What is a Hero? What sets a Hero apart from the rest of the world? Does a Hero need to fearless, charging down danger without a care in the world? Do they need to be like the Heroes in the stories and myths, men and women with super-human abilities who vanquish foes with the greatest of ease?
Or is there another way to define a Hero. What does courage mean? Is it the absence of fear? Or is it doing what is right, even in the presence of fear. On this note, is a Hero charging down danger without a care in the world courageous?
The text that follows is a collection of short stories about real Heroes. About a few brave people who do what is right in the face of danger and fear, and keep their heads under extreme conditions. They are true Heroes, however they are not super-human. Just ordinary men and women put into extraordinary situations.
Part I: The Canal
It was another cold winter's day. The wind sweeping across the University Ave. bridge cut through layers of coats and sweaters. The wind being especially cold, coming off of the Merrimack River and canal fed by the river. The chunks of ice floating in the canal slowly collecting into a large mass by the turbine for the power plant. It got cold enough the night before to freeze the almost still waters of the canal, but as the day warms slightly, the gentle current breaks the thin layer free.
The city of Lowell gets a large portion of its power from the Merrimack, the river itself being the reason why Lowell exists. The river that once powered belt driven machinery, now spins a turbine for a hydroelectric power plant.
The actual security of the power plant is a joke. On numerous occasions people climb over the barbed wire fence and descend down a set of stairs built into the side of the canal. From there they have easy access to fish in the canal.
Safety is another issue, and no one thought the canal would be dangerous. The only way it is dangerous is to stupid people who climb up over the three and a half foot wall that runs along the sidewalk, and there can't be anyone that stupid, right? There isn't anything on the other side of the wall, just a steep slope that plunges over the walled side of the canal after about four feet. Who would climb over that?
But what about the young girl in the pink coat walking along the top of the wall? I mean her father is there beside her, holding her hand to steady her, so she is in no danger of falling? Her mother is there, being the voice of reason, telling the father to take her down.
Maybe if Mike, the twenty year old college student walking to the dining hall, had been in front of them, he might have noticed the patch of ice that formed in a depression on the wall. Maybe he would have warned them. But from where he was, twenty feet behind them, he was as oblivious as they were.
It happened so fast, no one could react in time. The little girl's matching pink boots stepped onto the patch of ice on top of the wall, and her feet went right out from under her. She landed on her butt right on the wrong edge of the wall, and started to fall over, but her father was there to pull her back. Only her glove came off in his hand, and his daughter tumbled over the side of the wall, landing with a soft thump on her side on the steep slope.
The slick ice covered grass that dotted the side of the hill turned the slope into a slip and slide. Maybe if some snow had been able to stay on the slope she would have stopped sliding. But as it was, the hill was just too steep, and the snow would side off down into the canal below after it reached a certain depth. But there was no such luck, and the ice that formed in place of the snow caused the girl to slide.
Stunned by her fall, the girl doesn't even try to grab onto anything, not like there was anything to hold onto, but maybe an effort would have yielded some miracle. As it was however, the girl went sliding rapidly down the hill and shot over the side of the canal and into the icy waters below.
In the real world, we need to count our small miracles as they come. A large miracle would have been for the girl to prevent her fall. A small miracle was that she didn't hinder her sliding in anyway, and therefore gained enough horizontal velocity to clear the rocks jutting out of the side. Any collision with the rocks would have undoubtedly rendered her unconscious, and she would not have been able to keep herself afloat.
So it was a scared and bawling seven year old who came thrashing to the surface, panic overcoming the swimming lessons she had in her youth.
"Gabrielle!" Scream the parent's in unison, as she first tumbles over the edge.
"Jim do something!" Screams the wife.
"I'm going in after her!" Exclaims Jim, starting to climb up on top of the wall.
Now how many times have you seen the headline in the news, "two die trying to save child from frozen lake?" Does it make sense to give up two lives to try and save one? For a father and mother it does.
All of these thoughts flashed through Mike's head in the time it took the girl to fall in. Then thoughts left, and instinct took over. Sprinting towards the couple, Mike screamed, "Wait!" He ran up and grabbed the arm of the man about to sacrifice his life to try and save his daughter's.
"Let go!" Screams Jim, as he tries to wrench his arm free. "I can get her!"
"Think about it for one second. You won't be able to pull yourself out. You might save her, but you will most likely die." Mike starts to explain.
"Then let me save her!" Exclaims Jim as his wife starts clawing at Mike's wrist.
"Let me go in after her. Then you can pull the two of us out of the water. I won't be able to lift you out, but you can get me out."
There is a pause that lasts a life time.
"I can get her; just meet me over at that bridge there." Mike explains, pointing to the bridge that runs over the canal, close to the surface. It is simply a walkway for the employees of the power plant to access the other side of the canal for maintenance purposes. "You can scale the barbed wire fence over by those stairs that lead down. There is another fence without the barbed wire that goes higher than the barbed part, and people climb over it all the time. Get down there and I'll pass her up to you, then you can pull me out. It's the only way to get out of the canal, and if you go in the water, not even the two of us would be able to pull you out."
"He's right Jim." Said the woman.
"We're wasting time." Mike continues, stripping off his vest, and kicking off his boots. In a few seconds he is stripped to his underwear, and tosses his pants to the woman. "Take the cell phone in the pocket and call nine one one, and while your doing that run into the power plant and get help."
With that Mike vaulted over the wall and landed on his feet on the slope behind. Just like the girl he began to slide downwards. Just as he starts to go over the edge he screams over his shoulder. "Get to the walkway!" The words snap a shell shocked Jim out of his trance, and set both parents into motion.
After less than a second of free fall that lasted an eternity, Mike exploded under the surface of the water. A thousand knives sliced his body wide open, and burned white hot for a few seconds. His breath left him in one long gasp, and immediately his body began shunting blood from his extremities towards his middle to keep his organs functioning. All thoughts and feelings were replaced by only the agony the freezing water put him through.
Panic surfaced in his mind, erasing all the preparation he had for the shock of the cold. The urge to either fold up into a ball and give up warred with the urge to thrash around helplessly like Gabrielle.
Finally, reason and instinct returned, and with a mighty stroke of his arms and legs, Mike broke the surface. Only about a second had passed since his descent under the icy water.
Treading water for a precious second, he found his bearings, and located the thrashing girl, her pink coat marking her like a beacon, and her choked sobs drawing him like a siren's call. Drawing in life giving oxygen that the shock had forced from his lungs, Mike ducked his head down into a swimming position and gave two powerful strokes with his already tired arms and legs, forcing them to work despite the lack of blood flowing.
After the two strokes, his hand struck a solid object that was as cold as ice, but not frozen water. He had made it to Gabrielle, the non-existent current of the canal and her thrashing hasn't taken her far from where she fell, and Mike had plummeted down right beside her, careful not to land on her.
Treading water with only his tired legs, he grabbed onto a flailing wrist, hoping the girl would calm down slightly. But panic had too strong a hold on the child, and she probably didn't even feel Mike's grip.
"Gabrielle, sweetie, I need you to calm down." Mike forced out of panting lungs. "I can't help you honey if you don't stop flailing."
The flailing and thrashing continued along with the choked sobs, and Mike was left with a quandary. They say that when someone is panicking while drowning, the best thing to do is to punch them. The shock might pull them out of their panic, or it could, in their weakened state, knock them unconscious. That could be either a help, or an additional hindrance.
Mike decided that he needed her to be conscious, and didn't want to risk hitting her. Plus even if it was to save her life, hitting a nine year old was something Mike resisted deep down in his unconscious personality.
Instead he did the only thing he could think of. He gripped the thrashing child in his arms, pinning her arms to her sides while he spoke in a soothing voice. "Shhhh shhhhh, it's okay, I've got you now. I need you to calm down sweetie. Come on Gabrielle, I need you to stop fighting me, and work with me."
Mike knew that his legs alone wouldn't support him much longer, especially if he was holding onto a thrashing child. Luckily for both of them, Gabrielle calmed now that she had finally realized someone was there to save her.
"Okay that's great, just hold onto me for a second, and I'll get you out of here." Mike continued. There was no verbal response, she was too shocked to speak, but she did cling to his neck with a death grip. "That's it. Now I need you to spin over on your back, and then I'm going to spin on mine. And I'll hold you up and swim backwards. All I want you to do is concentrate on keeping your head above water, can you do that sweetie?" A slight nod was the only response.
The understanding was there, however, and the pair of them flipped over, and she rested her back on his chest, and he was able to hook one arm under her arms, and then swim backwards, kicking with legs that were quickly becoming lead weights, and paddling furiously with his free arm.
Every now and then, he would look over his shoulder to make sure he was heading in the right direction. The yelling of Jim on the bridge was beginning to get fainter and fainter in his ears as his mind began to slowly succumb to the tiredness.
The rhythm was the only thing that kept him going. Kick kick paddle. Kick kick paddle. The sort of consciousness that allows a baby to keep sucking on its bottle, even while asleep. The animal instincts buried deep in our sub-conscious for emergencies like these.
After what seemed like an eternity, Mike saw the dark expanse above him that was the walkway.
"All right now sweetie, we're going to roll over now, make sure you keep your head up, okay?" There was no response, but as Mike turned over, she tilted her head back so it remained above. Treading water once again, he gripped the girl under the arms with both of his.
"I can't reach!" Bellowed Jim in a defeated rage.
"I'm going to throw her up to you as best I can." Mike responded, in his panting voice. Then aside in Gabrielle's ear, "All right you've been so good so far, now I need you to do one more thing. I'm going to hoist you up to your daddy there, but I need you to reach as high as you can. Also I may have to drop down under the water, so I need you to hold your breadth, can you do that?"
A tired nod was the only response.
"Okay hold it now." And then louder. "Get ready to catch her! One two three!" And then Mike dropped under the water for a second, pushed upward with his legs, for now he was holding onto Gabrielle's waist with both hands. His head broke the surface again, and he urged his numb arms upward with their precious cargo.
With a slap, her hands joined her father's, and both gripped as hard as they could. Mike was quick to let go, so as not to pull both her and her father down into the water with him. He watched in pride as the child was hoisted out of the icy water, and onto the walkway beside her father.
"Now for you!" Yelled Jim down to Mike below.
"On three!" Mike shouted weakly back. "One two three!" And then Mike dropped below the surface for a second, and with one last stroke of his unresponsive limbs, forced himself as high as he could go and throwing his arms above his head blindly. His numb fingers didn't even feel the contact with Jim's hands, but an unknown reflex caused them to clamp down hard.
Mike hung there in Jim's grip for a second, as the man braced himself to haul a much heavier load out of the water. Mike's quick thinking in shedding his cloths being a great help in reducing the weight. It would have been pretty near impossible to haul the thin college kid out if he was wearing waterlogged winter cloths.
With a feat of strength only surpassed by the one he used to pull his daughter out, Jim hauled Mike out of the water. The desperation of the situation had leant him strength he wouldn't normally have had.
And so without words needing to be spoken, Jim removed his daughter's soaked coat and wrapped her in his own. And the three of them, including the half naked Mike began to trudge up the concrete steps. Jim was at a loss for words, and couldn't stop hugging his child to him. Gabrielle was still in shock, and not speaking, just sobbing quietly to herself.
They emerged onto the top of the stairs, and met the locked gate, only to find employees of the plant running forward, brandishing keys and fire blankets. And leading them was a mother frantic with joy over he daughter's rescue.
The sound of sirens began to drift over the surprisingly still air. The daughter was wrapped in a more sufficient blanket, and so was Mike's shivering frame. And everyone was hugging and rubbing the two frozen children, desperately trying to fight hypothermia, the killer that could still claim both lives that had been plucked from the river's embrace.
And as the group began to walk towards the power plant, and ensuing warmth of the buildings, a few words floated over the din and hubbub of the situation.
"Thank you so much. How can we ever repay you?"
"There is no need, Ma'am. I only did what I thought was right.
"You truly are a hero."