeds in Teledyne as well as other publicly traded stocks. As a further result, Mary got interested in the stock markets herself, even before she entered high school.
Years passed. By the 1990s, Mary had moved to New York to become a securities analyst on Wall Street. And thanks to her ability to perceive and promote the commercial possibilities of a struggling new technology that even Bill Gates failed to appreciate, today you and I and billions of people around the world enjoy access to the Internet. That’s right: The little girl I knew as a four-year-old in Portland subsequently became known globally as the “Queen of the Internet.”
I ask you: Who would have guessed that, within our county-seat town that most people have never heard of, anyone could have possessed all the basic resources to change the world?
My kind of woman (or man)
Thinking about the coming new year fills most people with dread, and who can blame them? Trump’s threatened return to the White House; Putin’s emulation of Hitler’s game plan in Ukraine; Israel’s bloody and seemingly insoluble quagmire in Gaza; dysfunction on the U.S. Supreme Court; the “lout caucus” in Congress; free speech under attack on American campuses; universities under attack by politicians and plutocrats; antisemitism on the rise; democracy under assault everywhere; China’s imploding economy jeopardizing the global economy (not to mention its democratic neighbors)…. 2024 seems like a good time to pack it in, yes?
On the other hand, over the next 12 months, firemen we’ve never heard of will rescue babies we’ve never heard of, and babies rescued years ago will make contributions we’ve never imagined. Even some people who didn’t survive fires as babies will surprise us by performing miracles beyond our conception.
“For reasons I’ve never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell,” the noted economist Deirdre McCloskey has remarked. “Yet pessimism has consistently been a poor guide to the modern economic world.” That’s my kind of woman— especially since she was once a man. Who better than Deirdre McCloskey (born Donald McCloskey) to make the case that the way things are is not the way things have to be?
So— what better time than 2024 to be an optimist? If you disagree, meet me here in 12 months and let’s compare notes.
Happy new year, really. And if you can touch somebody’s life positively in the next 12 months, so much the better. You’ll make a bigger difference in the world than you think.
To browse the complete archive of Dan’s past columns: Click Here!
Thanks for reading Contrarian's Notebook, by Dan Rottenberg! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.