Are heroes the product of circumstance? Let me tell you a story I was told yesterday, then address that question again.
In the late afternoon, as I was wrapping up my workday and preparing for an evening with my family watching baseball, my father called. “I have an interesting one for you,” he told me.
This isn’t unusual. My father, Rollie Port, has worked as a private investigator in North Dakota for 25 years now. For a decade of that time I worked with him. He often calls me to talk about interesting things he’s working on (and vice versa, since what I do now is at times not far removed from what I did for him).
Little did I know that he was going to causally relate to me a story of impromptu heroism.
Earlier that day my father was traveling north on Highway 83, south of Minot, when he saw a law enforcement officer with a vehicle pulled over on the side of the road. As he drove by he thought he saw the officer struggling with a man from the vehicle he’d pulled over.
My father turned around and came back again to see the officer with a weapon out struggling with the man he had pulled over. As my father pulled up the man pushed the officer down and got into the patrol vehicle which my father promptly boxed in with his own vehicle so that the man could not drive away. With the officer calling for help, my dad exited his own vehicle and rendered assistance.
Both the officer and my father struggled with the man in the patrol vehicle – my dad said he ripped the man’s shirt trying to pull him out – but were unable to remove him as he was very strong and fighting back violently. During the fight the officer was knocked back from the vehicle by the man, at which point something amazing happened.
My dad talked the guy down. This is directly from the narrative of the incident my father wrote up when he got home for his own notes (he also gave a statement to law enforcement after the incident):
The man was very strong and at one point he was swinging wildly and the officer was knocked behind me. At this time I got very close to the driver and kept telling him everything was ok and he should calm down and that I was there to help him. For whatever reason his behavior changed and he became compliant. He was staring off into the sky and could not focus on me but seemed to understand. I told him everything would be ok and to come with me to the rear of the SUV. I kept talking with him softly and reassuring him. He on his own got out of the vehicle and staggered to the rear of the patrol unit. After standing at the rear of the vehicle for about a minute I asked him to come sit with me on the side of the road.
At this point, as my father placated the man, the officer came up behind him and attempted to finish cuffing him (he had apparently gotten one cuff on before my father arrived). There was a brief struggle again in the ditch, but ultimately the man was restrained.
A female passenger he was with remained in the vehicle throughout the struggle, apparently unresponsive.
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]…in an age where we are bombarded daily by negative stories about the very worst in people I think, from time to time, we deserve to be told a story about the very best.[/mks_pullquote]
Shortly after other law enforcement arrived on the scene and took over. My father gave his statement and left with the thanks of the officers. As he was leaving he noticed a deployed stun gun laying near the fog line.
My father told me all this, very casually over the phone, and why wouldn’t he be casual? I suppose that to him this sort of thing is old hat. He’s a decorated Vietnam combat veteran – he was awarded a Silver Star, four Bronze Stars, an Air Medal, and three Purple Hearts – and worked for the Alaska State Troopers for more than two decades where he solved dozens of notorious cases including that of serial killer Robert Hansen whose story was recently told in the movie On Frozen Ground (Nic Cage’s character was based, in part, on my father).
For most of us this sort of thing is a lifetime event. A story we’d tell our children and grandchildren about with pride. But for my father, it’s just another footnote in what has been a lifetime of heroism.
Which brings me back to my original question. Do circumstances make heroes?
To answer that I think about how I would have responded. Would I have stopped to help the officer? Many didn’t. My father said that as he and the officer struggled with the man cars were streaming by on the highway. Even if I’d had the gumption to stop and help the officer, I know I wouldn’t have had the audacity to calmly talk the man down from his rage, convince him to step out of the patrol vehicle he was trying to steal, and put him into a position where he could be restrained with relative ease probably saving the guy’s life and maybe the officer’s too.
So no, heroism isn’t a product of mere circumstance. Ultimately heroism is a choice. My father has made a career out of choosing to be a hero when circumstances have called for it.
I didn’t tell him I was going to write this post today. I’m honestly not sure how he’ll feel about it when he finds out. But in an age where we are bombarded daily by negative stories about the very worst in people I think, from time to time, we deserve to be told a story about the very best.
UPDATE: My dad just called me after seeing this post. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” he told me. Which is about what I expected.
Photo above is of U.S. Highway 83 from Google Maps and not necessarily where this incident occurred.