I've been a hero only once in my life. Considering my 53 years, that's wholly inadequate. Some might think my actions that day should not even be called heroic.
I like to think that the shortage of courageous acts on my part has been due to a lack of opportunity. I never served in the military and no women or children have cried out to me from burning buildings. Then there is the fact I'm basically a fraidycat.
I still remember the call to action as if it were yesterday, although it's been 37 years. After a night of torrential rain my Aunt Helen telephoned for help, which was a shock in itself because my aunt and uncle were not the kind of people to ask for assistance of any kind. They were from the old country, Missouri, and took great pride in the fact that during the Depression they never went on the dole. They were also as stubborn as a Missouri mule. They were good folk. Definitely worth saving.
Aunt Helen was the only member of my extended family who I allowed to call me by my terrible birth name: Leland. That shows how much I liked her. Uncle Charles and I always enjoyed a special bond because we both liked country music, fishing and homemade ice cream. My Uncle Charles was as country as corn flakes. He never said much but when he spoke what he said was either funny or worth remembering.
Helen and Charles lived in the middle of an orange grove in a rented house that sat right next to what they called a barranca: two steep banks that formed a small creek. Only now the creek was a raging river. The bunkhouse where Charles taught me how to play poker and checkers was now sitting on top of their home and their car was stuck under a bridge, damming the creek and diverting a rampaging wall of water.
To come to the rescue my father looked around for an assistant but my big brother, who had far better credentials as a hero than me, had recently gone back to West Point, and so my dad was stuck with merely me. But it was okay because I was a junior in high school so I knew everything. We got as far as we could in the truck and then my dad draped a roll of rope over my shoulder and pointed me up an orange row with instructions not to do anything stupid. He headed in another direction to search for my aunt and uncle. I trudged up that orange row parallel to the flooding creek in the muck calling out for my relatives until I was out of sight of my dad. That's when I heard a plaintive cry above the din of the rushing waters. Following their cries for help I spotted Helen and Charles both clinging to the branches of an orange tree. The problem was they were over several rows from my position and right in the middle of the raging waters. Still, even though it was only Leland they seemed glad to see me.
Then, against my dad's orders, I did something stupid. Instead of going to find my father I trudged on up the row, tied the rope around the base of a tree and waded, swam, flopped and drifted over until I could throw Helen and Charles the end of the rope. Then my aunt and uncle saved themselves AND ME by pulling us to firmer footing.
After the successful rescue mission I vividly recall sitting in our bath tub thawing out and washing away the caked-on mud. I've never felt better before or since; that day my mom still refers to as the time I “saved” Helen and Charles. Till their dying day I always felt a warm kinship with my aunt and uncle.
Since that time whenever I've faced hardship in my life I find myself looking back to that memorable day. I remind myself that what started out as the worst day of my young life ended up as the best. A flood taught me one of life's most valuable lessons: that the opportunity to be better than we really are is often disguised as adversity.
Should you ever find life's endless and merciless waves crashing over you, drowning your dreams and washing away all hope, just remember that those same relentless waves also have the power to lift you to higher ground.