At first glance, it took me less than twenty-four hours to create a new word. In reality, it was only a variation and had taken my entire adult life. It was, after all, not a trivial word, but a word that moved nations, won wars, and saved lives: courage. Like many jokes and some stories, it begins like this: a man walks into a bar.
It was just after nine on a Wednesday evening when I walked into the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey Hotel bar, but it might as well have been a Tuesday or Thursday, a Marriott or Hilton in Scranton or Schenectady. I spotted a dimly lit corner of the bar and sat. To my left, a man thick through the neck and jaw wore a Muhlenberg College Baseball polo that puddled over his stone-washed jeans. The bartender presented menus and I ordered a glass of Pinot Noir and New York Strip, medium-rare.
“They make the best steaks. Chef uses a special rub,” Mr. Muhlenberg said as he stared into his glass, an amber liquid enveloping a large, round ice cube.
“Mmmm, that is good,” I said after taking a bite. “You know someone who plays ball at Muhlenberg?”
“My son, James. Six-two, bigger than me.” He stood and raised his hand several inches above his head. “We had several Division-1 colleges looking at James. Muhlenberg is Division 3. They can’t offer scholarships, but they took care of us,” he winked.
“He must be some player.”
The bartender smirked and drifted away to wipe down the other end of the bar.
My seatmate continued full steam ahead. “You had to see James in this game against Gettysburg. Bases loaded, no one out, and he retired the side. I was so proud of him. He was so courageous. Needed to ice his arm after that.” He nodded, slow and deliberate. My gaze left his, chuckling to myself.
“I’ll close it out,” I mouthed as I caught the bartender’s eye.
My foot tapped as the bartender disappeared into the kitchen. All had been fine until Mr. Muhlenberg had used that word; courage. He’d spent the previous half-hour talking about his son. I would have happily told him about my youngest son, Justin, if he’d only asked.
“I’m sorry, I can’t even imagine,” followed by a quick exit was the typical response after I told people. Mr. Muhlenberg and I hadn’t even gotten that far. If he’d asked, he would have learned that in addition to playing baseball, eleven-year-old Justin was told, “you have cancer.” He might have heard how Justin woke screaming most nights from the pain that pierced through the morphine, like a pitchfork. Heard how Justin’s arms became paralyzed, how he’d survived two twelve-hour surgeries, grimaced through four months of physical therapy before he could lift his right hand above his shoulder. To accomplish that simple task, Justin had to tilt his body and swing his arm, like a pitcher in a windup. He’d marked the achievement with a gasp. “I did it.”
A little different than James icing his shoulder after a tough inning against Gettysburg, huh, Mr. Muhlenberg?
Turning towards Mr. Muhlenberg, I scribbled on the receipt, “Maybe, I’ll see you again when I’m back in Harrisburg.”
“Yeah, buddy. It was great talking to you,” he said cheerfully.
The room lock blinked green on the fifth attempt and I felt like I just hit the jackpot on a Vegas slot machine. Inside, goosebumps tingled up and down my arms. The thermostat was set to 64. Not exactly a green hotel, I thought.
“How was dinner?” my wife, Ronee, asked when I called home.
“The steak was damn good for a Sheraton,” I said.
“I’m glad you had a nice dinner; I haven’t eaten yet.”
“You need to eat. You wouldn’t believe this guy who sat next to me. Mr. Muhlenberg baseball! Half an hour about his son, the college baseball player.”
“Take it easy on the guy. You were one of those crazy baseball dads once.”
“I guess the baseball part was fine, but then he tells me how his son was brave for playing up and courageous for pitching with the bases loaded. Courageous? Brave? C’mon.”
“Sounds like you’re cranky and need some sleep. I’m going through the same thing. You know how Jessica never called me after. I spoke to one of her friends today, and she made excuses for her, said Jessica didn’t know what to say.”
Back and forth, I paced the room, knuckles clenched white, wanting to return to the bar to speak to the man who stole the word courage. Eight blocks away on 9/11, I watched United 175 hit the South Tower. Heard the dense thud and gripped the table as the fireball approached my 37th-floor window. Afterward, office workers described firemen who passed them on the steps. Somber looks on their faces, resignation in their voices, they knew what they faced. I stared at the ceiling until 3 AM, how had courage become surviving an inning against Gettysburg? Justin was one of two thousand children who died from pediatric cancer in 2016. He faced the unimaginable words, “the scans weren’t good,” and yet he responded, “I don’t want your life ruined because of me.” Other cancer parents told similar stories of how their children faced death, how they still moved forward. Courage. Not Mr. Muhlenberg, not his son, not some D3 pitcher.
My drive home, four states in four hours, left plenty of time to think. I remembered Joe Delaney, a Kansas City Chiefs running back who drowned trying to save three boys. Delaney hadn’t known how to swim. His actions captivated me and had been with me since my freshman sociology paper about him and other Carnegie Hero Fund winners. I recalled Terry Fox’s 3,500-mile run across Canada with a prosthetic leg. Osteosarcoma later killed Fox, just like Justin.
Was James like FDNY Fire Marshall Ronald Bucca, Mr. Muhlenberg? I wanted to yell, as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, the Freedom Tower visible on my right. Bucca ran up 78 flights in the South Tower on 9/11, minutes after the second plane hit. Bucca, Delaney, and Fox all had exceptional courage. Courage with a Big C.
Back home that afternoon, I hugged Ronee.
“Long drive, huh?” She asked.
“Not too bad except that damn traffic over the George Washington.”
“I hope you’re not still thinking about that Muhlenberg guy.”
“No, not at all. I’m well past Mr. Muhlenberg.” Still, I felt like the caffeine addict at a rest stop Starbucks who had four extra shots in their cappuccino.
After dinner, I felt tempted to hit the heavy bag, to land a right cross, stopping it mid-swing, and rejoice in the smack of leather on leather, the snap of the chain. Instead, I retreated to my office and Googled “courage.” There were no pictures of Bucca, Delaney, or Fox. Just an ordinary word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.
Courage was a DIY word, burdened with a series of Ands and Ors.
That night, after meeting the man who knew the chef and bartender, I decided I wouldn’t let him ruin courage for me. He could keep courage for his son and his inning. I would have Courage for Justin and his fifteen-month battle. It was all that remained.
The following week it was another Sheraton. Past Hartford, as the buildings disappeared and the lush tree line appeared, my stomach groaned, and I thought about dinner. I Remembered the crunch of the charred steak, the first deep inhalation of the Pinot from the Mr. Muhlenberg night. Most of all, I wondered if there would be another father, someone who might tell me about his son? Someone who might turn to me and ask, “What about you, got any kids?”
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Inset courtesy of the author