There isn't time to think, is there? She's going under and if the water doesn't kill her, the ice will.

Some of us didn't watch the television coverage of the plane wreck in the Potomac. But the set was on, and I happened to be walking in front of it when the woman lost the life ring and began to sink. I saw the guy leap and swim over to her. I knew I had seen all there was to see.

But you can't think of those bystanders, those cops and firemen, those gentlemen in whirlybirds, without a sense of wonder that there wasn't a slob among them.

Courage is the most private of all human parts, and there is some vulgarity, I suspect, even to gaze at it, let alone to talk about it.

But then it's everything. You remember the story of Lord Jim, Conrad's big novel about the sea captain who saved his own hide while all his passengers drowned. The problem there was cowardice, and the trouble was the guy was caught off guard. If there'd been time to think, he would have done it differently.

So you wonder, if you see heroes, were any cowards there? You keep looking at them. And everybody translates the sight into the same question: If we were there would we be heroes? Or just on our duffs trying to figure it out.

There was a fireman back in my country, name of Billy Burrell, who went to a routine fire that stopped being routine. It was a cruddy little house and there were people in it. Burrell raced in. The doors, even, were on fire, and the metal of the windows was running down like the lead kids make toy soldiers with. Nothing could live in that fire and nothing did.

Burrell came staggering out. He was on fire. They squirted hoses on him. Then an astonishing thing happened. He dashed back toward the burning house. It took more than one guy to hold him.

He might as well not have dared those burning doors in the first place. He certainly brought nothing out. Except, of course, a prouder name.

There are days you think bad of your country. But the land has had some things happen on it, sufficient to consecrate the average field.

It may be we don't see heroes much nowadays. But then you already know why that is.

It's a plunge inside and no camera catches it. Even if there is an outward and visible sign, the camera is not usually around to bear witness when the big gift is given.

The first time I ever read that poem of Spender's there was a typo in it, where he speaks of those who leave the air signed with their honor. My copy said they left the air singed with their honor. As if honor burnt like a coal so that even the air was singed. I like that typo.

There's that big opera they sing in the theater about the guy who first has to go through fire and then has to go through water so dense and whirling there's nothing else. He has to do that because that's what he has to do to make the music come out right, and all he's got in the way of protection is a flute his girl gave him that's supposed to be magical. So he toots off through the fire and then the floods trying to remember to sound his music.

When he comes out okay, you can't take much more. Glory is best beheld in brief and regulated flashes.

Sometimes I think about Billy, the one at the burning door, and wonder how he's doing. Not that I ever knew him. He'd be surprised I know his name.

I wonder what it's like. Maybe it's like those winners of the big race that Pindar was forever celebrating in the stuff he wrote. The victory was so dazzling at 18 that those runners never had a normal life again. The early glory so overshadowed any other possibility that I wonder if they ever regretted it. Glory, I imagine, can be a gold-crowned mischief.

But I don't think it was for the fireman I mentioned. He was so modest he never even knew glory had hit him. He had just seen the fire and heard 'em hollering and did what anybody would have done.

The gist of it is bound to be separate from whether anybody is helped. The fireman never brought anybody out. The readiness was all.

They say the gods pull our wings off, like flies, and torment us for their sport. Nothing is going to change that. That's what they do.

To see some helpless mortal wheel around and snarl defiance at what is fated is a highly refreshing thing. Billy Burrell, I well remember, had a whole damn town in his debt once, not because he helped anybody out of the fire, but because he lived right there in the same town we did. Like having Achilles right down the road a piece.

We have great faith in time, most of us. Some things are best to deal with at a little distance. Not trying to make sense of it all at once. Getting at it gradually and somewhat sideways.

On the bus you probably saw those kids raising merry hell on the seminary's hill -- I did, coming to work. The ice was great from the packed pressure of the snow, and the garbage-can lids took off like outer space. The kids outdid themselves in a flurry of red mittens and delicious squeals.

There was a mother there, stalking over to one tot and the bus rolled on before I could hear (what I know she said) that Earl Wayne had better come rat cheer, don't you make me come after you, you know your daddy told you to stay right off of that hill, etc., etc.

The visions come and go so quick. You see them for just a few seconds. And thank God.