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Courage is a test of physical, moral challenges

On Dec. 31, the Utah Highway Patrol reported that a 46-year-old driver with two nine-year-old girls and a four-year-old boy in his car, slipped off an icy road, rolled down an embankment and landed upside down in the frigid Logan River. Chris Wilden was driving by, stopped and plunged into the river. He saw the driver trying to get the kids out of the car, which was filling with water. Then six or eight more men jumped into the river and flipped the car right side up. Then Wilden broke the window with a shot from a handgun and got the girls out. Another rescuer had to cut the little boy out of his seatbelt. The boy wasn't breathing and a nurse who came upon the scene stopped and gave him CPR. All three children had to be flown to hospitals and all survived.

Francesco Schettino had not heard about the courageous rescue in Utah. Schettino had a great job, he was captain of the Italian luxury cruise liner, Costa Concordia. The ship carried 4,200 passengers. But when it hit the rocks off the coast of Giglio, Italy, on Jan. 13, the captain claimed he slipped and fell into a lifeboat. With crew and passengers still on board, the Coast Guard radioed Schettino and ordered him to re-board and rescue his crew and passengers. The captain answered, "I'm in a lifeboat under the ship. I haven't gone anywhere. I'm here." The Coast Guard replied, "You've abandoned ship. I'm in charge now. Go back and report to me how many passengers are still on board and what they need... Perhaps you saved yourself from the sea, but I'll make you pay for this." Captain: "You don't understand. I can't see anything." Coast Guard: "What is it, you want to go home Schettino? It's dark and you want to go home?"

As of this writing, 15 have died in that disaster and 29 are listed as missing. Captain Schettino is in jail, charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship.

What does it feel like to run from danger? In 1895, the Stephen Crane novel, "Red Badge of Courage," told the story of an 18-year-old soldier, Henry Fleming, fighting in the Union Army in the Civil War. Fleming was filled with dreams of glory on the battlefield. But when faced with a charging enemy force, he ran. Nobody saw what he did, but when he stopped he accidentally received a head injury by a rifle of another retreating soldier of his own platoon. The injury looked to others like a "red badge of courage," but it wasn't. He was humiliated by his own cowardice. You'll have to read "Red Badge" to see how it all worked out. What would one of us have done in that same situation? As Crane later wrote, "you can tell nothing unless you are in that condition yourself."

In 1955, John F. Kennedy wrote the "Profiles in Courage," in which he told the stories of eight U.S. Senators, including John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston and Robert A. Taft, who crossed party lines and defied public opinion to do what they felt was right and suffered severe criticism and loss of popularity as a result. It seems there have been few or no political profiles of courage in recent years. Name one senator or congressman who has crossed party lines.

There you have it, our courage can be tested by physical as well as moral challenges -- or sometimes a combination of both. Martin Luther King, Jr., would be an example of one who responded to both physical and moral challenges with his non-violent resistance approach during the civil rights marches. Mark Twain said, "it is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare."

But courage isn't fearless. Eddy Rickenbacher, World War I ace pilot, said, "Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared."

For most of us, the truth is that we may live through an entire life without knowing whether we have courage or whether we are cowards because we will never be truly tested. There may be a fine line between courage and cowardice. General George Patton said, "Courage is fear hanging on one minute longer." And Marvin Kitman mused, "A coward is a hero with a wife, kids and a mortgage."

Anybody can write about courage. But who will reach down and find it when it's needed? Stay tuned.