He couldn't have dreamed it.
His daddy nicknamed him Dutch because he looked like a fat little Dutchman at birth. At age 22, however, there’s nothing little or fat about this handsome Irish-American lifeguard. With one eye on the river and another on his future he dreams today of what he could be tomorrow.
His little town boasts of what he has become already. Dutch has saved 71 lives in seven years of duty on the Rock River, he has thrilled them on the football field, and he has graduated from college, something rare for this town. Already he has exceeded most of their expectations, but just how far does Dutch think he can go?
Dutch once dreamed of Ivy League schools, but being just one of millions of poor Americans hoping for better but settling for reality, he went to the small college near home. There he overcame weaknesses and discovered new strengths. He dared to believe athletic achievement, the thrill of the stage, and a surprising gift for leadership would launch him boldly into new worlds, but The Great Depression forced him home. Here he sits again, perched on his lifeguard tower, wondering.
Radio is king, and a nation is hungering for new personalities to lift it out of despair. So Dutch thinks about knocking on studio doors. Yes, he could be a sportscaster. He could deliver play-by-play baseball and football back to his home town, to the whole country. He could even become the broadcast voice of the Chicago Cubs. Sure he can reach this dream. But then what? Hollywood?
A sudden spasm of violent splashing shakes Dutch free from his fantasy. He stands and prepares to swim to the trouble, but then sits down. It’s just a couple of kids in the middle of horseplay. He will lecture them later. He strokes his chin with his hand and his mind wanders again to what could be. Then he shakes his head in disbelief and sighs. No, he’s just Dutch. Hollywood is a foolish dream, and Beyond is just a vain imagination.
Humility wouldn’t let Dutch dream that in just months he would wander into Republic Studios and come out with a seven-year acting contract. He couldn’t imagine that movie sets would become his work place, and that he would co-star alongside film legends like Betty Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn.
This poor lifeguard making $20 a week, and the son of a alcoholic father, had never been east of Chicago, north of Minneapolis, or south of the Ozarks. What would his devout Christian mother think of his dream of celebrity and fame? No good can come from thinking this way.
From his throne at the river’s edge he could leap to save drowning swimmers, lead lost children to their parents, and he even had the authority to close an entire public beach and command a river full of people to go home, but leadership? He was just a lifeguard after all, from a small town working his way through the worst of times. He was far from qualified to lead. Or was he?
Humble Dutch couldn’t imagine the road map Destiny had drawn for him. He didn’t have a clue that as an actor he would take a leading role in facing down his country’s Cold War enemies, or that his leadership gifts would give him a chance to be governor of one of the most powerful states in America.
He would earn fans and friends and lots of enemies. Nations would quake at his voice and the authority of his words would cause great walls of separation to fall. He would make mistakes, yes, but rise from the ashes to earn the respect of even some of his enemies. Little could he have dreamed that one day his small town and his beloved country would call the lifeguard from Rock River “Mr. President.”
Maybe his life’s path proves that destiny or providence doesn’t depend on proper situations to achieve its goals. Even a lifeguard can be rise to greatness, if it be God’s will.
But here on the lifeguard stand Dutch’s historic accomplishments are just dreams and at the end of a long day about as valuable as the single copper penny in his pocket, and much less valuable than the hot supper waiting for him on his mother’s kitchen table.
Inspired by “When Character Was King” by Peggy Noonan, Penguin Books, 2002.
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