Like many people, I was saddened at the passing of Andy Rooney last weekend. What was truly disheartening, though, wasn’t the loss of an iconic journalist, but the loss of a true gentleman I had the honor of meeting and once, even sharing a drink with. Back in the mid-00s, I was a manager at Vong Restaurant, Jean-Georges’ Thai-French fusion restaurant in the Lipstick Building. We also catered Madoff Investments’ holiday parties every year I was there, and thought highly of him, too, but that’s for another post.
Mr. Rooney would visit us about once a month for dinner. He was usually accompanied by a lady I always thought was his wife, but since she passed in 2004, I suspect she was just an old friend; good thing, too, since I called her “ma’am,” not “Mrs. Rooney.” We never asked, it was just accepted that when Mr. Rooney came to Vong, so did she. I wish I could remember her name, I mainly remember how gracious and charming she was. Our rule was once they arrived, invariably without a reservation, have the bartender start on a Maker’s Mark on the rocks for him, Stoli up with a twist for her, and meet them at table 23 (semi-secluded corner banquette) with the cocktails. Someone else requested 23 or 24 tonight? Bump them to 4B or 40, we’ll make it up to them somehow. It wasn’t as if JG needed or wanted the notoriety of having the journalist at his restaurant; Chef had bigger fish to fry, celebrity-wise, and we managers just took it on ourselves.
I’ve been doing this long enough that I hardly ever get starstruck, except also at Vong when Charlie Watts had dinner with his jazz bandmates, and Stones fans virtually blockaded our door. Mr. Rooney was just a nice guy, but until I met the small (in stature only) man, I’d always thought of him as larger for his intellect. He said to me once, “I try to not be an SOB, but my kids would probably argue otherwise.” I found it utterly charming, the anachronistic and un-self-conscious way he used the acronym. As I discovered over successive visits, the curmudgeon we all saw on Sundays at 7:53 was not the courteous old man who ate at our restaurant, and who always had a moment to chat with well-wishers visiting his table. He never minded waiting for his table, and wasn’t above bellying up to the bar for one last Maker’s Mark while waiting for his car after dinner.
What truly impressed me, even before meeting him, was his writing, particularly his work for Stars and Stripes during World War II. My introduction to his work was not CBS, but a high school project where I unearthed some old microfiche articles from 1943 and 1944. It was only later that I made the connection between “Sgt A. Rooney” from the byline and his famous TV line, “I’m Andy Rooney.” He’s the reason (not Joker from “Full Metal Jacket”) why I briefly considered military journalism – not realizing that today’s ersatz version are automatons who exist only to regurgitate whatever the Department of Defense wants them to. When I mentioned this to him, he waved his hand at me and said, “What did I know, I was just a scared kid. Uncle Sam wanted me to be an Army journalist, who was I to argue?” I’ve been in any number of hairy events that should have left me six feet below Arlington National Cemetery, but I don’t think I would have had the stones to do what Mr. Rooney did – not once, but ten or twelve times: ride as a passenger aboard a B-17 bomber during a strike over Germany. Then write about it in such a self deprecating way.
Over the almost three years I worked at Vong, I might have seen Mr. Rooney two dozen times. He recognized the miniature CIB on my lapel, and asked me how and where I got it. I told him, and wound up blabbing that I’ve always been jealous of his generation, that at least theirs was, as Studs Terkel put it so well, “a good war.” I had messy UN-mandated interventions, humanitarian operations, stability and support operations, and peace enforcement during my military career, inspiring names like Uphold Democracy or Noble Eagle. He told me he thought I was cracked for saying that, but he also said he understood, he got that from soldiers of any other era but his.
Mr. Rooney had a theory that soldiers all yearn for some great cause to fight for; in combat, in the moment, he’ll fight for the man next to him, or his unit, or some small group like a squad or bomber crew. But when he has time to reflect, that soldier will have a greater sense of personal fulfillment to counteract the demons that may or may not visit him down the line. He said he’d seen this theory born out in the 60s, when observing how Vietnam vets reintegrated into society with a difficulty several orders of magnitude beyond what his generation experienced. His take was that, with the nation not behind the war or the veterans, with uniformed servicemen even being spit on at bus terminals and airports, many servicemen were ashamed of their service. This had untold long-term effects for that era’s veterans, and as Mr. Rooney said, grinning, “That’s why Reagan was such a shot in the arm for this country, he made us proud of our military again. We still feel it, and I hope it lasts through this war.”
I will always remember him saying to me, “Wear that badge with pride, Dan.” I still do, for myself and now also for Staff Sergeant A.A. Rooney. Another nugget of advice he gladly offered an aspiring writer: “Tell the story as if you were trying to impress a lady over a drink.” So long, Mr. Rooney, it was an honor to know you and talk to you. I hope God has enough Maker’s Mark stocked up.