Friday, April 13, 2007

Another Lifeguard Story

Here is another “saving from drowning” story that I like to tell; it doesn't have anything to do with me, except that I read it in the Red Cross Lifesaving Manual when I was taking the YMCA lifesaving classes. It's attributed to an 1894 book on Swimming from something called the "Badminton Library." The Red Cross manual gives the bare bones of it:

A boat load of mill workers were being ferried across the Clyde one evening. The boat was badly overloaded and had not proceeded twenty yard from the dock, when it listed suddenly and overturned. One James Lambert, a powerful swimmer by the record and a good waterman, found himself in the water gripped about by as many men and women as could lay hands on him while others held to them. With marvelous self-possession and cold courage he allowed himself to sink to the bottom with his burden and found the water to be about ten feet deep. Being quite unable to swim because of the manner in which he was held, he, nevertheless, contrived to get his feet down and shove diagonally to the surface and some few feet toward the dock before he sank again. Thus alternately driving off the bottom, getting a breath of air and sinking again he managed to near the dock where ropes and boathooks were used to relieve him of his burden. Upon checking, it was found that he had brought in sixteen or seventeen of the unfortunates, but he did not rest there. Plunging in again and yet once more, he brought to shore first, two girls and then another girl and her young man, who were drowning together. Then, and this is the irony of it, he found himself clinging to the quay so spent that he would inevitably have sunk and drowned if an old and decrepit man had not seen him and, extending his cane to him, towed him along the quay into shallow water and helped him out. Thus the most spectacular rescue of all time would have ended tragically for the hero, if the old man had not used effectively, if not as spectacularly, the only means at hand commensurate with his strength and ability. The story points its own moral.

I've ruminated on this tale quite a lot, because I think that there is much more here than a good fable about the importance of unspectacular rescues. I think that there is something here for writers, for instance.

This story is a good example of pure plot, in that there is really no "characterization" to it at all. We learn nothing about James Lambert other than his abilities and his heroism. Even the heroism is a little ambiguous, in fact, because the first part of the rescue was "thrust upon him." He didn't have that much choice in that part, though he obviously did then decide to go for others, he was wired on adrenaline and hypoxia by then, of course. In short, the heroism could have been utterly characteristic of him, or the only heroic thing he ever did and a complete surprise to all who knew him.

Of the old man, we know absolutely nothing. Interestingly, for many years, I remember the second rescuer as being a young boy. Does that change the story? Not really. I like it better with an old man now, but then, I'm closer to being an old man now, so maybe that explains it.

But imagine the way that this would get treated today. The tabloid reporters would try to learn all about James Lambert. Does he have a girlfriend? Go to church regularly? Is he in school? And so forth. In fiction, it would be even worse. We'd get stories from his past, formative glimpses of his childhood that went into making a hero. All sorts of prying little bits.

All useless really. I read the story and feel that little catch in my throat that says the story is working. It's all there on the page, and all the background information in the world is not going to answer any important questions. Or the important question, which is "Why did he do it?"

And my answer to the question is "Because he was there, and because he could."

I think that "because he could," is often overlooked as a motive and explanation for human behavior, and that's too bad. There is a related motive: "Because he could get away with it." That sounds naughtier, but it doesn't have to be. You could use either explanation for Schindler, for example, with equal effect. Or you can even apply it to James Lambert. And he almost didn't get away with it.

Then there is the connection between heroism and creativity. Almost any creative act occurs because someone could do it, and most other reasons are secondary. People play sports because they can, and when they no longer can do it, they weep, and for good reason, because they've lost something important. We love because we can and because we can get away with it; we live because we can and for as long as we can get away with it.

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