I think that in our dreams we all see ourselves as brave and daring; willing and able to face any challenge with steely resolve and unblinking courage. Having spent 20 years in the army, including two tours in Vietnam during the war, I know the reality is quite different. When danger stares you in the face, your legs become weak and your mouth gets dry – and your heart pounds so hard you can almost hear it. In short – you’re scared. Bravery, though, is not about not being scared, it’s about being scared and still doing what you have to do – about being bold in the face of adversity.
The bravest thing that I have ever done, believe it or not, happened far away from any battle field. One day, back in the late 1980s, we lived in an apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland, in the shadow of the I-495 Beltway, but also abutting a large forest that ran behind several housing developments. I used to love walking in that forest with my son and daughter, then ages 12 and 13.
One balmy Saturday in autumn, we were walking within sight of one of the communities when suddenly I looked up and saw a snarling Doberman barring our path, loping toward us from about a hundred yards away. The animal had gotten out of a backyard because its owner had let it roam the yard unleashed and had carelessly neglected to lock the gate. Looking at that snarling mass of black fur and muscle, with sharp teeth bigger than my index finger, I was as frightened as I’d ever been in my life (most of my nightmares since I was a kid involve being attacked by dogs). More than my own personal fear, though, was the fact that I was responsible for the safety of my son and daughter. The damn dog was between us and our apartment, and even if we’d want to run back the way we came, there was no way we could have outrun it. Don’t ask me why I did what I did next – to this day, even I don’t know what made me do it. I pushed my kids behind me, puffed my chest out and advanced on that dog, growling deep in my throat. First, the dog stopped dead in its tracks. Then, it stared at me, with a puzzled look. I kept walking forward. Maybe it was my size; I’m almost six feet tall and weighed 220 at the time, and the fact that I didn’t seem to be impressed by Mr. Doberman; but, that miserable canine whirled around and ran, yelping, toward his backyard with his tail between his legs. In the meantime, I grabbed the kids and, taking a path to avoid going to close to that community’s backyards, hastily returned to the safety of our apartment building.
At the time I wasn’t feeling brave. I was just happy that none of us had been hurt. In fact, it was many weeks later before I realized what an incredibly foolhardy thing I’d done – but, I felt a kind of pride in having done it.
That, I now realize, is what life is all about. Facing the things it throws at us, and having the gall and audacity to puff out your chest and stare them down.