Heroes haven't been much is style, lately, except in comic books, science fiction and Saturday morning cartoon shows. Once, kids would dream of daring the tenuous ice to pluck a child from the torrent. Then it got more fashionable to be a victim than a hero, James Dean than John Wayne, oppressed than successful.
Nevertheless, there's always somebody who doesn't get the word.
The Department of Transportation gave out gold medals and plaques to three of them yesterday, and afterwards they stood around squinting under the photographers' lights and answering questions.
"It was a red truck," said Kimberly Davenport with a finality that fell politely shy of irritation.
No disrespect, of course, to Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams, who'd just been calling it a "car" that she pulled the two little kids out of after Wanda Carter drove it into an icy stream last Feb. 16, in Hayesville, N.C.
And Kimberly Davenport was nervous. "Yes, very," she said, biting her lip. And only 17, in a new brown suit she had to go all the way to Atlanta to buy. But a red truck is a red truck, especially when you stood next to it for half an hour holding Wanda Carter's head out of the water while everybody else just stopped their cars and stared.
"They wouldn't do anything, that's what surprised me," she said."Finally my uncle came along. I cried a lot afterwards. I was kind of hysterical. I was more upset that nobody else would help than anything else."
And they just stood there on the Pennsylvania Turnpike outside Morgantown on March 23, waiting for the Piper Cherokee to explode after it crashed into the embankment and started to burn.
"The whole turnpike was stopped," said Allan Thomas, 38, who pulled his Greyhound bus over, told his passengers to stay put, then sprinted for the plane. Thomas pulled an 8-year-old girl out "with half her face gone."
But her father "was unconscious, in shock and all stiff. I couldn't move him. I stood there by the plane waving to the people but they wouldn't help. That hurt, I tell you. It was a neighbour named Emory Stoltzfus who came. That's S-T-O-L . . ."
The human race got higher marks, however, from tugboat captain Glenn MacDonald, who heard the airliner hit Escambia Bay, Fla. on the foggy night of May 8, and turned around to rescue 55 passengers and crew.
"I'd say that the fuel oil was half an inch thick on the water," he said. "My fly bridge is 15 feet up and my eyes were watering from it. We didn't have any problem with help, though. I had one deckhand. He pulled out one passenger. They pulled out four, four pulled out eight . . ."
MacDonald had the kind of smile, hard and easy at the same time, that wonht even consider a world in which people don't help.
"When I heard that a plan had gone down in the bay I knew he'd be there," said MacDonald's wife, Janet. "He always is."
The department gave its first heroismawards in 1975 to stewardesses who braved fire and destruction in the Tenerife crash of two 747s.
"The Republicans invented them," said one official laughing, and the other officials said they might give more awards or they might not. All in all, it was a fine and American muddle-the French, for instance would have already appointed endless committees, and the Russians would have these three marching in the May Day parade, or even staring from the reviewing stand in the official too-big overcoats.
Not that Davenport, Thomas and MacDonald would wish such glories.
She's the celebrity of Hayesville." said Kimberly Davenport's mother, Helen.
"How big is Hayesville, Daddy?" asked Kimberly.
"About 1,500," said Haig Davenport, who runs a grocery and sits on the school board.
"As big as that," said Kimberly, who is president of her class and a National Merit Scholrr, and wants to be a college English teacher.
Janet MacDonald complained that her Glenn was "so modest he wouldnht tell you all the other things he's done."
"Let's say that I'm in the type of business that's conducive to it. You get a lot of accidents out on the water," said MacDonald.
And after the state police arrived, Allan Thomas climbed back in his Greyhound bus and drove it into Philadelphia a mere 20 minutes late.
"I didn't get the shakes till I got home and I saw it on TV," Thomas said. "I had a hard time sleeping that night."
"And the next night and the next night," said his daughter Susan, 15, with that same spade-a-spade tone that Kimberly Davenport used when she talked about the red truck.
After all when it comes down to real jeroism, which is not ot be confused, even nowadays, with such things as celebrity or infamy or "playing hurt," or taking an unpopular stand, there's substitute for the facts.