My grandma Giggy was bright. She finished high school early and started nursing school at sixteen. She went to the University of Tampa, and her parents lived across the state in Vero Beach. State Road 60 is pretty much a straight shot between the two, crossing open fields of saw palmetto and freshwater canals. Giggy’s boyfriend loaned her his car joking, “If you get in an accident, make sure it’s a big one.”
As she drove home to see her parents one night, Giggy came upon a road work crew blocking the lane ahead. She tried to go around on the right, but discovered there was no shoulder. Her boyfriend’s car went over the edge and plunged into the canal down below.
Inside the car, she panicked. Giggy couldn’t get the seat belt to release. She couldn’t get the door to open. The car was filling with water. She fainted.
Back up on land, the road crew stared into the water but made no move to save her. A black trucker with his young son stopped his ride. He yelled for the white road crew to save her as he got down from his cab. No, they said. There are gators in that water.
The black man dove into the water. He managed to wrench the car door open, but the water pressure slammed it shut on three of his fingers. Leaving them behind, he rose to the surface for air and to call out for a tire iron. His son gave it to him, and he dove under the water again. He smashed open the window and lifted my Giggy out. When she came to, she blearily mumbled “my cigarettes” and he dove in one last time to retrieve her purse.
This amazing man whose name I did not know saved a woman who would not save him. He risked literal life and limb and lost three fingers saving her. The debt can never be repaid, though Giggy was able to do a little. The two were asked on a 1950s game show a few years later, and Giggy was able to answer trivia questions to win him household appliances (a very 50s thing indeed).
I’m not a big fan of It’s a Wonderful Life, but when I think of one person’s impact on the world, I think of that black trucker being selfless and brave. Giggy would go on to have four surviving children, eight grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren so far. In saving one life, he allowed for a future where seventeen more lives could happen.
In my darkest days newly out of her cult, I sometimes wished he hadn’t saved her. In those same years that she’s had seventeen descendents, she’s also contributed to at least a dozen deaths. She left a sponge in a surgical patient. She drove recklessly and took out a pedestrian as I watched in horror. She gave deadly medical advice as a faith healer. She killed and maimed babies as an unlicensed midwife.
Now I can say ths t he did the right thing in that moment. Her actions don’t diminish his heroism and I can be grateful for him even as I wish she hadn’t been her. One man’s bravery allowed every good and bad deed for four generations of my family. And that’s what anyone who saves a human life does – allows futures full of humanity, the good and the bad. His actions made the world a better place even though she didn’t.