Too often there is silence where voice is needed. That lone voice that may be vibrating against the grain is often all we need to change the future of what is about to happen. There is no reward for a hero that prevents a catastrophe in the making, that nobody sees. They may be scoffed at, sworn at, dismissed, but still they sing their alarm, despite the raging tide against them. This is their story. There are no parades for things that don’t happen.
The upper classmen from college gathered for a weekend on the lake. The plan was to camp on the lower lake and spend a day on Bluff Island swimming and jumping off the bluff. The small group of young men full of banter and testosterone were bonding on this weekend of boating, camping and shenanigans.
A campfire, some beer and stories filled the evening. Stories about what their future might hold, their girlfriends and parent’s expectations as they drifted off to sleep on Friday night. Saturday morning brought sunshine, warmth, and that dull headache from too much alcohol the night before. A quick jump in the lake rejuvenates and kick starts the day as the group laughs around the morning campfire, drying off and cooking eggs.
“It’s time”, one of the older boys says. Let’s see who the real men are! The group makes their way up the trail on Bluff Island to “The Bluff”. A sixty-foot cliff that drops down into exceedingly deep water opens before them, treeless at the top so the view of the lake is unimpeded. A couple of the older boys run and whoo-hoo as they launch into space off the cliff. They have been there before. The younger boys look over the edge as they hear the splash and then the laughter and the fist bumps as the two boys, surface.
One junior from the college is visibly anxious. He is pacing with an awkward gate and stiff arms, a sign of his level of anxiousness. The bar is high and has been set. This is a measure of manhood and two older boys have already jumped. A couple of other boy’s jump with giddy laughter as they disappear below the horizon of the precipice The others are starting to point to the one young man, whispering into each other’s ears. “Will he do it?” “Ten bucks says he won’t”, one young man says as he runs and jumps off the cliff. His scream fading as he drops below the edge and into the water below.
The nervous young man approaches the edge and looks over and into the water, seeing his friend swimming to shore. “I can’t do it” as both hands squeeze his face and then clenches his fists. “I’m going to do it”, and then a minute later “No, I can’t do it” as he awkwardly strides and paces back and forth along the top of the bluff. The other young men have gathered now and are chanting, “Jump, Jump, Jump, Jump”, in a rhythmic chorus.
The young man strides to the edge of the bluff, leans to look over and then starts slowly walking backwards, talking to himself as he musters the courage to jump. The chants continue in the background, but his fear is palpable now. Everyone knows he is afraid.
The young man screams out saying “f*** it” as if a final gesture to cement his decision to jump. He looks determined, standing frozen 50 feet perpendicular to the 60-foot drop on the bluff. He leans forward and suddenly as if chains holding him had broken, he bolts forward for the cliff. Because of the slope at the top of the cliff there is a short distance outward needed to clear the slope. He is screaming whoo-hoo as he bicycles in the air and drops out of sight toward the water. All the other young men are screaming praises for his bravery. He has overcome his fear and now joins the ranks of the chosen ones who have made the jump.
The rest of the story is being told to me in the emergency room. Tears are streaming down his friends faces as they relay the stark contrast of the weekend events and that one moment when their young friend hit the water. As their friend bicycled through the air, overcoming his fear to jump, his friends heard the loud pop as he hit the water in the seated position. They didn’t think much of it until they heard the blood curdling screams as their young friend surfaced.
I have heard too many of these stories as I have flown in the helicopter, bringing trauma victims from scenes and emergency rooms to higher level of care. Twenty-three years of stories where everyone saw the fear, the clues that something was wrong, but nobody speaks up. As was the case with this young man lying with his legs paralyzed from the burst fracture of his 12th thoracic vertebrae caused as his spine took the force of a 60-foot drop to his butt as he hit the water. All his friends knew he was afraid. The hero was absent that day. Just one person was needed, who would recognize that his friend was afraid and offer a plan. “Hey, you’re afraid” he could have said. “If you can jump and point your toes, put your arms straight over your head and hit the water like a dart, then go ahead”. “If not, lets go down to about 20 ft and practice that”. The hero would have been that one person willing to speak up and offer an alternative. Now, his friends with tears streaming down their faces, are watching as we load their friend into our helicopter to take him to a higher level of care. The friends turn away as the sand from the wind of the helicopter blades seals the moment in time.
There was no hero that day. If there was, and the accident was prevented, nobody would know.
There are hero’s all around us every day. The hero’s we never celebrate because nothing happened.
Saranac Lake, NY