We're all aware of how the incredible rescue of three Cleveland women quickly became a story dominated by next-door neighbor Charles Ramsey, less for his efforts and more for his lively persona, tailor-made for melodrama-addicted television news and the viral forces of the Internet.
Case in point: Another neighbor involved in that rescue received far less attention and for obvious reason: Angel Cordero speaks no English and as his interview with Cleveland's WEWS-TV bore out, he's far less colorful than his McDonald's-eating neighbor. Frankly, he's boring. Can't have that on TV!
Both men have been called heroes: Ramsey, showered with the word; Cordero, labeled "unsung." But are they really heroes? Just as Ramsey repeatedly told TV interviewers he wanted no reward money, a subdued Cordero invoked similar sentiments, saying, "I did what had to be done."
Well, if you did what had to be done, why are you a hero? Sure, we're grateful to these men, but to call their acts heroic implies that the typical and acceptable course of action would be to not help a woman screaming for help. You'd have helped had you been in the right place at the right time to do the right thing, wouldn't you? Or would you?
The T-shirt vendor who may have saved Times Square from a car bomb in 2010 wouldn't even give up his name until his vendor tag revealed him as Lance Orton. It was Lance who grabbed the attention of a mounted police officer to start the Times Square evacuation. Hours later, he sought no media attention. He just wanted to go home and be left alone. When asked if he was proud of his actions, he said: "Of course, man. What do you think?" A street vendor for about 20 years, he advised New Yorkers, "If you see something, say something."
We're so casual in our use of the word "hero," using it almost reflexively, disproportionately compared to the acts or people to whom we indiscriminately assign it.
Athletes are a typical example. Athletes aren't heroes. They rarely risk anything their health on occasion, but lives aren't saved when they perform.
Several years ago in San Francisco, Michael James Keenan died rescuing a friend's dog from a house fire. This was a man who risked his life once before to save a stranger from drowning in San Francisco Bay.
Years before, Keenan saw a car plunge into the Bay. He jumped in, broke out one of its windows and saved a woman. Though her husband drowned, the woman would later tell the San Francisco Chronicle that Keenan "will always be my hero for life."
House-sitting for a friend while awaiting completion of renovations on his own apartment, an early morning blaze broke out. He got out safely before realizing the friend's dog was still inside. Keenan, a lifelong dog lover, thought he could get the dog quickly. It took longer, but he found the 10-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Bobby, cowering under a bed. Bobby survived after treatment at a local animal hospital. Michael sustained burns over 80 percent of his body.
For several weeks, friends and family were optimistic about his chances, but a subsequent infection set back his progress and eventually ended his life.
Nothing earth shattering. Not a story of biblical proportions. Just a small example of one person behaving selflessly.
Perhaps for a day we might ponder this, instead of athletes or Internet memes or disingenuous politicians who call our soldiers heroes while taking deferments when they could have enlisted but didn't.
Are heroics limited to certain acts? Was it heroic to save the dog? Do heroes see themselves as heroes? Do they want the recognition? Or is part of being a hero not needing the recognition and just taking comfort in knowing you did a good thing?
We make a big deal out of someone who simply lives by an ethic that when you live in a community, you're responsible for keeping that community safe.
Think about it: What did Ramsey do? Nothing that risked his life. His actions started a chain of events that led to a happy ending, but he did nothing out of the ordinary. He's no hero; he's a character, and to his credit and to Cordero's and Orton's before them they readily admit they're not heroes. We can acknowledge that without diminishing their actions, can't we?
Interestingly, the people who don't see their actions as heroic at least in these three cases are the ones who actually committed the acts themselves. In fact, if we're to give these men any credit at all, maybe we should thank them for not taking credit, for not wanting accolades and rewards. Imagine: Doing something not to get credit but because it was the right thing to do. What a concept.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.