Sunday, September 11, 2011

Waiting in the Wings

My high school chemistry teacher stepped out of the lab for only a few minutes.  That was all it took.  He returned to an exuberant bunch of juniors spraying water on each other in grand style.  Mr. Caesar (yes, that was his name) yelled at us and quickly regained control of his lab.
“Who started this water fight?!” Mr. Caesar demanded.
Knowing that he’d never believe it, my friends pointed to me.  I had the reputation of being the model kid in the school.  I was both studious and well-mannered.  Not only that, I was downright shy and seldom called attention to myself.
My classmates were right; Mr. Caesar didn’t believe them.  It was a safe bet.  No one got in trouble for the water fight.
Oh, and there was one other reason why they all pointed to me.  I was, in fact, the one who started the water fight.
While all the fingers pointed at me, I neither denied nor admitted anything.   I didn’t need to.  I just smiled angelically at my teacher and my reputation spoke for itself.
In this incident, my reputation worked in my favor.  But most of the time, I didn’t like being type-cast as the shy, studious type.  I wanted to step outside the role I’d created for myself and be a greater person.
I heard about a school where the culture is to keep an open mind about fellow classmates.  In a school like that, I couldn’t have gotten away with starting a water fight.  But maybe in a school like that, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to live up to my potential of not only studying well, but living well.  Every day great things are expected from each other, despite any evidence of “low achievements” in the past.  Every day is a new opportunity to take that monumental step to being the person we were born to become. 

Ten years ago today, Todd Beamer made that monumental step when he said, “Let’s roll” and prevented hijackers from flying Flight 93 into their intended target, thus saving countless lives. This post is dedicated to him and other heroes, who while “waiting in the wings” walk/ed among us as ordinary people.

Hero Aboard the Oryoku Maru
December 1944
The survivors of the Bataan Death March were desperately hoping they would be liberated from their POW camp in the Philippines.  They could see more and more American planes flying overhead and they believed that meant the Allies were winning World War II.  Their greatest fear was that their captors would carry them off before they could be rescued.  For 1600 men—roughly three-fourths of the group—that fear was realized.  The Japanese squeezed as many men as was physically possible inside the cargo hold of the cruise liner, Oryoku Maru. 
Let me introduce a few of the POW passengers:  Chaplain Robert Taylor, who had the reputation for being the only man in the starving camp who could be trusted to deliver food untouched to a dying soldier; Henry Lee, an amiable poet; “Manny” Lawton, a well-regarded captain; and Frank Bridget, who was described as “nervous, intense, over-eager and often rubbed people the wrong way.”
Inside the cargo hold of the ship, it was dark and hellishly hot. The little air that vented through the open hatch provided next to no circulation.  This caused more than a deficiency in comfort; it was a matter of survival.  The men in the corners of the hold were already beginning to pass-out from suffocation when the ship set sail.  The hope that ventilation would increase when the vessel began to move was dashed when they were overcome by nausea instead of air.
The prisoners cried out for help.  Their guard’s response was to threaten, "Shut up or I'll close the hatch.  You're disturbing the passengers!"  (There were 1,900 Japanese passengers.)  The POWs answered him with more pleading and he made good his threat.  As the hatch door slammed shut, pandemonium erupted.  The panicking men shrieked in terror.
Above the hysteria, a man climbed up the ladder to the hatch and spoke in a commanding voice, “We are all going to calm down, every one of us, and work together!”  The voice belonged to Frank Bridget, the man least expected to remain calm in an emergency.  Immediately, the prisoners silenced themselves as Bridget explained how panic only uses more precious oxygen.  He instructed the men to take off their shirts and fan the air towards the men in the corners.  This improved the stifling heat and air circulation immensely.  Bridget didn’t stop at that.  He braved confronting the guard and persuaded him to allow the men who had passed out to be carried out of the hold and revived.  He also insisted the hatch door stay open and that water be brought to the POWs.
Two days after they set sail, US pilots bombed the Oryoku Maru, not knowing American POWs were onboard.  It says a lot of the prisoners to mention they were cheering for the Allies to hit their mark, even though they knew it could mean their own deaths. 
Only 400 of the 1600 POWs survived long enough to be rescued.  Frank Bridget was not one of them.  (Chaplain Taylor lived, and though poet Henry Lee died, his poetry lives on.)  Manny Lawton credited his survival in large part to Bridget.  Lawton admittedly despised Frank Bridget before this event, but he said, “Sometimes people rise to greatness and you never can predict who will . . . Bridget was waiting in the wings and he took responsibility.  I don’t know where he found the calmness.  He saved us with his voice.”
Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides.
Oryoku Maru Roster