If the fire department hadn't called, I might never have known.
My 16-year-old son, Anton, had gone to the local swimming hole, a place along a river that flows through my small Maine town. Most of the kids who swim there are fit, robust teens, and there are plenty of rocky outcroppings for them to use as safe harbors, so I had no fears for his well-being.
Still, the firefighter's first words, "You need to come up here to the Stillwater River," made me catch my breath, and his follow-up words gave me scant relief: "Your son is OK."
When I got to the river, I immediately saw the firetruck, ambulance, and police cruiser, not to mention the crowd of people milling about. And there – the still point amid the hubbub – was Anton, sitting quietly on a low platform of the fire engine, with a towel wrapped about his shoulders.
I hurried over to him. "You OK?" I pleaded.
"Yeah," was all he said. But my eyes begged for an explanation. I didn't get it from my son, however, who tends to play his cards close to his vest. I was filled in by the professionals who surrounded him.
The story was this: A couple in their 20s – out-of-staters unfamiliar with the Stillwater – had gotten caught in the current and began screaming for help. The man made it to a rock, but the woman was being swept under. Anton and his friend Tyler had just emerged from their swim when they heard the frantic cries. Without hesitation they plunged back into the water, swam out to the flailing woman, and brought her safely to shore.
In an age in which the word "hero" is broadcast with abandon and seemingly applied to anyone who makes it through the day, I realized that, in my son and his friend, I was face to face with the real thing – the disregarding of personal safety for the sake of another human being.
Yes, I know that teens are headstrong and possessed of a sense of the immortal self, but this didn't detract from the gravity of the event and the altruism of the desire to do good.
Still stunned by my son's daring, I drove him home so he could get into dry clothes. Along the way I tried to excavate some more information from him – perhaps a blow-by-blow description – but he had precious little to say. When we arrived at the house, the only words he uttered were, "What's for supper?" And so I desisted, hoping that, in the morning, he might be more forthcoming.
I spent some solitary time that evening, thinking about the tragedy that might have been. Questions flew across my mind like a flight of swallows: Would I have risked my life to save a drowning person? Or would I have opted for dialing 911? Would I have told the story over and over to anyone who'd listen? Would I have created a blog celebrating my courageous feat? I think that, had I done what my son and his friend had done, and someone had asked me, "So, what's new?," I would have given it to him wholesale. But that's just me.
The next morning, when Anton got up, I half expected him to tell me the story from his point of view, now that he had some distance from the event. But all he did was toast a bagel, pull himself together, and head for the door to partake of the new day.
"Wait a minute," I said, and Anton stopped and turned. I got up from the table, went over to him, and hugged him long and hard. "You owe me this much," I said, smiling. "Now get out of here."
And so he did. I watched from the window as my tall, lean, slightly hunched teenager plodded down the road, and I was reminded that, just as the Stillwater runs swiftly, and sometimes treacherously, still waters often run deep.