Friday, July 23, 2010
Years ago, when my Dad was stationed in South Korea, he jumped in front of a speeding train.
He had a wife waiting for him at home, and two children. My sister was two. I was one.
After he lifted the five-year-old boy from the tracks and brought him to safety, the boy cried uncontrollably. It happened so fast that the onlookers, and there were many, thought that the both of them were crushed underneath the train's massive frame. But they were alive, and the boy ran home, which was on a hill overlooking the train. My Dad never saw him again. He did receive a medal though, and my sister and I are photographed with him on the front page of an army newspaper. He was 22 years old. Six years younger then I am now.
This really happened.
So did this: when we were stationed in Illinois, a big man, over 300 pounds, was choking to death at the side of the road. A cop was doing everything he could to save this man, but he was too small and the man too big. People drove by, people watched. The big man was going fast, he was going from pink to purple, dying right there. My Dad, and another Sargent, through efforts I can't fathom, were able to expel the piece of hot dog from his throat.
I've heard these stories, I've seen the medals. And I admired these things, and I admired my Dad. But I've never seen it myself, until this week.
My Dad doesn't look for trouble, he was just watering his plants. It was almost ten at night. The VW Bug pulled up across the street, four houses down. A sports car, a souped-up Jaguar, high beams blasting, was right on it's tail. A young man jumped out of the VW, screaming:
"What do you want from me? Why are you following me?"
Whoever was in the Jaguar said nothing. He simply revved the engine in response. Inching closer. The high beams lit the whole neighborhood.
I was on Facebook (natch) when my Dad asked me to come outside with him. We inched closer to the cars as he explained the situation.
He called out to the young man, "Are you okay?"
The young man nodded. He told us that the Jaguar had been following him for miles, after he yelled at him for driving too slow. He wanted to go home but didn't want the Jaguar to follow him there. The Jaguar backed up, then came forward. The young man said he wasn't scared, even though he was.
We waited across the street as the young man called the police. Inside the Jaguar, I was picturing a drug dealer or a thug, maybe five of them, holding machine guns and machetes, craving retribution. I imagined a TV newscast, with breaking news:
"Tragedy strikes a quiet neighborhood, as a father and son are gunned down, two men at the wrong place, at the wrong time."
I've been trained by the city to avoid things like this. To keep on walking in the sign of trouble. So it was completely alien to me to see my Dad walk right into the heart of trouble, right to the VW. He told me to stay on the other side, that it was better if we were spread out. More than 10 years out of the military, and he was still considering tactical maneuvers.
I watched as he calmly stood with the young man, then walked over to the Jaguar. He would tell me later that he told the driver that he admired what he did with his car, how he always loved the Jaguar. The driver, not the insane drug lord I imagined, a tired man, not that much older then my Dad, and not that much different either, replied with a simple thank you.
My Dad did not take sides. He did not escalate the situation. He did not pretend to know who was right or try to barge into this as a masculine force, as so many lesser people would have.
He was a calming barrier between these two sides, his presence, his insistence on being there, stopped any escalation.
"I just wanted to make sure they didn't kill each other," he told me, after the police arrived and took over.
And he did, when all the neighbors around us pretended not to hear. Because he knows, even though he might not have the words for it (that's my job), that it's all about people being there for people. He knew it in Korea, when the boy danced stupidly on the train tracks; in Illinois, when the man was choking to death at the side of the road; in twenty years in the army; as nearly thirty years as a father; it's all about being there. I wish I could say I always live by these words, but my Dad is a better man then I. Which is fine, because he's a better man then most.