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As Long as We Remember...

September 7, 2007

"Remember Me"

Roy Meachum

The realization first popped up in Rome, in 1968. An Italian-American Marine lance corporal hijacked a TWA flight in California. In what turned out to be the longest hijacking in history, Raffaele Minichiello diverted the jet to the land where he was born 20 years before. He broke the law. No question.

What should have been a routine arrest turned into a celebration of celebrity: The hijacker claimed to be protesting the war in Vietnam, which was not at all popular in the Eternal City at the time. Buried in the press was how the lance corporal was AWOL and fleeing from a court-martial for breaking into a post-exchange on his base.

Facts meant nothing to the millions of Italians who rushed to embrace him as one of their own. From his Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) prison cell, he was lionized beyond belief. At his trial the following year, even the prosecutor took pains to point out he was a wounded veteran who had won a medal.

Under usual circumstances, the hijacker faced potentially 34 years in jail; he wound up being sentenced to seven-and-a-half. He served a little over two years. Once freed, Raffaele Minichiello announced he would stay in Italy. No wonder.

His was the first example of how media could convert an ordinary person into a star overnight. I am not talking about those show biz discoveries: they seek the limelight. Until that late October day, the former Seattle resident had done little to indicate he might generate publicity. And indeed he didn't.

Raffaele Minichiello attracted widespread support because of a special set of circumstances. His Italian birth didn't hurt. Equally attractive was his announced intention - whatever the reality - that he opposed a war nobody really liked.

At the time of the hijacking, a lonely Lyndon B. Johnson sat in the Oval Office, waiting for November elections to decide who would replace him. He had thrown in the towel earlier that year, totally frustrated by Vietnam.

The ground-swell that plucked the unknown Marine out of the masses has come again, so many times. It reflects not on the recipients' worthiness to be lifted above the crowd. It emphasizes more the need for ordinary men and women not to be ordinary: to live lives consistently unremarkable.

Since Internet's invention, most weeks produce Raffaele's counterparts. We live in an age of instant celebrity. Of course, most meet artist Andy Warhol's prescription: They are famous for only 15 minutes. But that's enough, in their eyes.

Of course, we see their kindred spirits on athletic fields but also in the checkout line at stores that sell lottery tickets. Beneath their announced intention of taking home all that money, players hope their public triumph will evoke their friends' envy and their enemies' hatred. That's how it is with instant fame.

After their time in the publicity sun, the latter-day Minichiellos almost certainly welcome slipping back into the shadows of anonymity. Not all. Having once tasted fame, this minority would like to know it again, and again. They go to extreme methods, at times, to keep their celebrity going.

But not Raffaele Minichiello: upon being freed from Italy's prison system nearly 30 years ago, the former lance corporal's name has never appeared in the world's major media again. He remains largely forgotten.

Although I was in Rome, covering the Vatican and other politics, at the time, I could not recall exactly who the young man was. Now 60 by my calculation, he might still be in Italy. He could have gone back to Seattle to take a coffee from Starbucks; it started there.

The point is: I don't know. What Shakespeare termed his "bubble reputation" is long since reduced to old and stale hot air. The first Romans described it: sic transit gloria mundi. The glory of the world always passes, as we say in English.

Today's instant celebrities cling to the father-king of Shakespeare's Hamlet; he put it simpler: "Remember me."

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