American history is full of badasses. This country was built on the bones and fists of men and women who ate up pain and pissed out star-spangled banners. Over the last few years, we've been collecting the stories of real Americans who did really awesome things -- at peace, at war, and while being Teddy Roosevelt. Now we present the best of these stories to you, as a way of saying "Happy Birthday, America!"
#50. Steve Buscemi Became Part of the 9/11 Rescue Effort
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Steve Buscemi is the go-to actor for when you need a whiny, loudmouthed schnook who always gets his muscular friends to do his fighting for him. He's usually cast as one of two things: a snaky criminal or snarky comic relief. Neither role requires he be a physically intimidating man, only a slightly unhinged one. In short, not badass at all, right?
Wrong. As it turns out, Steve Buscemi isn't snarky, unhinged, or whiny. In fact, he's a goddamned 9/11 hero.
And he always tips 20 percent.
He had the skills for it. Where many actors will wait tables, work as studio go-fers, or perform one of a hundred other degrading jobs while waiting for their big break, Buscemi took the less-traditional route of becoming a New York City firefighter. He did that until 1985, when he started getting gigs that didn't involve running into gigantic open flames on the regular. But he never forgot his roots, and this was never more evident than on September 11, 2001.
Many celebrities "helped" after the terrorist attacks by organizing fundraisers, handing out water and coffee, or recording horrible music that was no less horrible just because it was "for the heroes." Buscemi, again, bucked the trend by going right back into firefighter mode, returning to his old firehouse and volunteering for service. Right alongside the decidedly non-famous crew of FDNY Engine 55, he busted ass for up to 12 hours at a time, shoveling out debris and rubble and pulling survivors out of the wreckage. Countless people who might otherwise have perished can now say, without hyperbole, that Mr. Pink saved their lives.
They later repaid the favor by being literally the only people to go see Burt Wonderstone.
There's a real good chance you didn't hear about this in the aftermath of the attacks, but it's not because the media ignored it. Rather, Buscemi wanted us to ignore it. He refused to talk about it in interviews, simply saying, "these are my brothers." He showed absolutely zero interest in turning his duty into a publicity stunt. That's why there are only a couple of pictures of Buscemi hard at work; here, he's the dapper chap in the upper-left corner.
"Everyone ignore Jim; he's pretending to pose for beefcake calendars again."
After 9/11, Buscemi went back to showing off his crazy eyes on the big screen, but he has never forgotten his firefighting roots, even when it gets him in trouble. In 2003, less than two years after 9/11, Buscemi's old firehouse was deemed useless by the NYC government and was slated to close. Buscemi showed up with a bunch of other firefighters to protest this decision, with the entire group ultimately arrested for their efforts. He continues to support firefighters and their struggles to this day, proving that he only acts because he's too old to work his dream job any longer.
#49. A Homeless Drifter Saves the Life of a Newborn Baby at a Truck Stop
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Gary Wilson: mysterious drifter bound for Memphis. Truck stop vagrant or angel? You be the judge after you hear what he did.
Despite having two mannish names, Keaton Mason was a woman, and more pertinent to this story, a pregnant woman in labor. She was on her way to the hospital with her fiance when the baby decided a truck stop was just as good as a hospital to get born in (babies are pretty stupid). This particular baby came out in the usual way -- via stork exiting the vagina carrying a baby -- but she wasn't breathing, because the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. That's bad news anywhere, but at a truck stop, it's kind of the worst.
If they'd just kept going to the next stop ...
Despite having just given birth to a new person, Mason had the strength and good sense to scream for help while her husband-to-be dialed 911. Surely among the worldly drivers and good time girls standing idly by there would be someone who knew what to do -- and there was. A long-haired, bearded man holding a sign that said "Memphis" came forward. The sign wasn't just a trendy suggestion for the new baby's name, it was Gary Wilson's hopeful destination.
"Coincidentally, I was going there for baby back ribs."
While everyone else was freaking the hell out, Wilson freed the cord from the girl's neck and began to rub her back. The first one seemed intuitive, but how did he know to rub her back to get her breathing? Magic? Was he Jesus? Eventually, Gary "Jesus" Wilson took over the 911 call and talked to the dispatcher directly, receiving directions on how to cut and tie off the umbilical cord and get the baby's college fund all set up. For his trouble, the truck stop gave Wilson a meal and a place to sleep. But he was gone by the next morning, taken back up to heaven. Or in the back of a pickup to Memphis, whatever.
Like Michael Landon, but with more hobo stink.
#48. There Was a Time When Presidents Forded Rivers on Mooseback
This picture is real, this scene existed, and yes, at one point in our history, you could have actually voted for this man.
We do not know if this was a publicity stunt, a routine hunting incident, or seriously how our beloved President Theodore Roosevelt used to ride to work every day. All we know is that it was taken during the 1900 presidential election campaign, and as far as we are concerned, it virtually guaranteed William McKinley's re-election for as many terms as God gave him.
On that note, President McKinley was dead a year later.
#47. Mr. Rogers Gets Money from a Cynical Congress by Being Mr. Rogers
Generations of Americans grew up with PBS and shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, but the whole network came very close to dying an early death. In 1969, President Richard Nixon proposed halving the funding for the newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting, because why should there be such a thing as kids' programming that isn't one long barrage of advertisements for toys and snack food? The U.S. Senate held hearings to decide the matter, and someone was going to have to convince them to keep the funding in place, rather than use it to buy, say, part of a new B-52 bomber. Good luck, sucker!
During the hearing, a then-unknown kids' show host named Fred Rogers stepped forward to give a statement on behalf of the philosophy behind his show and the channel in general. Mr. Rogers, being Mr. Rogers, didn't get emotional or worked up over it; he just calmly sat down for six minutes to have a heart-to-heart with the Senate about feelings and imagination.
"We deal with such things as the inner drama of childhood. We don't need to bop someone over the head to make drama over a scene; we deal with such things as getting a haircut or dealing with brothers and sisters ... I give an expression of care each day to each child."
At the beginning of the speech, Senator John Pastore seems impatient, even making fun of Rogers in the first couple of minutes. But at the end, after Rogers shares a little song that he wrote, Pastore says, "I'm supposed to be a pretty tough guy and I'm getting goosebumps for the first time in days ... looks like you just earned your $20 million."
And what happened then? Well, in D.C. they say that Pastore's small heart grew three sizes that day ...
That would not be the last time that Rogers would do something like this. In 1984, when the Supreme Court was considering outlawing home-recording technology, they decided not to at least partly because Rogers was worried that taking away VCRs would make it so that some kids who couldn't watch his show at the scheduled time wouldn't be able to watch it at all. The court thought that made perfect sense.
Then, when Burger King ran a commercial with a parody look-alike named "Mr. Rodney" in 1984, Rogers asked them to stop. The senior vice president of the company pulled the $15,000 ad without a second thought, saying, "Mr. Rogers is one guy you don't want to mess with ... hopefully now we have peace in the neighborhood." Can we doubt at this point that Rogers was some kind of sorcerer?
"I have some experience with getting kings to do what I want."
#46. Police Officer Prevents Hundreds from Jumping Off the Golden Gate Bridge
Via Eric Risberg/AP
We know what you're thinking. "This guy's a cop, isn't that what he gets paid for?" OK, how many cops dedicate their time to painstakingly listening to people's darkest troubles for hours at a time, all to prevent them from killing themselves? And how many of those cops have done this hundreds of times? Only one: California Highway Patrolman Kevin Briggs.
Either this guy gets off on the smell of suicidal despair, or he really is a genuine hero.
For 22 years, Briggs has patrolled Marin County's highways, and part of his beat includes the Golden Gate Bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge is famous for two things: letting you know that Full House was based in San Francisco, and being the top suicide destination in the U.S. We're not sure if those two facts are related.
Have you ever been so good at a job that your co-workers call you in on your day off? Briggs is that good, too, only when he comes in to work, it's to keep someone from jumping to their death off a bridge. Briggs estimates that about twice a month he talks someone out of jumping -- so every 14 days or so, he's going through a life-or-death emotional roller coaster.
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Twice as tough as an emotional monthly cycle (lycanthropy).
So what does he say that's so magical? Getting the other person talking about things they have to live for helps. And if that doesn't work, Briggs can bring up the time that he beat cancer (because of course he did). In his 22 years on the force, only one (ONE) person has jumped on Briggs' watch. Not even Batman can boast that kind of success rate. Briggs' tireless efforts have earned him the nickname "Guardian of the Golden Gate."
And if you're not feeling good about humanity yet, keep reading. In 2005, someone snapped a shot of Briggs talking to Kevin Berthia. Hands in his pockets, head down, feet teetering on the edge -- this 22-year-old new dad was done with life. Briggs talked Berthia into giving the world one more chance. Eight years later, Berthia was not only still alive, but on hand to thank Briggs in person for saving his life.
Berthia fathered two children after the suicide attempt. One will cure all cancers; the other, AIDS.
Personally, we would have picked a different background picture, but whatever. It's still a happy ending.