When we visited Rome in 1982, we saw most of the great paintings, the palaces, the statues of noted figures of the past and the last stop was in the famous Coliseum. This colossal amphitheater was built in the first century by Caesar. The initial floor was gone and exposed the halls and various rooms where both animal and slaves were held. There was a special room for Christians who would later be butchered to the delight of the overflow crowd of 40,000.
Our guide led us to the very spot to where Caesar sat. It was here he called on believers to recant. Thousand of “members of the way” made their final stand facing the Emperor of Rome.
“You don’t have to die”, Caesar would say. “Just bow and say, “Caesar is Lord”. I wondered as I stood there, what reaction was felt in the heart of the Roman ruler when the believer would begin singing a hymn much like, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine”. I could see the Ruler shift backward at the believer’s faith and courage as he faced certain death. Caesar had it all; palaces, gold, chariots and army. He had everything, but what stood before him. The simple faith of a believer. He would later fiddle while the City on Seven Hills burned. John wrote, “But be thou faithful unto death and I shall give you a crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
It was January 13th, 1982, when Air Florida flight #90 went down in the frozen Potomac River. A number were rescued but one remained. She was a stewardess and had no strength to hold to the buoy that lay within her grasp. The helicopter camera man zoomed in and pictured her face just beneath the water as she drifted along; arms outstretched, unconscious, drowning.
The banks were lined with people, some pointing, and some crying. The professionals were there; policemen, fireman, first responders, watching and just standing by. It was Lenny Skutnik that dove into the broken ice, swimming with a crawl stroke and strong flutter kick, to wrap his arms abound the stewardess and bring her safely to the shore. Later he denied the part of being a “hero”. His explanation was simple; “She was drowning and so I went and got her”.
Later, in a joint meeting of the Congress, President Reagan related the event and asked Lenny to stand. He rose to the thunderous applause. President Reagan stood tall and straight and saluted him.
Are heroes born or are they just made? Perhaps heroes are a special breed, but I don’t really think so. They are decent people who are humble and bold and honorable, and do courageous things when put under extreme pressures.
Chuck Linberg, (not to be confused with the famous aviator) was a marine during World War II, and only with the past few years has the story of his heroism been widely told. Linberg was in a group of marines who help raise the first American flag on Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima.
On the morning of February 23, 1945, Mount Sunbachi was captured by the leathernecks. Corporal Lindberg, 24, and five other marines raised an American flag on a long pole they found after fighting their way to the top of the mountain. The scene was photographed by Sergeant Lou Lowery.
Chuck Lindberg was a hero that day along with a host of others who did not raise the flag, get photographed, or even survived the battle. They were pursuing a cause they believed was noble and just, and they acted with a sort of honor and bravery that had been instilled in them.
Anyone today who wants to be a hero must practice for the role. You practice by being honest and keeping your word and by telling the truth and fulfilling commitments and promises, being on time and doing your job. Heroes build character by spending time with your children and teaching them to treat their parent respectfully, aging gracefully, battling cancer, paying bills and planting flowers. People who train to live this way under ordinary circumstances are the one who act with decency, integrity, boldness and bravery when the chips are down.
Chuck Lindberg moved to the Twin Cities and became an electrician after the war. For years, people thought he was either delusional or lying about helping to raise the first flag. Then the record was finally clarified and corrected.
The last surviving flag-raiser of Iwo Jima died on June 25, just two days short of turning 87. Thank you, Mr. Lindberg, for your heroism, and for causing the rest of us to think about what it takes to be heroes in our circumstances.
In my book one other hero needs mentioning. “The rich cast money into the treasury, and there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites which make a farthing . . . Truly I say unto you that this poor widow cast in more than they all . . . for all they did cast in of their abundance, but she, of her want, did cast in all that she had, even all of her living” (Mark 12:41-44). She was a great example of heroism.