Your stories of courage begin today.

On September 27 I called for your essays on courage. In an effort to get a broader range of perspectives on courage I invited your short essays (300-700 words) on what you considered your most courageous moment.

As a token to encourage essayists and commenters to participate, I am offering two iPod nanos as prizes—the first to the winner of the essay contest and the second to a random commenter. And yes, this means that should you comment on more than one essay your name will be entered multiple times.

I’ll be publishing the entries over the next several weeks. Here’s the first.

Michael Shepherd

I don’t know if it’s good or bad that my most courageous moment came when I was six years old. This either means that I was fortunate enough to display the ‘hero’ badge very early, or that I’ve been in a slow, steady decline for forty-five years. While I prefer to assume the former, the latter has built up quite an impressive string of mediocrity since the mid-60’s.

To set the scene, my uncle was a small-town policeman. In his personal car, which he might use to respond to a crime from time to time, were various tools of a policeman’s trade, including a long cylindrical device that looked like a fountain pen–at least to me and my seven-year-old brother. On the day of the event, my one-year old cousin, strapped into a car seat in the back seat of the car, provided no input on the device’s resemblance to a fountain pen, one way or another.

My mother and her sister chose to drive my uncle’s car to the local grocery store and took me and my brother, plus one-year-old cousin, along–presumably to keep us out of mischief. Their plan immediately went off the rails as they left Rascal #1 and Rascal #2 (as the youngest, I was perpetually relegated to Rascal #2) in the car to watch the baby. Boys tend to do what boys tend to do, and after five or ten minutes of perfectly angelic behavior we began to poke around my uncle’s car–a sporty two-door Camaro with bucket seats–to see what we could find to entertain ourselves. The most interesting thing we found–initially–was a few scattered bullets in the center console. But we were raised in a family of hunters, so the novelty of furtively holding them while watching the door of the store in case mother or aunt showed up soon wore off.

Then we stumbled across the cylindrical, fountain pen-shaped object. It had a small release lever on the side. Small release levers are like a beacon begging ‘touch me’ to young boys, and I soon found myself trying to get the lever to do something other than beg. When I gave up, my brother took a turn. He flipped the lever…and it released.

The fountain pen-shaped device was in fact a tear gas bomb, and it went off in my brother’s hand. I heard a bang, saw him jump, heard a scream, and his hand was immediately coated in blood. Choking, eye-watering tear gas filled the car. We had to get out…now. My brother, badly bleeding, found the door handle, pulled it up, and fell onto the sidewalk. He was safe.

But the baby wasn’t. So I wasn’t leaving.

I couldn’t see. I could hardly breathe.

But I could hear the baby coughing.

I climbed between the bucket seats. I fumbled with the car seat harness though, looking back, I’d probably never put a child in nor taken one from a car seat before.

Despite the choking, blinding gas, somehow I released the harness, pulled my cousin out, found the bucket seat release lever, and flipped the seat forward.

Together we fell to the sidewalk.

And tried to breathe.

Forty-five years later my aunt, uncle and cousin still thank me every time they see me.

What do you think of Michael’s experience? Tell us in the comments below. And if his words have inspired you, send your own essay on courage to me at lauradisilverio AT yahoo.com.