When I was 12, I read a book that changed my life. Full of adventure and wisdom, it had me enthralled from the start. It was not a volume to be devoured in one sitting, but one to be savored, even kept for a lifetime and returned to often for reference.

No, it wasn’t the Bible, though its entry into my life was nothing short of providential. It appeared mysteriously inside my desk one day at school, and from then on I used it as an escape from the endless drone of grammar and algebra lessons. The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook was its title, and to this day, I value the lessons I learned from it more than anything else I learned that year. It taught me how to fight an alligator, escape from a submerged vehicle, build a primitive shelter, and survive jumping off a bridge, among other useful and impressive feats.

The more I learned, the more I longed to put my newfound skills to use. My ego had been stoked by the feats of that ultimate boy-hero, Harry Potter, and I believed my youth to be no inhibition. I saw myself gracefully springing into action after a scream rang out or a crash, saving some terrified person from a ghastly fate. I began secretly wishing for a small-scale yet life-threatening disaster to occur just so that I could save the day.

If I went for a hike with my family, I insisted on walking toward the front of the group so that I might be the first to face a wild animal. If we drove over a bridge, I cracked open my window to make for an easier escape should we plunge into the water below.

If we went out to dinner, I’d closely observe our fellow diners for signs of choking, in the hope of demonstrating a superior Heimlich Maneuver. Or better still, an emergency tracheotomy!

I thrilled at the shock value of having to perform this simple procedure by actually slitting open someone’s throat. The scene, I imagined, would take place in a hibachi-style restaurant well stocked with large, sharp knives that could easily be appropriated for the purpose. A drinking straw would do for a breathing tube, and after a few puffs .  .  . life saved! The paramedics would be so impressed they would hang a plaque with my name on it in the fire hall. It seemed quite straightforward. All I had to do was wait for the right moment.

Little did I know, my moment would come sooner than I’d imagined. Not long after I discovered the survival handbook, I was at the beach with my cousins. As the others played in the sand, 6-year-old Jordan and I decided to venture into the ocean. We were in an unguarded section of beach, so I promised our parents that we wouldn’t go out past where we could easily stand.

We were splashing in the surf in water no higher than our waists when something strange happened. Two waves suddenly loomed out of nowhere and came crashing in from opposite angles. When the tide went out, so did Jordan. The force knocked her off her feet, and the current sucked her in.

In a split second, I saw what was happening. I was up against a textbook rip current, and I knew what to do—swim parallel to the shore to escape the pull. But Jordan didn’t know that. My knowledge was useless.

Falling back on instinct, I launched myself into the receding water, grasping for any part of her I could reach. As I watched her disappear feet-first into a rush of foam, I managed to catch something—her hair. Hanging on for dear life, I yanked her toward shore. The force of my effort propelled us backward, and she and I landed in a heaving pile on the sand.

“Are you okay?” asked a middle-aged man who had been wading nearby. “You’re lucky you caught her!”

Vaguely, it dawned on me, my heart still pounding, that he had been the sole witness of my heroic act. Though the beach was littered with people, only he seemed to have noticed what had happened. No admiring multitude was materializing to praise my aplomb under pressure. There would be no plaque.

But as I turned to see dripping, frightened Jordan finally cough and sputter and catch her breath, I realized that I didn’t care.

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