One time, a lot of years back, in West Africa, after a rather raucous conflict that involved shooting people who were spraying bullets and other harmful objects our way, a tribal chief tried to reward me with one of his young daughters for ‘saving’ his life.
Hmm… Let me set the record straight: I weren’t no hero.
I am a coward. At best I am a survivor. Which is what I was doing that day. We were attacked for either being Christian. Or Muslim. I don’t think they ascertained that I was Jewish. But it didn’t seem to be particularly pertinent at the time.
It was either a tribal war. Or a religious one. I never figured out what the hell it was. Didn’t care. But next thing I knew we had accidentally ventured into its midst. It was chaos. More like madness.
People were yelling and screaming. The dust stirred wildly like the back-end of a wildebeest stampede. And everything from the cloudy sky to the scrubby brush oozed gloom. And I was thinking my carcass was about to be dunked into some chicken noodle soup.
Perfect. Because I am no doubt also a chicken.
And one of the engineers from Philips tossed me a 9mm semi-automatic hand gun. And being familiar with little more than shotguns from hunting pheasants back on my childhood farm I slid the cocking mechanism back Hollywood style… and ejected a perfectly good bullet.
But just in time I recomposed myself as a raggedy-dressed fellow with an over-sized machete was closing in quickly.
I didn’t realize that the elderly chief from the village where I had been staying was right behind me. At riveting times, like these, I discovered: time slows, but the imagination quickens.
I fired twice. Or maybe it was more. And even though I have often joked that I am such a poor marksmen I couldn’t kill myself if I pointed a gun to my own head, my bullets found their 180 pounds of flesh. The guy dropped like ash flicked from one of my cigars.
His final act was slinging his machete, which glanced off me and nicked the chief. Which is how I noticed he was just off my back side.
The chief waved it off and strongly suggested I keep firing in the direction of another guy screaming our way.
So I did.
When it was finally over the old chief hugged me excitedly. I’d like to think he jubilantly squeezed the shit right out of me. But I am sure I had long before already dumped in my pants – right about the same time I am also sure I was silently shrieking for my Mommy.
The chief kept insisting that I saved his life. That I was a hero. And I was too emotionally spent to knock on his hard bald head and explain that the only ass I was saving was connected to me. Hey, as anyone who’s been in battle will tell you, most heroes don’t live to talk about it: If a bullet has your name on it you’re a hero. If you hear a bullet go by you’re a survivor.
In other words, I am just an ordinary guy who managed to put to good use the gun put in my hand. And I survived.
That’s all. But, as I found out a couple of nights later, that wasn’t all. And this time I really thought I was doomed. You know, when the heroes go offstage the clowns come on.
We — meaning some of the Brits who had been involved with me in that deleterious social malady I just mentioned – were drowning our bluster in a lot of Boodles gin (aka Proper British Gin) at a little inn with a lot of charmless character that stood like an outpost not far from the chief’s village. I was leaning heavily on the bar because that’s what I do when I’m drunk. And the Brits were drinking heavily because that’s what they do in Africa to stay drunk.
And suddenly Nehemiah, the tall, wiry Brit, who had tossed me that handgun, uttered: ‘Uh-oh.’ And began to smile knowingly. And a tad too mischievously.
So I forced myself to focus in the direction of his smile. And there in splendid, colorful, tribal garb was this young woman gracefully and easily making her way towards me. Her steady gaze fell on no other.
But of course!
She practically glided on long legs as her upper body was almost motionless. Indeed, she was a sight of beauty that even perked the most drunken of heads.
“You’re in for it now,” said Nehemiah. And soon most of the Brits were smiling… not only appreciatively, but also knowingly.
She made her way politely and courteously. A smile barely slipping from her moistened lips. And then in a voice that peeled softly, like distant church bells, she announced: “I am here for you. My father has sent me to you.”
Hmm… Where was such a woman, I wondered, when I needed her – back in high school. But I had no idea… not even about who the hell had ‘sent’ me such a present. My eyes queried Nehemiah.
“That’s what you get for saving the chief,” he replied. “You’re going to be family. This is one of his younger daughters…”
What? Now that sobered me up.
“Just how young is she?”
“Oh, I’d say 15.” Then he waggled his left hand while squinting a gauging eye. “There abouts. Maybe 16.”
I looked back to her. And she only replied: “I am your woman. I am here for you.”
Oy-vey-iz-mir! For whom the church-bells toll.
“Now don’t go soiling your pants again,” laughed Nehemiah, joined in by some of the other drunken wonders.
“Are you being serious?” To say the least I was somewhat flabbergasted. “Is this for a night? Or forever?”
“For better or worse,” smirked Nehemiah. “But here it’s also until death do you part. Now you don’t want to insult the chief, do you? I’d hate to think of the deathly consequences. You’ve got yourself a real whale on your hook.”
What I got was a real revoltin’ development.
Is this what happens to heroes? You don’t get to luxuriate in the moment before everybody else is deciding matters for you.
Then again, what is a hero? Or in today’s politically correct world of hero worship I have to also ask: What is a ‘she-ro?’ Is it simply a person who keeps his/her composure, is ‘braver’, five minutes longer than anybody else? Or, someone who hides his/her battle scars in public? I mean, I always thought that heroes came on the scene only in uncivilized conditions.
But of course!
Then again, these days we seem to make heroes – or victims — out of folks when they are simply doing their jobs. Like Sully when he landed that airline jet in the Hudson River.
And then the other day golfer Arnold Palmer finally found his way to the 19th hole in the sky. And an old golfing buddy said to me that Arnie was his hero.
At that I snapped: Arnie weren’t no hero. He was definitely a golfing legend. But that doesn’t make him a hero. He was a made-by-TV- guy when incipient TV sports was looking to capitalize on golf 65 years ago. He was handsome. He flicked his cigarettes. He won tournaments.
Even I may have loved him. (Perhaps not as much as his first wife who claimed on TV once that she ‘kissed his balls’ for good luck.) But he didn’t surmount life and death difficulties that reveal true heroes.
Legends are made. Heroes appear. They are ordinary people who become extraordinary. They reveal themselves during hard times.
Like Muhammad Ali. Jonas Salk. Gandhi. Sgt. York. People who overcame monsters to establish their heroic credentials.
Meanwhile, back in Africa…
If it is the surmounting of difficulties that makes heroes of us all, then this time I had to figure out something heroic. Indeed if heroes need something scary to overcome there is nothing scarier than being given a wife — even scarier than screaming guys charging at you with machetes.
So I politely escorted the chief’s daughter out to the car with my driver. And not surprisingly the driver readily recognized her.
“You be a lucky man, Mr. Boss,” my driver smiled.
Lucky…? “A lucky man,” I said, gritting my teeth, “goes to bed, and then goes home.”
My driver seemed a tad perplexed. “So where to, bossman?”
“I need to see the chief.”
The daughter searched my face and wondered: “You do not want me?”
“One day,” I said, directly. “One night. But after that what’ll we talk about?”
We arrived at the chief’s ‘palace’ with some folks sitting around outside. A couple of fires were burning. And I walked directly inside his home. I was about to be direct about everything. After all, I was the damn bloody hero.
The chief seemed pleased to see me, but puzzled. “You do not like that daughter?.. I have others.” He almost sounded like a clichè. In fact this whole scenario had the markings of too many bad movie scripts.
“No, chief,” I began, a tad hesitantly. But quite respectfully. And then I found my moxy. “I saved ‘your’ life. Therefore ‘I’ am the hero. So ‘I’ get to make the choices…” I tapped my right index finger to my chest.
His twinkling eyes searched the room. “So, choose,” he said. “Enjoy.”
“I do not want a wife!” I tried to stay calm, but also emphatic. I mean, heroes don’t have to be humble. And I figured that in a day or week or two I would probably succumb to post traumatic stress, and turn into a real messy hero.
“I don’t want a wife!” I repeated. And he stood there staring through dark eyes beneath a smooth sheet of wrinkle-free forehead skin. I could see he was sort of wondering what I did want that he could provide.
“Women,” I said. “Not wives. Me and the guys just need women, lots of women. For the next few days. To help us ease our way through all this…”
There was a pause. Not a big one. Barely a pregnant one. More like when the tide changes. Then he smiled, through a full set of teeth – well, almost.
“We go down the road,” he said.
“Down the road? What for?”
“Such a journey,” he replied, “must begin with the first woman.”
Hmm… No shit…
Sooo, that’s what it’s like to be the hero. Then again, we are all heroes of our own stories.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…