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Everyone wants to be a hero at some point in their lives. We all imagine what it would be like to face down danger, run into a burning building, and save a life. We see numerous missed opportunities to have displayed our bravery in the newspapers and on TV. -If only I were there! We think this even as we drive by the car with the flat tire on the side of the highway- I’m in a hurry, or I’d stop. We play out elaborate scenarios in our mind, rehearsing how we would have behaved were we on the spot when that house caught fire, the bank was robbed, or that girl fell through the ice- I could have saved them, stopped him, helped her; I would have, I’m sure.
Most of us don’t realize that it’s coming. The opportunity, to step up or regret, comes to everyone. Sure, we’ve all driven past the accident thinking someone will be there soon. Maybe we’ve even dialed 911 just to be safe, but were too busy to stop ourselves. It’s still coming though, the one you can’t drive by, escape, or ignore. It’s in the statistics, you can’t avoid it; it’s the actuality, cold practicality of fate. Maybe you’ll get lucky and have only to save yourself from that wrecked car or burning building. It is probably easier to have only yourself to disappoint.
I had an opportunity when I was younger. I was driving home one night during the early part of winter; it was cold, the heater in my Buick Skylark was on the fritz and I was wearing a red plaid Woolrich to keep warm. Coming up Green Pond Mountain I saw something dark sprawled across the yellow line at the top; it was just before a bend and dip in the road where I wouldn’t have seen it at all. I screeched to a stop, my car in the middle of the road, and left the headlights shining onto what I then recognized was a man. I could see his car in the trees off to the left of the road balancing absurdly on branches meant to hold nothing heavier than leaves. Its headlights cast large frightening shadows on the street that wavered gently with the wind. As I moved toward the man I wondered which way he was traveling and tried to work out the physics of landing a car in a tree.
The man was hurt and unconscious, and I knelt down to see if I could get a response from him. A neighbor climbed out from the tree line and said that she had called for the police. It was a good thing too, I hadn’t thought of how I would call for help. She claimed to be a nurse as she knelt down beside the driver. She didn’t do anything I would have expected a nurse to do in a situation like that, though I guess I wasn’t really clear on what I expected.
I had some knowledge of what shock was so I took off my coat and laid it over him. Slowly, he began to regain consciousness, and I told him to be calm, an ambulance was coming, and that he would be ok. As soon as he could string a few words together he used them to ask about his car. I swear I almost laughed out loud, or maybe I did. I heard sirens in the distance.
The ambulance pulled up along side of my car. Two volunteer EMTs popped out of the back, crouched down, and began to ask questions. I gave them all of the information I had and before long they had boxed me out leaving me standing by the side of the road watching next to a cop puzzling at the car in a tree. The driver was put onto a stretcher, placed in the ambulance, and was soon off to the hospital. There was a loud crack and the crunch of metal as his car returned to the ground where it belonged.
The opportunity was over; I don’t know how I did. I remember no one thanked me for stopping, though I’m not sure if I deserved a thank you from anyone besides the guy, if at all, and I never saw him after they drove off. To this day I don’t know how he made out.
Since that night I have been involved in numerous situations. I don’t think about them as opportunities anymore. For awhile it was my job to deal with emergency situations, some dangerous, some of them life threatening, and I like to think that I did okay. Since that night however, the romantic ideal of being a hero is gone. The idea that you can plan what you’re going to do and then execute it perfectly, I’ve discovered, is a fallacy. Standing in front of that house- lying on the floor of the bank- staring out at that frozen lake- is someone who rehearsed being a hero just like the rest of us, a person who thought they knew what they would do when their time came and they’re reacting just as most of us would.
From that night I learned that you can always do something different- better and that anything is better than nothing. Now when I am faced with a situation, I only hope I’ll be able to do something, and that something will be enough, and, when I look back on that night now, I mostly just miss my red plaid Woolrich.