Mr. Lucky and Deadeye

SUSAN TRAUSCH

February 11, 1991|By SUSAN TRAUSCH

BOSTON. — "I'm now going to show you a picture of the luckiest man in Iraq on this particular day,'' Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf told reporters at a Riyadh briefing the other day.

The couch potatoes on the other side of the world leaned forward to see what the general was pointing at in a video taken from the nose of a bomber.

''Look here -- right through the cross hairs,'' General Schwarzkopf said as a truck, which appeared to be about the size of a fly, drove along a stretch of bridge highway smack in the center of the bomber's sight.

''And now in his rear-view mirror . . .'' the general continued when the truck had moved out of target range. An exploding cloud of black smoke completed the commander's sentence.

I can't stop thinking about that guy in the truck. Mr. Lucky. Star of an impromptu 1991 remake of ''The Bridge of San Luis Rey.'' There he was in precisely the wrong place at precisely the wrong moment, just the way Thornton Wilder's characters were in the novel. But this time fate, or U.S. military policy regarding civilians, saved him.

Maybe he wasn't a civilian. Maybe he was a soldier. But he wasn't fighting then, so the pilot let him through.

I keep wondering what happened next. Did he look in his rear-view mirror? Did he faint? Did he get home late and say to his wife, ''Just don't ask''? Does he feel lucky? Is he still shaking? Will he have nightmares about it for the rest of his life?

What was he doing on the road? I figure he must have been a military guy, because who else would take such a chance? What if he was Saddam Hussein? Unlikely, but one never knows. Maybe Mr. Hussein figured nobody would ever think he'd go out in a truck during a bombing raid, so it was the perfect maneuver. Such a stunt might win him lots of macho points with his army.

I wonder if the man in the truck feels grateful to the pilot, or if he has no idea that he was spared. Maybe he thinks the bomb was aimed right for him but missed, and now he has a personal score to settle with the infidel.

And what about the pilot with his thumb on the button? How did he feel? Like God? Like a machine? My guess is that he was sweating a lot and listening to his heart pound as he concentrated on the target. I wonder if he thought about people he might have killed during his other bombing missions -- people he couldn't see. And having deliberately let one person live, did he think that he wanted to stop all killing?

We have seen so little humanity in this war that the truck driver in the cross hairs becomes symbolic of the terror that happens during every second of battle. After the speeches and briefings and smart-bomb demonstrations, war comes down to this: two human beings, one in the sight and one behind it, both scared.

The bridge video reminded me of Irwin Shaw's ''The Young Lions'' as well as Thornton Wilder's bridge. Shaw tells the World War II tale of a German and an American and how they come to face each other in combat at the end of the book. By then, readers have gotten to know both characters so well that we want them to shake hands.

Watching the truck moving under General Schwarzkopf's pointer, I wanted to know the driver and the pilot that well. In this media-saturated war, I half expected the news people to tell me what these two individuals did or did not do to arrive at that moment on film together.

So random and yet so exact is the business of war, the business of life. The couch potatoes thought hard about that and about their own close calls -- the bus that swerved just in time on the expressway, the near misstep on a hiking trip, the routine visit to the doctor that saved us. A lot of almosts in the cross hairs.

Where are the truck driver and the pilot now? Did they make it through the week? Will they make it through the war? And how many times will we ask these questions about other strangers?

Mr. Lucky and Deadeye. I'll wonder about them for a long time.

Susan Trausch is a Boston Globe columnist.

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