I am, by no means, a macho, macho man like the Village People once yearned to be. Still, I've always kind of assumed that inside this mild-mannered nerd beats the heart of a hero-in-waiting. After this week, I'm pretty sure I was wrong.
Running towards trouble and not away from it is a skill that doesn't come natural to me. A loud bang? I jump out of my seat. Someone yells? I pretend not to hear. A bee flys by? I run away while trying SUPER hard not to shriek. You can describe me with a choice of adjectives, but "brave" usually isn't among them.
Still, I've always thought that if I found myself in a crisis situation, I'd do the right thing. I'd help my fellow man. I'd run into the burning building -- or at least briskly walk. I've just never been in a real hurry to test my heroic instinct.
Last Sunday, I drove with my best friend Jason to Chicago to see one of our favorite bands from the old days (The Trash Can Sinatras.) It was a brilliant night out that took me straight back to college -- a frame of mind which might also explain why we thought that afterwards, we'd just hop in the car and drive back home like the 18-year-olds we definitely aren't.
Collegiate Shane would NOT have been impressed by the two middle-aged men limping and groaning their way into the Dekalb Oasis at 1:30 a.m. in dire need of caffeine and Advil. As it turned out, though, we didn't need coffee to wake us up on this particular roadtrip.
Twenty minutes later, we were somewhere outside of Dixon and I was thiiiis close to falling asleep in my seat when I heard Jason from behind the wheel yell out, "What the hell is THAT?"
I looked up. Omigod. "THAT" was an 18-wheeler, about 200 yards in front of us -- on fire. Not just a little fire, either. This was a BIG fire. Like, a MOVIE fire. I barely had time to curse when an explosion sent two flaming truck tires into the air over the inferno. I half expected Arnold Schwarzenegger at my window yelling, "Come with me if you want to live!"
Another fireball followed as presumably the gas tank went up. Was this my hero moment? Was I supposed to spring into action and somehow, some way, make everything all better? Instead, the two of us sat there transfixed, saying little that I could repeat in a family newspaper.
No one else was around. "We've got to call 911," someone said (was it me?) and we did, though it barely helped the operator to tell her we were "on I-88 somewhere not quite Dixon." Part of me wanted to run to the truck and make sure the driver was okay, but the fire was WAY too intense. The only thing we could do was turn on our emergency lights and try to warn other drivers coming up behind us.
A handful stopped and pulled off the road alongside us. A few minutes later, we saw the lights of a police car approaching from the other side of the accident. Behind us, another 18-wheeler rolled up, carrying a dozen or so new cars on his trailer. This bright bulb took one look at the situation and decided his best course of action was to just keep on truckin' down the half-lane that wasn't full of fiery debris. Smart move, since the only thing better than one exploding vehicle is a dozen of them.
He made it through, though, and that was all it took for the other cars to follow. Eventually being the last ones left, Jason and I shrugged and decided to follow suit. As we cautiously drove around the inferno, we were met with a surprise. From where we pulled off, it had looked like the whole truck was engulfed in flame. In reality, only the trailer was ablaze and the cab didn't look too bad. We saw no driver, a police car was there, and we could see lights of approaching fire trucks in the distance, so we carried on home. Easy peasy.
But then the next day, I e-mailed Lee County Sheriff John Simonton to see if there were any public details about the fire. I almost wish I hadn't.
Like I said, from our vantage point, all we saw was fire. What we didn't see was the car in front of the truck that stopped when they saw him blow a tire and swerve off the road. We didn't see the passengers of that car race to the cab and pull the unconscious driver to safety before the first explosion. We never spotted the good samaritans or the first-reponse officer giving the driver CPR until the ambulance arrived. As I write this, the driver's currently in critical but stable condition and expected to pull through, thank God.
Maybe I could have been more proactive. Instead, I was a gawker, unaware that life-and-death heroics were happening just beyond that blaze. Instead of keeping a safe distance from the fire, we joined in the parade of idiots too impatient to wait for the road to clear. Sheriff Simonton also informed me that the tanker was full of liquid oxygen and could have gone nuclear at any point.
So if you're holding out for a hero 'til the morning light, you might want to skip me. I'm still not entirely unconvinced that I'm incapable of bravery and self-sacrifice, but the jury's still out and I'm in no hurry to test it ever again. Just be safe when you're out there on the roads. And I know that some people say thoughts and prayers are overrated, but if you could send some towards the driver of that truck, this wannabe hero would be grateful.