Part I: In which our Hero asks ‘Am I the Heroic Type?’
I met my hero. Not very many people get to meet their actual hero. For starters, most people’s heroes are dead: Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Marcus Aurelius. But this hero was alive. He met God on a mountain.
It began this way; I happened to be watching television and a random movie came on. I was about to turn the television off when I heard John Malkovich, his face deep in shadow, say the words, ‘Most people tell me they would have died, but they don’t know what they would do in that situation,’ and those words pinned me to the couch. That was a question that fascinated me: What would I do in ‘a situation?’ Would I keep my head when all around me were panicking? Would I be a hero?
I had read accounts of people who found themselves in the middle of a disaster, a fire, a shipwreck, a hostage situation. They all said one thing: once they realized the danger, time slowed down for them. An odd calmness came over them and they had seemingly unlimited time to assess, find options, make a plan. I tried to imagine what that would be like. If I were lost in the woods, would I think of ways to keep warm or signal my location? If a car ran over a child, would I tap into the unlimited power of the universe and lift the car? Would I jump into the water to collar the sinking passenger? Would I spring to action? Would I be heroic?
I was standing in line in the lobby of a large bank in downtown Atlanta, back when people went to downtown Atlanta, back when they went to banks, before the Metaverse and all that. On one side of the lobby, half a dozen bank tellers’ heads bobbed above the high counter, helping customers. Across from the tellers were desks stationed on the far side of the large lobby. Folks sat behind and in front of each desk, conducting the usual banking transactions.
I stood in the teller line, patiently. There were several customers in front of me, maybe a dozen or so, waiting to be called forward by a teller. At the very front of the line was the tiniest, frailest, little old lady. She looked like she could barely walk. How did she even get to the bank, I wondered.
As I looked at her, trying to figure out if she was capable of walking, she keeled over. As in Tiiiiiim-BRRR. Stunned, I stared at the body on the ground. I stared at the body. I stared at the… I stared.
A shout from across the lobby tentatively poked my consciousness. One of the young, tie-wearing, desk-bankers yelled ‘Call an ambulance!’ as he ran over to where the tiny, still body lay on the ground.
“Ma’am! Ma’am!” a teller called out and I realized he was talking to me. I pulled my eyes from the spot on the ground where the older lady had dropped to see she was no longer there but sitting in a chair by one of the desks, order restored to the universe and all dozen of the folks who had been in line ahead of me apparently served and gone. So yes, time stood still for me. And, no, I am not a hero. This confirmation of my un-hero-ness was a bucket of cold water, slow-mo sloshing over me and any heroic aspirations I had.
So, when I heard Malkovich say, ’You don’t know what you would do in that situation,’ my head snapped up and I knew I wanted to stay and hear the story. Not only did I watch the movie that day, when I came across the “movie of the making of the movie,” I watched that too. And I read the book. And then I bought the DVD.
For years, I thought about the story.
Part II: In which our Hero meets a true walking Hero
Nando Parrado was a member of a college Rugby team, happily traveling to a tournament, with family and friends tagging along on the flight to attend the match. When the plane hit the mountain, the tail end of the plane broke off and skidded down the mountainside, all those in the tail section died. The cockpit and the front of the plane slid to a stop, with most of the passengers in that section of the plane killed or horribly wounded from the collision. Remarkably, there were some still alive after the crash, including Nando. Confident of quick rescue, the survivors coped with the brutality of the cold mountain top with only the fuselage for shelter. They engineered ways to survive, making blankets out of the seat coverings, and meals out of bites of chocolate bars.
The hardships were severe and the boys attempted several exploratory missions but as they ran out of rations and hope, they realized they would have to rescue themselves.
Saddled with the knowledge that his mother and sister were dead as a result of the crash and knowing that his father would be heartbroken, Nando determined he would walk out of the Andes to tell his father he was alive. They had no mountain climbing equipment but what they could improvise from the wreck, no food but what they could harvest from the bodies of their dead companions, no map but the route of the sun through the sky; Nando and Roberto Canessa, set out on their journey to walk out of the mountain range and find rescue for themselves and their teammates.
Nando and Roberto finally make it to the top of the highest mountain in their path and as they reach the summit, while they hope to look down and finally see the green grass of hope, instead for almost as far as they can see in every direction, there are mountains. Canessa lay down saying he could not keep going.
Nando saw the same view and spread his arms, saying, “It’s so beautiful! Roberto, can you not see how beautiful? We are alive, and see way down there? I think that might be a valley way over there. We just have to keep walking toward the sunset.”
At Nando’s words, Roberto stood and looked in the direction in which Nando was pointing.
“We may die before we get there, Nando.”
“Yes, we may die,” says Nando. “But we will die walking.”
These words lived in me. The words of a Hero.
Part III: In which our Hero actually, truly meets their chicken-parmigiana-eating Hero in real life.
One day I got an invitation to an event. The event was to include a speaker and the speaker’s name was Nando. I called the organizer. Thank you, thank you, thank you; I repeated over and over. He’s my hero! Nando has been my hero for years.
“I’m having dinner with him the night before the event, would you like to join us?”
When you find you are about to meet your hero, you wonder, what will it be like? Will it feel surreal? Will you find that he isn’t anything like you imagined? Will he be normal? When you do meet your hero, well, it’s a test for both of you. Not only will they measure up to their singularity; what of you? Will you be able to harvest anything of value from this singular opportunity?
At dinner, I looked at him, at his eyes that fearlessly saw the expanse of mountains, his legs that walked without stopping, his shoulders that carried his friends to rescue and hope to his father. I had conjured my hero in my mind many times. But now, in front of me, was it really him? I wanted to truly be in the presence of the Nando whose words lived in my heart. Were those the actual hands, the flesh, the bones that stood at the top of the mountain? I didn’t know. Don’t cells slough off and renew constantly?
But really, it’s just a normal dinner. We are all talking about this and that. I am watching this person who has eaten the meat of a human casually consume chicken parmigiana. My hero is joking and laughing, charismatic. Telling us how he raced cars for a while and now loves riding motorcycles long distances.
I’m here with the human whose story summed up life for me. I realize I will not get to ask my hero all of my questions. But maybe, a single question. What will it be? This man has been asked so many questions. I want my question to be singular. I am afraid of asking a question that doesn’t test him or show that I am meeting the test. My mouth is dry.
I want to have the courage. I want to be alive. I will ask.
“What is still with you from those days? What do you think of every day?”
“If not now, when?” Ah, he had answered that many times.
Inspired by those same words I then asked, “On the mountains, what did you learn about God?”
As his head snapped to look at me, his eyes locked on mine, “That God is bigger than we ever imagine.”
Part IV: In which our Hero asks: If not now a hero, when?
You don’t think so now. But you will crash. It will be deadly. It will be on an unforgiving, lonely and spare mountain top. You will look around for resources and there will be cold, barren, frozen snow. There will be avalanches. You will be starving.
What will you do?
Will you walk?
Will you meet God on the mountain?
If not now, when?
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