T he term hero gets thrown around a lot these days. A kid picks up the phone and calls 911, and he’s a hero. My fellow soldiers and I got a lot of attention walking through the airport, on our return from Iraq, thanks to the media handing out verbal “hero awards” like candy from a parade float. I didn’t feel much like a hero. I was just doing my job. Given the option, I would have preferred to stay in Texas, where people weren’t playing Whack-a-Mole with mortars as mallets on a near-daily basis. It’s not fun when you’re the mole.
I think most soldiers feel that way; that we’re only doing our job and are satisfied just knowing we are appreciated. Feeling valued was not something I was accustomed to growing up; so, while I did enjoy the sentiment, it also made me a little uncomfortable.
Being a hero is much easier when the heroics take place in one’s head. That’s what I was accustomed to. I was Superman or any of the TV- and comic-book heroes you know and love – at least in my imagination. I righted wrongs and crushed crime swiftly and mercilessly, ensuring no harm befell my make-believe citizens. Who could believe that all of that “practice” was going to be put to the test one day?
It was late spring or summer. I was fourteen-years old, give or take a year. I was floating on an inflatable raft with a schoolmate named Greg, his step-sister Marcy (total hottie) and her friend on the Calapooia River, winding through Brownsville, Oregon. It was a popular swimming spot in the city park, with a nice sand beach for sun bathing, when not enjoying a swim. On this day, it was crowded; the swimming hole filled mostly with kids like me, but a few adults as well.
I can’t say for certain what I was doing or thinking at the time, but being a teenaged boy floating on the river with two girls in bathing suits, I can make a pretty good guess. As distracted as I certainly was, my obliviousness did not compare with that of everyone else in the area; including the two women on the beach who were so wrapped up in their own world that neither of them had a clue one of their children was seconds from dying.
A young girl’s voice cried out, “Someone help; she’s drowning!”
I turned my head and saw a little girl, maybe four-years old, flailing in the water fifteen or twenty feet from shore. She was not far from where (I assume) her mother and her friend were sunbathing; but she may as well have been on the moon, for all they knew of the danger she was in. I rolled off the inflatable and made a twenty-yard power swim that would have left Michael Phelps choking on my wake.
Now, I am not a trained lifeguard, so mock my rescue technique all you want. The girl was in about seven feet of water. I grabbed her around her waist and hoisted her up over my head, just barely able to get her head above the surface. Of course, this meant I was underwater, but one thing I was good at was holding my breath. I so thoroughly won a competition in church camp one year; I think some of the counselors thought I had drowned. Heck, for three years I pretended I was The Man from Atlantis. It’s how I learned to swim.
Anyway, I held her up and simply walked the twenty feet or so to shore, set her in the sand – not far from her supposed guardian’s feet – and returned to the water. Just like The Man from Atlantis or maybe Aquaman. Sure, he’s not the most celebrated of the justice league, but if you’re in trouble and surrounded by water, he’s the one you want.
When I swam back to the raft/inner-tube, Marcy asked, “Where did you go?”
I simply smiled and shrugged in true hero fashion. I didn’t even tell my dad, until mentioning it in a passing conversation months later.
By today’s standards, I was a hero before then when I ran home and reported that the neighbor’s house was on fire, but given that I had started it (accidentally!) I consider it a wash. I’m sure even the Human Torch had a few accidents whilst perfecting his super powers.