Courage not forgotten

I recently purchased a DVD copy of Lonesome Dove at Bridge Street Bargains in Saratoga. I am always coming across unusual and older movies in this shop, which were highly acclaimed back in their day.

I bought the movie partly because the back cover said it was the most realistic Western movie ever made. Those are some pretty big words to me–as a fan of Shane and The Searchers. It was made in 1988 and probably, because I was newly married, didn’t watch a lot of TV which is where the movie was first shown. I knew nothing about it.

As I looked at the cover deciding if I should purchase it or not, I looked over the cast. Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duval, Chris Cooper, Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane…

Well the cast was worth watching I figured, even if the words “most realistic” were a bit of a hyperbole.

It took me a couple weeks before I sat down and watched the first couple parts. It turned out to be a four part TV mini-series.

I have to admit, it surpassed my expectations within the first 15 minutes. I was surprised to see detailed sets and outfits that showed there was serious commitment to be true to the time being represented.

I found myself really happy I had made the purchase as I watched it.

The acting was awesome and it was cool to see how young the actors were in comparison to now. 1988 was definitely some time ago.

At the very end of the second part, there was a scene in the show which reminded me of a story I had heard that profoundly influenced me some 30 years ago.

The tale I heard years before came from a sea captain who hung out at a marina bar I worked at in Washington D.C. It was a beautiful venue, set on the Potomac directly across from Haines Point, where the famous cherry trees are. The Tower Bar at the marina was called the best view and the best kept secret in the city, by the Washingtonian magazine..

There were a group of charter boat captains who would show up in the morning to have coffee and just shoot the breeze with each other before they started their day.

This marina was huge! I have seen it used in movies and TV several times. I remember when Oliver North met an arms dealer on the weapons guy’s yacht and news cameras were everywhere.

A lot of interesting characters were found in this place.

Anyway, Captain Bob was in every morning with his crew without fail, to get his coffee and tell some yarns.

He was a crusty old guy who was originally from Alabama, but had been a captain of his own boat for about 40 years. I guessed he was in his late 60s but I never asked his age.

One morning, he started telling a story of when he was really young, about 10 or 11 living in a small town in northern Alabama.

“There were a bunch of us boys, maybe a little over a dozen, that hung out and did all sorts of things together,” Captain Bob started. “We ranged in age from around 10 to 14 . We didn’t have TV back then and we were always outside.”

I conjectured he was talking about sometime in the 1940s.

“There was this one boy who stood out amongst us,” Captain Bob said. “He was one of the oldest and he was something of a star athlete.”

Captain Bob described him as this almost perfect specimen of a teenage boy who helped others and was just a great young man. He called the boy Tommy.

“One day a gang of us decided to go to a quarry that had been filled with water some years before,” Captain Bob said. “We went swimming there all the time.”

This old sea dog then told me something I never forgot and has stayed with me for years.

“Tommy was our leader and we all wanted to be like him. That day he ran ahead of us to the cliff where we would jump into the water,” Captain Bob said. “He stripped out of his clothes and jumped into in just as most of us were getting to the edge. Back then we all skinny dipped because none of us had swimming trunks. So we were getting out of our clothes when we heard his yelling.”

Captain Bob’s next words were chilling.

“Tommy comes up from the water and screams, ‘Don’t jump in, don’t jump in’”, Captain Bob said. “We realized as he was waving his arms and telling us not to come in, he had just jumped into a nest of cottonmouths, there had to be hundreds of snakes. His last action was to save us.”

Captain Bob said the townspeople retrieved the young man’s swollen body and then dynamited the quarry.

He finished the story and I realized I heard a story of true courage.

Captain Bob made clear, the last thing this boy did was make sure to save the lives of all these other kids.

“Tommy had magic about him,” Captain Bob said. “It made sense his last words would be to save others.”

I questioned myself if I would be so brave.

Would my last words be like his if I was in some situation like he had?

I hoped so.

After hearing this story of selfless heroism, I made a sort of promise to myself to try and be braver about everything I could.

Have I?

I guess there are a few instances of me being braver than I would have been without hearing Captain Bob’s story, but as years have gone by, the tale receded in my memory. I forgot how much the boy’s heroic death affected me.

Then in Lonesome Dove, I watched a scene of a young cowboy falling off his horse into a river as a nest of water moccasins came upon him.

He died like Captain Bob’s friend and it was not pleasant to watch on the screen. I truly can’t fathom how the boy from years ago had the sanity and clarity to yell and save his friends as hundreds of snakes were biting him.

I can honestly say, Captain Bob’s tale was life altering for me and it came about so innocuously, yet it still amazes me how much impact the story has made on my personality over the years.

I had never really heard a story of courage like that boy, until that morning Captain Bob related it to me.

This kid saved a dozen lives as his life was being extinguished.

I still marvel at his heroism when I really think about it.

The scene in Lonesome Dove affected me for sure, not because it was a horrible death for the character in the show; although it was.

I won’t go so far as to say I had forgotten about the Alabama youth who had saved so many lives of his friends with his bravery, but his story had faded enough to where I am a bit embarrassed it took a movie to make me remember it so well again.

Heroes like this Tommy deserve to be remembered and talked about.

I hope by writing this, he will be.


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