The VigilanceVoice

July 7, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 298
Barracuda Saves 9.11 "Unsung Hero"

Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

GROUND ZERO, New York City, July 7--Destiny works in mysterious ways.   Sometimes it involves a barracuda that saves a man’s life so he can help save others lives in the future.
      That’s the story of an unsung hero-survivor of Nine Eleven.  He owes his life to a female barracuda.  
        Stu Lipsky, 48,  is a science teacher at Seward Park High School, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.   He was at Ground Zero when the third building collapsed, and used his former ambulance attendant training to try and help the wounded.   He was caught in a blizzard of ash.  Everyone was dead, but for a few cops and stragglers.   Lipsky elected to fight his way through the fog back to his high school to insure his kids found their way home safely, and to comfort any who any who needed his calming presence.   

       Lipsky, one of the many "unsung heroes" of 9.11, told me the story as we talked in a Laundromat on 2nd Avenue in the East Village yesterday.   We both had the laundry duty for the day.  We met at the coffee shop next to the Laundromat.  I was pounding my computer and he was reading a magazine.  One thing led to another, and we struck up a conversation.   He’s one of those guys who’s not afraid to talk.  Neither am I.  We made an interesting combination. 
        Before becoming a teacher in one of the most challenging schools in America, Lipsky  spent a dozen years spent as a financial planner on Wall Street.   “I grew tired of that business.  It was dog-eat-dog.  And still is,” he parenthetically added.
        “I understand,” I said, having been ensnarled in the “show-me-the-money-game” for far too many years myself.   My instincts told me there was a story hidden somewhere, as there usually is in anyone at any time.  I began to pry.   Lipsky opened easily.
        Six years ago he decided to change his lifestyle and got his Masters degree in environmental sciences.   Next, he applied for a substitute teacher’s job.   “I had low rent, was divorced, had no children, and thought teaching part-time would be a refreshing change in my life.”
        Indeed, Lipsky is a peripatetic personality.   He spent four years in the Caribbean and another two years mining for gold in California, plus a lot of time in between trying to figure out what life was all about.  Like I, he had found that all that glitters is not gold.
         September 11 changed his life in more ways than one.  He had a moment of heroism, a kind of “payback” he said, trying to save lives as his life had been saved years earlier by a barracuda.
         He didn’t offer the story of how the fish saved his life; I pried it out of him when he gave me his email address. His email handle is CUDASLIP.  My reporter’s nose sniffed.  I asked him what it meant.
          “You’re not going to believe me…but…I owe my life to a barracuda…a female barracuda at that.”
          Lipsky launched into a strange-but-true story, one that has potential for "Ripley's Believe It or Not.”        

        He was SCUBA diving at Sombrero Point near Marathon Key, Florida  with his soon-to-be wife.  Lipsky had experience under water and was working on his Master Diver Certification.   On this particular dive, he was partnered up with someone he hadn’t previously dived with.
        Suddenly, a storm thrashed the sea, separating him from his diving buddy.
          Disoriented, Lipsky surfaced to get his bearings.   The sea was so rough he was blinded.  No boat was in sight.  Giant waves slapped into his face and clogged his snorkel, threatening to drown him if he didn’t use the limited air in his SCUBA tanks.
         With only a precious few minutes of air left, he dived some thirty feet to the bottom, hoping the squall would pass so when he surfaced he could catch sight of the diving boat.   He didn’t realize the other divers had radioed the Coast Guard with a distress signal that he was lost in the storm.
          Then a miracle began to unfold.
          As he clung to a piece of coral in the surging current, he noticed a female barracuda swimming slowly around him.   A female, he said, has a charcoal black edge on the pelvic and anal fins, whereas a male is edged in yellow or olive.  He found it strange one would be so curious about him.   Barracuda are flighty fish, he said. The female began to move slowly in a direction away from him.  It paused, then moved ahead—“like it was asking me to follow it,” Lipsky commented.
         Barracudas are some of the fastest fish in the sea.  Their bodies are built like an arrow, and their mouths are equipped with razor sharp canine-like teeth for quick attacks on their prey or to ward off enemies.   Lipsky was in a quandary—stay put or follow a fish!

         He looked at his air reserves.   Not much time to reflect on the philosophy of communication with fish, he said.  His survival instincts rather than his intellect took hold; he followed the slow swimming barracuda.
        “I can’t tell you how long I swam.  I swam until my air ran out, following the 'cuda.   She was my lantern in the night, my compass.  I just felt she was leading me somewhere—where, I had no idea.  It was all trust, no guts.”
        Sucking the last gulps of air from the tanks, Lipsky had no choice but to surface.  He bade the barracuda a goodbye, not sure if was his final goodbye.  If he surfaced in a choppy, tumultuous sea, the fish would be the last living creature he would ever see.
        Lipsky surfaced a few yards from the swim deck of the diving boat.  He swam hard and climbed aboard, exhausted but safe while the storm raged on.
        “I owe my life to that barracuda, Cliff,” he said as the washers harmonized in the background and the dryers whirred wildly.  “So, that’s why my email starts with ‘cuda.’   I’m an advocate against fishing for barracuda.  I do everything I can to fight for their protection.  It’s the least I can do.”
        Lipsky’s cell phone rang.  It was his wife telling him to get home because his parents were on their way to visit.  She needed the laundry.
        “I gotta run, Cliff.  Nice talking with you.”
        “Wait, “ I pleaded.  “Let me get a picture.  I want to do a story on you.”
         His eyes lit up.   “I’ve got a great picture for you—my reward for being a hero who survived Nine Eleven.”
         He dug through his laundry bag and pulled out a baby’s T-Shirt with the words East Village scrolled on the front.
       “Yes!  Yes! 

           “This is my real gift,” he declared, “my first child.  She’s going to be the Princess of the East Village when she grows up.  She was conceived on September 11th.  She’s one-month old.  Her name is Hannah.
       “Just one more question, Stu.   How have kids changed your life?”  Lipsky answered in machine-gun fashion, talking as he stuffed the shirt back in the laundry bag.
        I scrawled my notes furiously on the New Yorker I had been reading.
       “Before I started teaching, I wasn’t sure about my place in life. I was looking for something—maybe searching for the meaning of life.  My training for teaching was pretty abysmal.  It can be summed up this way: Go To Room 411.  I went to Room 411 and there I was, standing before a bunch of kids who didn’t want to be in school for the most part.   I learned the hard way.  Teaching  is a challenge.  But I had been a great salesman, so I figured I just had to sell the kids on learning.”
       Lipsky teaches high school science to kids who range from 15 to 20 years of age.   “Many aren’t motivated to do much.  I do my best to get them interested in college and learning.  I’m proud that one of the things a number of them want to do is be an optometrist.  Don’t ask me why.  The key is they want to go on and learn.”
       Six years ago, he was a prime catch for the school system.  Bilingual, Lipsky speaks Spanish as well as English.  “It helps me communicate with the kids from the Lower East Side.  A lot of them have problems communicating.”
        Teaching has changed Lipsky’s outlook on life. “Before I started teaching I was a wandering generality, looking everywhere for answers.  Now, I’m a meaningful specific,” he says.  “I know I can make an impact on kids’ lives…not all of them…just enough to let me know I can open doors of opportunity for them with patience and discipline. I know I will be a better father to Hannah as well."

       Lipsky considers teaching as the business of “saving lives.”   A teacher, he says, can give a kid a new lease on life.   He or she can rewrite a child’s stock value, give the child a sense of worth.   "I like to think I play in a part in  saving a child’s educational life.   Maybe something I said or did sparks a kid’s imagination, unlocks hidden potential, or turns a dream into a reachable reality.   That’s a powerful feeling.  It’s far more important to me than what happened at Ground Zero.  My classroom is Ground Zero every day.”
        Lipsky had to run.   I shook his hand and told him I’d email him when I ran his story.
       To the casual observer, he was just a guy doing laundry.  But to the Sentinels of Vigilance--the spirits of those who sacrificed their lives on September 11--he is a Citizen of Vigilance, Father of Vigilance, Teacher of Vigilance.
       He fights Terrorism of the mind—battling the Fear, Intimidation and Complacency in kids’ minds they aren't smart enough, worthy enough, or deserving enough to achieve beyond their environment.  
        Lipsky knocks down the doors of Terrorism and opens the Doors of Vigilance.  He replaces Fear with Courage in the kids, installs Conviction where Intimidation once reigned, and shatters the thick crust of Complacency with the mallet of Right Action to break self-imposed ceilings hovering over his kids' heads..
         And, ironically,  this Teacher of Vigilance, Father of Vigilance, owes it all to a female barracuda--his Barracuda of Vigilance--that saved him one frightening stormy day years ago so that he might stick around and guide children out of the burning buildings of Terrorism.

Go To July 6--Ted Williams:  A Citizen Of Vigilance 

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