I scarfed my traditional Fletcher’s Corny Dog at the State Fair yesterday. In fact, I had two. They were delicious, of course.
But every year when I eat my Fletcher’s Corny Dog, my thoughts are taken away from the State Fair of Texas, to a most unlikely scene. Every year as I scarf my dog, I also remember one of the greatest heroes I have ever known.
The story starts on a weekend night, when I was in seminary, and was the Hall Director of Cockrell-McIntosh Residence Hall at SMU. The HDs rotated being “on call” during the weekends. It was my short stick weekend, so I was hanging out in my apartment, hoping nothing terrible would happen…when something terrible did.
The campus police brought in a young woman and her friend. She was an SMU student, and she and her friend had just been abducted and raped at knife point. It was a horrific attack. They’d come out of a Deep Ellum club, been taken off the street by three guys in a car, who drove them to a deserted park nearby, and assaulted them.
The women had found their way back to the SMU campus with the help of an African-American man named Robert. And as campus police and health counselors took over my apartment to assist the young women, Robert and me stood awkwardly in the other room.
Robert told me he lived in Fair Park area of Dallas. Earier that night, he and his nephew were sitting on their porch, when they saw the car with the women and assailants cruise slowly by. For reasons he could not fully explain, Robert said something about the scene didn’t seem right to him. But instead of calling 911, he grabbed car keys and his nephew, and they took off in pursuit.
They caught up to the assailants a few traffic lights down. It was hot. Everybody had their windows open. Robert called over to the young women,
“Are you girls OK?”
One of the assailants shouted back, “Man, just move along….this isn’t your business…”
But Robert would not be deterred.
“Are you girls OK?” He said again.
They softly shook their heads, No.
So, Robert called over, “Then I want you to get out of the car right now and come with me. Get out now! And come with me!”
For reasons that never seemed clear to anyone, the attackers let the women go, the women got in the car with Robert, and made their way back to campus. Which is where I met him, the women, and where he told me this incredible story.
I asked him, “What made you want to get involved? How did you have the courage to do that?”
He glanced away, and said he didn’t really know. And I believed him. He genuinely seemed amazed at his own actions…..although he also admitted that he’d been drinking a little, and that it had helped his courage. But standing in that room of my apartment, able to finally breathe in deeply and look back at the whole event, you could tell that Robert had even surprised himself.
From what I understand, the two women got the medical attention, and support, they needed that night. Their attackers were identified and later captured. And both the women and Robert provided important testimony at their trial. And that, friends, is the story of one of the bravest heroes I’ve ever met.
But why, you ask, do I remember him when I eat a Fletcher’s Corny Dog?
Because some months after that, on an October Day like yesterday, I was making my annual pilgrimage to Big Tex and the State Fair. I was getting the obligatory Corny Dog at the main Fletcher’s stand, surrounded by thousands of go-lucky patrons and the booming voice of Big Tex.
And as I reached up to grab my Corny Dog, the hand that gave it to me…was Robert’s.
He remembered me too. And he had that same stunned look on his face that I’d seen in the apartment, months before. We talked a little about the case. (Which was still underway then…) I think I remembered to thank him again for being such a hero. At least I hope I did.
But years later, i still recall how jarring that encounter was. This man was one of the greatest, most heroic, human beings I’d ever met. And yet here he was, working what many of us would consider a menial, part-time, seasonal fair job.
In that moment, I wanted to make the Texas Star ferris wheel stop. I wanted to grab the people next to me about their shoulders, shake the corny dogs and mustard from their hands, and shout…
“Hey everyone! This guy is a hero!!!”
But instead, we talked in hushed tones about the common horror we shared, and I walked off to put mustard on my dog. I never saw Robert again.
But to this day, every year when I get my Fletcher’s, I think about Robert. And every year, I feverishly glance around, wondering if just maybe, just maybe, he’ll be working there again.
It’s a silly thing to imagine, to be sure…that he’d be in that same exact place, all these years later. But I always do.
Hell, the truth is, I could’ve run into Robert in thousands of places during the twenty years that have passed. Maybe I did see him again, somewhere. Maybe I just didn’t notice.
What I know is this: Guys like Robert should get a million dollar prize. They should get front page banner headlines in the Dallas Morning News. But instead, far too often, our greatest heroes work part-time jobs, hawking Corny Dogs to guys like me.
That moment taught me a lot of things. It taught me to be more conscious about the judgments I make —judgments of class, race, economic circumstance— when I encounter people who work in places like a Fletcher’s Corny Dog stand. It taught me to not assume I know their story, their lives and histories. It taught me that even in the most ordinary of interactions, like reaching for a Fletcher’s, we can be standing in the presence of heroes.
None of this should surprise me, if I’d really listen to the stories of Jesus. So many of his teachings —-The Parable of the Last Judgment, The Parable of the Good Samaritan, The story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet— remind us how the most unlikely of people often end up as the heroic ones. Time and time again. They end up being the ones Jesus says love God because they loved their neighbor.
But in our world, we too often judge the book by its cover. We too often box people into binary categories…
And in doing so, we not only fail to see the humanity of others, we fail to see far more. We fail to see Corny Dog heroes, walking among us.
The Book of Hebrews reminds us that we should treat everyone we meet, even the stranger, kindly. Because we never know when we might be entertaining “angels, unawares.”
We can say this about heroes too.
That waitress, topping off your tea?
That lawn guy, using that leaf blower you complain about every week?
That bus driver, in the next lane (or, the bus you’re riding)?
That roofer, sweating it out with a nail gun on a 100-degree day?
They might just be the most heroics person you will ever personally encounter. They might be heroes amongst you, unawares.
In fact, my strong hunch is that heroes are far more common than we pretend. It’s something in the nature of true heroes that they don’t generally toot their own horns. So it’s easy for them to fade back into the woodwork and get lost in the shuffle.
But they are around us. And a part of honoring our common humanity is to “be aware.” Understand that the most heroic person you ever met might be working the job you too casually consider “menial.”
They might just serve you a Fletcher’s one day.