Occasionally you will find me in this forum addressing issues about what it means to be a man. You don't have to be Freud to see why it is I do this: I am a man in a traditionally female profession. As a man, I am subject to the same drives as other men - competition, a need to accomplish, a protective drive to keep my family safe, etc. Not that women don't feel the same but societal expectations at some point in a boy's life become personal expectations.
There was a time in the late 80s and early 90s, spurred on by the publishing of Iron John and Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, that men lamented the lack of rites of passage in their lives, noticeably absent in contrast to their fathers', World War II. As artificial and silly as the whole movement was, a question emerged that has lingered - at what point can a boy say he is a man? It doesn't happen at a certain age. I've taught high school students whom I would classify as men, and some my age I would still call boys.
The rite of passage many young men seek is what I call the Hero Moment. It is an opportunity to show himself and, perhaps more importantly to him, others what he is made of. The moment is that intersection of emergency and proximity that, due to the everyday heroism of those in law enforcement as well as fire and rescue, in our safe and ordered world is so rare.
When I was 16 or 17 I happened upon a hero moment. I was at Folsom Lake near Sacramento one night when I saw a car slammed from behind by another car, forced off the road and up the side of a rock wall before flipping and landing on the passenger side roof. The other car sped off. In my memory I was at the wrecked car immediately, though I know it was over 200 yards away. I remember hoping there was no passenger in the car, because there was no room for one anymore. When I got to the car I found a girl my age screaming hysterically for me to get her out. There was no passenger, and though it seemed the danger had passed, her screaming and my pounding heart made the danger immediate and I had to get her out of the car right then. But the rear door had wedged itself over the front door and neither would open. I had no tools and there was no stone nearby big enough to break a window, so I began to kick in the rear door, somehow confident that this would get her out. Sure enough, as I dented the door in, the flap over the front door lifted away enough to open it and get her away from the car.
As I held on to the girl and tried to calm her I remember looking back at the distance I had crossed to get there. I had traversed a parking lot and jumped two fences and a drainage ditch - and I didn't remember any of it. It was that thought that stayed with me the longest. I was a super hero at that moment not because I came running or got the girl out of the car, but because I flew!
I can't tell you if that particular incident played a part in what kind of man I've become - or if the man I already was played a part in how I reacted to the emergency. What it did do was make me confident in how I would handle an emergency. Recent incidents got me thinking about this: First, a man in Indonesia held on to his six year old son for four days after their ferry sunk before finding an oil rig to cling to. Then, in New York, two men happened upon a toddler who had climbed onto a fire escape and dangled from the fourth floor. He fell and bounced off one man into the arms of the other. All three of these men did something that most men would at least attempt: no parent would think of letting go of a child if floating in the middle of the ocean, and I hope no one would walk by the toddler in danger. Which brings me to the reason I'm writing this. After a 50 year old construction worker jumped under a train to save a young man in New York, the collective egos of men across the country deflated, because when one asks himself, "would you have done the same thing?" The answer, at least for me, is no.
There can't be more than a handful of people in the country who would have done what Wesley Autrey did. In essence, the rest of us are among those standing on the edge looking at each other. My first reaction was that as a construction worker he has some special knowledge about the clearance under the train, but that was just an unfair way to diminish an act that cannot be diminished. In reality, it took an amazing feat of heroism to make the rest of us feel like cowards.