By Bruce A. Smith
Some say heroes are made, not born. Perhaps. For me, I’ve only known one true hero, and I say that heroes are simply ordinary guys who know how to do the right thing when trouble happens.
My hero was named Jimmy Gunderson, and when he was sixteen he risked his life off the coast of Long Island to save a man who was having a heart attack. The story didn’t make the evening news, but in my hometown we all knew that Jimmy was a hero.
I knew Jimmy as a buddy from a summer camp that our moms arranged for us to attend together. For three summers we were cabin mates at a YMCA camp in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, and back home on Long Island we would see each other on occasion – family affairs mostly as our mothers were old college friends. In fact, the first fish I ever caught was off the stern of Jimmy’s family cabin cruiser as we trolled the waters of Hempstead Harbor.
Jimmy was a nice guy. You probably would have liked him; most people did. He was good-looking too, but not an Adonis-type. He was more of an All-American type, tall and lanky, with freckles and a great smile. Like most heroes, I think, he was self-assured, and Jimmy always seemed to know what he was doing. He wasn’t a snob or obnoxious, either, and always helped others in whatever they were trying to do. In short, he was a really good buddy to go camping with.
I heard about Jimmy’s life-saving heroics a couple of days after it had happened: Jimmy had been invited by his girl friend’s family to accompany them on a weekend of sailing around Long Island. On the first night out they were under full sail at 11 pm on a mostly moonlit summer’s night, a few miles from Jones Beach on Long Island’s southern coastline. Gentle swells on the ocean, a steady breeze from the southwest. Everything’s just right.
Then the girl’s father, who was at the helm, keeled over with a heart attack. Fortunately, Jimmy and his girl friend were on deck, and Jimmy grabbed the tiller and brought the boat into the wind, bringing it to a stop. Then Jimmy grabbed the old man and with the girl helping rolled him into a prone position so he could administer CPR. That wasn’t the easiest thing to do as the deck space was small and the boom and sheet ropes were sloshing back and forth. Plus, the boat was heaving in the swells.
Within moments the mother joined them on the deck and they started taking turns with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and external heart massage. This was back in the ’60s when not everyone knew CPR, so Jimmy had to show the women how to do it.
The father was in bad shape. No heart beat, no breath, pale skin. With the mother and daughter working on the father, Jimmy went back to the helm. As fate would have it, the boat didn’t have a radio and this was before age age of cell phones, so there was no chance of getting help – no Medivac chopper or Coast Guard cutter coming to their rescue even though help was only fifteen miles away at Fire Island Inlet.
But Jones Beach is one of the most popular beaches in the world, so even at 11 pm there would be people around – walking the boardwalk at least, if not the actual surf line.
So Jimmy put the boat on a beeline for the shoreline. Once they got just off the breakers and sandbars, maybe about a half-mile off shore, Jimmy began to tack back and forth parallel to the beach, and started to shoot-off flares. They got everyone’s attention and people started running down to the water, but all the shouting from Jimmy and the women was simply lost in the roar of the waves. So, Jimmy gave the helm over to the mother and dove in.
Jimmy swam to shore through a half-mile of dark Atlantic. If you’ve ever gone swimming at night, alone in the ocean, I don’t have to tell you how scary that is. But if you never have, it’s hard to accurately describe how waves can suddenly come up and break over you, and you’d better be ready to take a last-second breath before becoming inundated. Plus, you never really know where you are until you ride the crest of a wave and see the lights along the shoreline.
But Jimmy got to shore okay. The Coast Guard dispatched a chopper and a Para-rescue guy lowered himself down to the deck of the boat and strapped up the father. Unfortunately, the man was DOA at the hospital.
Jimmy was given a special award for bravery by the Boy Scouts, and I attended the ceremony wearing my own Boy Scout uniform. Somehow, Jimmy looked different than me, even though we both wore the same uniform. Maybe I just recognized the special way he wore his. It had a faded look to it, and he seemed very comfortable in it, as if it breathed along with him.
That was the last time I saw Jimmy. Six years later I got the word about Jimmy’s death from my mom, who got it from Jimmy’s mother.
Jimmy had already been graduated from college and was married. One night, he and his wife attended a party at her old sorority house, a reunion party I heard. During the festivities when the house was getting hot and stuffy, Jimmy, his wife, and another couple went out on a balcony to get some fresh air.
Suddenly, the balcony collapsed, killing Jimmy. No one else was critically hurt, and on the way down I’m sure Jimmy did what was necessary to push the others out of the way to make sure they’d be okay. He really was that kind of guy.
Now, this was the story that my mother told to me after the incident.
However, when I sent a copy of this manuscript to Jimmy’s parents and asked for permission to publish it, his mother replied: “It’s a wonderful story, Bruce, and of course you have our permission to use it, but that’s not what happened to Jimmy. Would you like to hear what really happened?”
“Of course!” I replied. But I don’t need to know if some little details are off, like the rescue taking place at midnight instead of 11 pm.”
“Oh, no, it’s nothing like that,” she answered. “The father didn’t have a heart attack. He fell overboard because he was drunk.” I listened with amazement as she continued.
“Jimmy was invited on the sailing trip because the guy’s wife refused to go with him. She knew he as a serious alcoholic, and worse, was a terrible sailor. But worst of all, he thought he was a terrific sailor.”
Jimmy’s mother and I agreed that was a deadly combination of personality traits.
“When the father went overboard, Jimmy and the girl threw him a life-buoy, but by the time Jimmy maneuvered the boat back to where the father had been floating they couldn’t find him. The wind and waves had blown him in an unknown direction. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a search light to scan the area effectively, so Jimmy put the boat into shore.”
“Well, how did I hear the heart attack version?” I asked. “Everyone in my family knows that Jimmy saved a guy who had a heart attack at sea. My sister even wrote a story for her creative writing class in high school using the same story line I have.”
“I have no idea how the heart attack version popped up,” she replied. “But I want to tell you that Jimmy was very much a hero that night, regardless of the circumstances of the father. The Coast Guard told me that night, when we went down to Jones Beach to pick up Jimmy, that if he had dived-in a half-hour later, because the tide was turning, the outgoing tide would have been too strong from Jimmy to overcome and there would have been two victims that night instead of one rescued alcoholic.”
I was unable to respond. “What a strange twist,” I finally uttered. I pondered what psychological forces must have been at work to elevate a sad-but-common story of an out-of-control alcoholic to a version that had a more appealing dramatic impact.
Regardless, Jimmy’s mother was correct. Whatever happened that night, one thing is certain: Jimmy put his life on the line for a guy who needed his help. When trouble happened, he knew what to do. That, I know to be the truth.
Lastly, at the family’s request I have changed Jimmy’s last name.
Editor’s Note: The Campfire Tales are all true stories even though many people do not believe them. They are all drawn from my personal experiences or observations, and have been told around Boy Scout campfires or the home and hearth of my family.