• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The Waffle House Hero

April 2018

When in a pinch, a man will respond in a way befitting of a hero. This was the admittedly optimistic conclusion at which George Orwell had arrived. Orwell believed that when the danger of a situation had arisen, and the gravity of the moment had settled in, so pressured a man would be bold. Indeed, he couldn’t be otherwise. After all, he’s the person upon whom others less heroic than he rely. He would be valiant. Orwell hoped he’d be the Theseus of old, the Washington of new. He’d be an Alexander sallying upon Asia or a Napoleon crossing the Alps. He’d be Magellan at world’s end, or Noah at its start. He’d be the figure to whom encomia are recited, the one for whom perpetual odes are sung. He’d be the man from whom inspiration will be drawn forevermore.

Taking Orwell at his word, and who would be so unwise not to, it nearly goes without saying that so permeant a hero can’t fail to respond in a pinch with that unusual combination of alacrity and intrepidity. Quickness and bravery will be all he knows. He’ll think not of himself, nor of the immediate peril within which voluntarily he’s been placed, but of someone and something greater. He’ll act for the preservation of the many at the risk of his own being. Moving swiftly and rightly, he sacrifices the particular to the greatest general good. In having done so, his might be lost, but another’s life will endure.

Man, such as we find him in his natural state, is of all the beasts traipsing this green earth the only in possession of the ability consciously to be brave. Upon reflection (itself a faculty absent amongst so many of our animal friends) this is a peculiar endowment of which we seldom take note. No other animal can be so philosophical about self-sacrifice. No other esteems commensurately highly the value of another’s life nor struggles with the fear of one’s own death.

Man and man alone proves his mettle through his purpose and his determination, rather than through some animalistic instinct such as habit or fear. All other animals are quite different in this respect. In being habituated, the guard-dog, let’s say, simply appears heroic before his master; there is no higher faculty nor abstraction of thought that compels him to stand at attention, vigorously to respond to a threat, and accordingly to bite. Much as we might enjoy anthropomorphizing the common mutt (pushing him in strollers, replacing—when sufficiently arthritic—his canine hips, or feeding him from our plates), he’s simply trained to nip at an enemy and to intervene on your behalf. There is no higher purpose other than his ingratiating, unwavering affinity to you as master and his slavish debt to an animal will. Standing athwart the imagination lies the reality that a dog is no hero. At least he isn’t in any way remotely comparable to the way in which a man is.

As the animal can appear to us heroic out of habit, so too can it appear heroic out of fear. Moving right along from Balto to Baloo, in being fearful, the grizzly bear does seem heroic, but is in reality just diffident. I mean not diffident in the usual sense of the word, as in timorous or shy, but in that of its original application. Back then, not so very many years ago, the word described someone who was “wary” or “distrusting”. This was the way in which Thomas Hobbes—a cold yet admittedly prescient English political theorist—applied the word. In his writing, he used diffidence to explain one of the three reasons why man—in his pre-civilized state—occasioned himself to fight with his neighbors. The other reasons of course being competition and glory, diffidence could just as quickly and disastrously be an invitation and provocation to war. Typically, it’s from a place of distrust and of fear that a grizzly bear attacks an interloping person or animal who’s too closely approached her brood. Erect on her hinder legs—baneful and bipedal—the grizzly bear gives off an impression of that vaunted heroic nature so unique to man. But this too is not really heroic. The bear’s inclination toward aggression is born of fear and she has no thought to a heroic end.

That thought belongs solely to man. It’s he who can endanger himself, voluntarily and by his own free will, in a situation in which he might rise superior to misfortune—or he might not. Notice here that I don’t flirt with saying that he “will” rise superior to misfortune, or rise to it at all, only that he “might” do that much. That is the strongest endorsement of man one can give. To shower upon him greater approbation than that would be an act of vanity.

You’ll realize at this point that I disagree with George Orwell’s understanding of man and his inherent heroic quality. In general, Orwell seems to imply that in those gravest of situations, when man is indeed in a pinch, his valor sparks like a bolt of lightning’s flash. When imperiled, his latent heroism becomes aroused and it makes itself manifest. He calculates the risk, reliably dismisses it as being negligible, and proceeds to act with the very real knowledge that he may be soon divested of life or of limb. This prospect, though, is of no impediment to him. Coursing Scylla and Charybdis as though an old and wearied Ithacan, bound to his vessel, he proceeds.

I just don’t see this being the case. I think the heroic quality in man (and by “man”, I do of course mean both man and woman—one might better capture them in the term human as a generality) is much less common than we’d like to think. Rather an exception than a rule, heroism isn’t something ordinarily exercised nor is it something regularly seen. It’s an anomaly, and that’s a bit of a shame. It’s a shame because it leaves in us a void—a sort of “heroic crater”—from which we peek out in search of roots and stories to which we can grab firmly and hold. Yet our desperate and searching hands find no such people nor stories on which to grasp. The heroic landscape is barren, or at least it is in those tired vistas we’re prone to seek. Unfulfilled, we stumble from this arid landscape and fall upon false idols, pseudo-heroes—gilded and vapid things under which nothing heroic awaits. They appear before us like mirages in the sands.

Replacing our heroes are our celebrities; we’ve become besotted with them and devoted to their worship. The characters on the screen to whom they give life enthrall us, their voices soothe us, their athletic prowess amazes us, but their virtues displayed in the reality of their lives leave us perpetually wanting. Dismissing the latter and embracing the former, we’ve confused actors with actual heroes and charlatans with real women and men. In propping them up as we do, their sins transition quietly from egregious to venial, while their feats steadily increase in value from marginal to glorious. The celebrity is thus enshrined. And while we think that we’ve filled this void of the heroic with the prescribed bolus that is a Hollywood fare, we feel emptier still. Slow are we to admit it or to feel it, but it’s true. It’s as if a parasite resides in the bowels. We’re left wishing we had just a morsel of the nutritive value that a true hero can bring.

I’m delighted to say that more than just a morsel, an entire entrée of the heroic has lately been served. Of all the places and in all the scenarios in which a hero might be born, this one was the most unlikely. It happened at a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of a Waffle House experience, it’s a curious and a wondrous thing. Waffle Houses are like little mile-markers on American highways. Unlike the North Star, on which navigators ever since the dawn of time have relied in the dead of night, Waffle Houses flank the highways and never fail to lead you south. They’re the omnipresent, syrup-soaked cottages dotting the interstate from the Carolinas to Florida. And the further south you reach, the more common it is they’ll sprout adjacent to every road.

But this past weekend, that Waffle House in Tennessee became a site not of late-night conversation and sugar-laden respite, but of bloody carnage. A young man, unclad and in the twenty-ninth year of his life, went to the Waffle House at three o’clock in the morning. Upon exiting his car, this man proceeded without having been instigated to fire upon the Waffle House at Antioch. Indiscriminately, he struck patrons both outside and within. In the parking lot, two were left dead before he barged into the store. Once inside, he continued firing at will. Ultimately and mercifully, he claimed only two more lives and wounded four others. I say mercifully because a man, in a pinch, became a hero.

Surely, James Shaw Jr. didn’t expect to become a hero that day. He’d been at a local club that evening with a friend, relishing the new weekend while grasping the fleeting coattails of his escaping youth (Shaw is also twenty-nine years old). As most travelers and party-goers do, he and his friend opted for Waffle House to recuperate their spirits and replenish their energy. They arrived there just moments before the carnage ensued. Seated at the counter, awaiting his order, Shaw heard gunshots to his rear. In a pivot, he was facing the assailant, now naked, at the door. The staff in the back of the restaurant, prioritizing their lives over their patrons and their pancakes, were quick to flee, while those still among the living huddled beneath their tables in their booths. Around them, the wounded and the dead writhed or lay prostrate on the ground.

With immeasurable derring-do and little consideration for his own well-being, Shaw chose to act.

He was somehow able to find his way to the shooter while the salvo of bullets flew. Reaching him, he was able to confront the killer mano-a-mano. Himself unarmed, he and his assailant struggled for control of the weapon—in this case, as in many, an AR-15. Shaw was able to wrest from the naked assailant his gun. It’s well known that losing one’s arms is the cardinal sin of any shooter, yet it proved on this occasion the salvation of the many whose lives were teetering between the darkness of eternity and the light of another day. Shaw, for his efforts, sustained a superficial gunshot wound to his forearm, but he was successful in taking from the killer his gun. The murderer, having at this point no feasible recourse, decided to turn and flee. He made what would come to be a temporary escape; the police pursued and caught him alive the following day.

Shaw will tell you his was a selfish act. He’ll explain that what he did was in fact craven, not brave. He was merely trying to save himself, to put up a fight before his untimely death. It was the exigency of greed and of self-love that forced him to act, if only for the hope that he might see, touch, and kiss his young daughter just one more time. This is nonsense and we should smile at his excessive humility. Shaw is an example of that which is rare but best in man. Most men won’t be heroic in a pinch. To be brave is to decide to be brave and Shaw—so far as my heroic pantheon is concerned—sits alongside those deserving of my most profound appreciation, forevermore a hero all his own.

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