It was 1986. I was a Junior in high school. We learned about the devastating explosion of Cherynobl, a nuclear reactor in the Soviet Union in our government class. While the news reported that this was a tragic event, the sense that we felt in our middle class American world was a subdued feeling of relief. This was, surely, the final blow in our cold war against the Soviet nuclear threat. Glasnost, the opening of Russian society, had overcome its last hurdle by crippling the communist arguments with deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
But, one image burned in my mind. It has changed me forever. Cherynobl has defined for me what is heroism by its most basic and fundamental definition.
The scope of devastation caught everyone by surprise. The city of Cherynobl, a full nine miles from the reactors that exploded, was practically leveled. Thousands died within moments of the blast. All of the contingency resources for emergency response were consumed. Bus loads of people were evacuated as quickly as possible, but not fast enough to escape the radiation poisoning that more than 100,000 people are still treated for, more than 35 years later.
The one thing that I remember about Cherynobl wasn't the people who were escaping with their lives, or mourning the loss of their dead. The thing that I remember, the thing that haunts me, were the men who were standing in line to die.
The core of the reactor was left exposed by the explosion. The resources to safely isolate the heat were gone. But, many more people were dying, and would continue to die, if the reactor could not be buried. So, men from the neighboring communities brought their tractors and set to work, burying the reactor core with earth. Who knows how long they endured, how painfully they suffered as their skin literally melted from their bodies while they worked. But, they continued, sacrificing themselves in the most horrific way imaginable, until they died in their seat. Then, the next man, knowing full well what he was going to endure, gently lay aside the body of the previous worker and took his place.
These were the red star commies that I had grown up learning to hold in utter contempt.
These were the husbands, fathers and brothers who determined to do what must be done, for love of humanity unimaginable.
We never really know what we're made of, the kind of person we really are, until we're faced with circumstances that we could have never imagined. We never know who others are, despite what we may be inclined to believe, or may be led to assume.
What makes a hero? Really?
No one has ever recorded their names. Their families probably don't even know who they were, not distinguishable from the lives that were taken in the initial blast.
What caused them to turn and stand when everyone else around them, and everything within themselves, said to turn and run?
What kind of man am I, really?
It's easy to sit here, comfortably in my bathrobe, surrounded by things and people who are dear to me... it's easy to suggest and and confirm that I am a good person. And, should disaster strike, no one would think less of me, if I focused singularly on getting my own family as near safety as possible. No one would consider that there should be even any other possibility.
But, to do what needed to be done, simply because it needed to be done, without consideration of any personal preservation, any comfort, any hope, is beyond my comprehension. It is heroism, in the rawest form.
It has changed my life.
It has absolutely transformed the way that I perceive the world and the people that make it.
I can't look at a person who is different than I am (culturally, politically, socially) and assume any kind of superiority. The men who sacrificed themselves at Cherynobl couldn't be any more different than me. What causes a man to do what he knows is right, versus what he knows is best, transcends any training or indoctrination of belief.
I can't pretend that I have all the answers, or even hope to truly understand the questions. My reasoning and wit is totally disarmed in light of the unthinkable. And to consider that there is still circumstances that are utterly beyond my comprehension, even in the daily experiences of people I may face today, leaves me staggering. I can't imagine what it is like to be farmer in Cherynobl. I can't imagine what it is like to be a sexually abused child. I can't imagine what else I can't imagine... but people are living through this very moment.
I can't promise that I will be the person that I am needed to be, should the circumstances arise. I don't know how I might respond to the decision of preserving my own life, versus saving another. I don't know if I am willing to walk into a fire. I do know that every time I pass by the opportunity to do good for another person, even when there is little or no threat, only a slight inconvenience, I am less the man than I had hoped that I was, and certainly inferior to the men of Cherynobl.
I want to be a hero.
I want to be the shining example of nobility and honor.
I'd kinda like to live through it, though. I'd like to see the positive impact on the community that I serve, and the people that I have worked to help.
I don't want to be a Cherynobl hero.
And, given the opportunity, I don't know that I would.
But, given the opportunities of heroism that are before me today, the little things, the moments of personal sacrifice, and emotional risk, can I be a hero?
I think I can.
If not for myself, if not for my family, if not for the people of this community, then for the heroes of Cherynobl.