I The Hero
People sometimes flatter me by saying that I am their hero – because I have managed to make a living by the unconventional means of marketing my own thoughts. There may be some merit in inventing – so to speak – a new profession. But, in general terms, I don’t consider myself a heroic character. (But then, I know, most heroes don’t. When you see them interviewed on the news, they usually say something like, “I was just doing my job.”)
The original Hero, of Greek mythology, was actually not a man, but a woman – in fact, Hero was her name. But – to make things a little more confusing – the true “hero” of her story was her lover, whose name was Leander. They lived on opposite sides of the Hellespont (which separates Europe from Asia), and what Leander (whose home was at Abydos, on the Asiatic side) did that was truly heroic was to repeatedly swim across the strait to be with her. (The distance is only 4 ½ kilometers, but conditions there can be rough and perilous.) Eventually, however, his luck ran out, and, one dark night, on his way to another tryst with his true love, he lost his way, and drowned – causing Hero, when she saw his body washed up on the shore, to take her own life.
I myself am a person who tends to shrink from such trying situations, rather than getting involved in them. But, at least once in my life, I found myself called upon to act what I have always looked back upon as the role of a hero. As a matter of fact, my own story also involves the crossing of a body of water in darkness. And this was in Asia – but thousands of miles from the Hellespont.
It happened some years ago, when Dorothy and I were in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, as part of a tour-group of eleven people from Santa Barbara, under the auspices of an agency called Distant Horizons. On this particular day, we’d had many exhausting hours of touring. (Curiously, tourists, despite the long hours and often very poor conditions, never get paid for all the work they have to put in.) It was evening, and we were all tired and hungry, arriving after dark at a hotel which happened to be situated on a small island in a lake.
Strange as it seemed, there was only one way to reach the hotel – by means of a ferry. But we were dismayed to find that the “ferry” consisted of nothing more trustworthy than a small, square, wooden raft, on which there was barely room for us all to stand, together with our luggage, and the native ferry-operator. And the only means of propulsion he had was simply by pulling on a long rope, which was connected to either shore.
The craft seemed dangerously overloaded, and would surely never have passed any safety inspection in the comfortable Western world which we had so recently left behind. There were no railings, let alone life-preservers, and as we were carried out into the darkness, we all shrank back as far as possible from the unprotected sides, where the water was literally lapping at our feet. I could not only feel the fear in myself, but I could sense it in my companions. This, we were no doubt all thinking, could so easily turn into some horrible headline in our hometown newspaper – one which we would never read.
Then it happened. Something suddenly moved me to start singing! – and I came out with what seemed the most appropriate song for the occasion – that rousing old spiritual, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” with its beautiful message of faith in “crossing over” safely, to another shore, in a better world. Others joined in – and immediately, almost miraculously it seemed, the tension began to subside. For once, I had the radiant feeling that I had done the right thing at a critical time. We all knew then that we were going to make it across. And we could even laugh when, after I came to the lines,
Jordan River deep and wide – Hallelujah!
Milk and honey on the other side – Hallelujah!
One of the more rotund ladies in the group, who had been listening, but not singing, exclaimed feelingly, “Milk and Honey! – is that all?” Like the rest of us, she was clearly looking forward (at least that night) to something more substantial on that other shore.