Small Town Hero by John Bolton
Goodland County, Oklahoma.
I picked up the Sunday paper and read the front page headlines.
Oklahoma won its bowl game. Football is big here in Oklahoma. As I started to dig for the funnies and sports page, a photo on the bottom of the front page caught my eye. It was Travis Erbeck, my old friend from Clayton. The bold print read, ‘Small Town Hero: Good Samaritan Dies Saving Girl And Dog.’
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. It was an old story that we seem to hear every year or two; a kid falling through the ice. Marisol Hernandez, age twelve was walking her little pug dog on the Crescent Lake walking path. Puggy saw a duck on a patch of openwater and somehow got free of Marisol to chase after the duck.
Puggy slid into the water. Marisol had the sense to drop down and belly crawl, but the ice broke and Marisol went into and under the frigid water. She came up intent on her mission. She saved Puggy, shoving her onto the ice. But she could not escape the water herself. Each time she tried, more ice broke and her frigid muscles were soon giving out.
Trav Erlbeck was driving by when two women walkers waved him down. Trav was a plumber and handyman. He had an aluminum ladder on his truck. A wood ladder would have been better in this case. The walkers called 911 and watched five foot nine, two hundred and sixty pound Trav grab the ladder like it was surf board and lumber onto the thinly frozen lake. He extended the ladder to Marisol and she grabbed it for dear life. But as Trav was pulling her to safety the ice gave way beneath him. Trav was still able to save Marisol, but he couldn’t save himself.
I never thought of Trav as a hero before I read that article. But looking back, he always had it in him. We met in third grade. He was the new kid in school. The teacher, Miss Meyer, put Trav in a desk next to mine. We got to be friends pretty fast.
We had a kid in our class named Mike Rau. Mike was a truly bad kid. He later got sent off to reform school for vandalizing a school bus. Trav got into a fight with Mike that first week he came to school.
It’s a better story if I tell you about Mike. Mike was a year older than the rest of us. He was skinny, but tough. He was interested in girls before the rest of us boys were. He was the first kid I ever heard really cuss. I mean really cuss. Mike told us a lot of things, including how babies were made. I remember a kid named Marlon saying his mom and dad would never do that.
The worst thing I remember Mike doing was something he did to Miss Meyers, our teacher. Mike said she had falsies. I didn’t know what that meant and of course, Mike told me.
One day we were taking a test and putting the papers on Miss Meyer’s desk when we were done. Mike got done early, which never happened. He put down his test and then pushed in Miss Meyer’s breast with his pencil. It stayed dented in. She got up and turned her back to us and fixed herself up. Then she hauled Mike off to the principal’s office. He got suspended for that.
Mike came back to school the same week Trav started. On Thursday or Friday, Miss Meyer was out of the room and Mike was picking on Marlon Meyers. Marlon was okay, but he was the kind of kid that got picked on. Trav stepped in and said, “Hey, leave the kid alone.”
Mike threw the first punch and then he and Trav went at it pretty good. But it was grade school punches without much damage getting done. The fight ended as abruptly as it started. Trav’s parting verbal shot was, “Don’t pick on kids.”
I remember looking at the door while they were slugging and saw Miss Meyer peak in. She kind of dodged out of the way so I wouldn’t see her. That surprised me. The only person I ever told about that was Trav. We figured she wanted Mike to get beat up. He didn’t really get beat up, but he got stood up to. That was the first brave thing I saw Trav do.
The school bus thing was not long after that. Mike did a bang up job. He climbed a cyclone fence and got into the bus yard. He cut up the seats, spray painted obscenities and peed and crapped on the driver’s seat. I never heard how he got caught, but he did. We never saw him or heard news of him again. I figure he’s most likely dead or in prison.
Trav was a fun kid and we were friends on through junior high.
We drifted apart in high school. I took college prep classes and Trav took shop and auto mechanics. He didn’t take well to coaching and dropped out of sports to focus on cars, beer, girls and making money.
Trav got to be a hell raiser as a teen and young adult. He drank too much, got in fights, drove like a maniac and had a temper. He partied and trashed a couple of apartments. The cops go tired oh his act and he did jail time and a short time in prison for assault and destruction of property. I had moved away by those years, but kind of feared Trav was headed for more jail or an early death.
I made the two hour drive and pulled into the funeral home on the night of Trav’s visitation. The parking lot was packed. Inside, a greeter handed me Trav’s obituary. I signed the funeral book and looked over the obit. Aged forty eight years, four months and five days. Survived by his daughter and two grandkids, his mom, brothers and sisters, many friends and his cat, Clyde. Trav always loved his critters.
Everybody had to file up to the front to be greeted by Trav’s daughter and mom. Lots of hugs and tears and an occasional quiet bit of laughter. Trav’s mom looked old.
It was an open casket and Trav looked like Trav, too good to be dead. He had on a red Oklahoma football shirt and tattoos on his arms. There were barb wire tats around both biceps. There was one for Chelsey, his daughter and several big words in Chinese.
There was a nice bunch of flowers including a wreath that said hero. Photos of his life and family showed on a screen. There was one of me and Trav and Jimmy Adamson with a stringer of fish. Jimmy had a black eye in that photo.
I knew most of the people there and it was good to talk to people I hadn’t seen in years. The service started and the minister opened with saying, “I never had the pleasure of knowing Trav, but I have heard a lot of good things about him. You know, Trav lost his way for a while and did things he was ashamed of. I’m told he got to be a good man.
“People say he was strong as a bull. And it surprises people that strong as he was and a good swimmer too, that he drowned in that cold water. I want to make a point about that. Who among you will be the next to die? Will it be the strongest or the weakest? Will it be the youngest or the oldest? Will you be ready to meet your maker?”
Wow, great minister. Made me think. He kept it short and about mostly about Trav. Then he said, “All right. Now you get the opportunity to stand up and tell us something about Trav. This is a celebration of his life. Trav’s mom and daughter Chelsee, want this to be as happy a time as we can make it. They say there are lots of good Trav stories and lots of funny ones. They hope you will tell both kinds.
Now I know that some of you don’t want to talk because you’re afraid you’ll cry. That’s no excuse. Say what you want to say. If you get to crying too much, just stop for a bit we’ll wait. Good people cry. Manly men cry.”
One of Trav’s older sisters went first. “Most of you know that those Chinese tattoos on Trav’s arms say, ‘Big Brother.’ I’m older than Trav, but he was my big brother. He was my big bear. He was the one that took care of us and the one we went to…..”
A lady stood up and said, “I’m Cindy Swanson. A couple of years ago my sewer line plugged up and we couldn’t use the toilet. I was laid off and pretty broke and with two little boys. Trav came over and helped us out and wouldn’t let me pay him any labor.”
Mike Stone was next. “Trav helped a bunch of us. If you needed something hauled, Trav and his truck were there. If you had car trouble Chad was the man. That guy could fix most anything. And he was so funny. Always makin’ me laugh.
I’ll tell you one story. I came home from college for Christmas vacation the year I was twenty. Trav and I and Willie T. got two cases of Shiner Bock and set to drinking. We were driving down a country road in Trav’s pickup and throwing out the empties in the pickup bed. Willie made a bad toss and the can went on the road. Bad luck, man. A deputy saw us. The deputy’s cherries lit up and Trav hit the gas.
Trav had that old GMC truck with a Chevy 396 V8. I remember the speedometer showing one hundred miles an hour. This was on gravel roads. That’s fast on gravel. We were outrunning the cop and Trav asks, “Hey. Do you know what GMC stands for?”
“Get mechanic cwik.”
That got a good laugh and next up was Jimmy Adamson. “Did you see the photo of Trav and John Richards and a guy with a black eye? And a stringer of fish? I was the guy with the black eye. We were fishin’ on the river and there was a fresh plowed field there. We had a dirt clod fight. There was a junk car there with no window glass. I was on one side of the car and Trav was on the other side. He winged a clod right through the windows and got me in the eye. Man did he ever feel bad when my eye swoll shut.”
A guy I didn’t know got up and said. “You know Trav and his pranks and jokes? Did you ever see him laughing so hard he couldn’t stop? That was the best. This is a dumb story. Trav and I were working doing phone sales. We both hated it and didn’t last two weeks. Well, I had a new camera and I took it to work. This was back before digital, when you took film to the drug store to get developed.
“I had a new girlfriend too and we took pictures. We picked up the pictures and were sitting in the car looking them and there’s a picture of a toilet full of crap. That girl saw that picture and looked at me like I was the weirdest, dumbest guy in the world. I knew right away Trav did it. That’s the most embarrassed I ever got.”
There were a bunch of good stories and funny stories and then there was a lull. I got up and introduced myself and said, “Trav and I were good friends in from fourth grade on through junior high. I could tell you a funny story or two. But I want to tell you a story I’m ashamed of. But Trav comes out the hero again.
“It was eighth grade and there was a girl in some of our classes. I won’t say her name. The truth is that I can’t remember it. She was skinny and quiet and to tell the truth, I hadn’t really noticed her. She was shy. She wore old clothes.
“I don’t think I knew back then what it was to shun somebody. But somehow it was getting so that girl was shunned. No good reason for it. Just dumb kids. One day the teacher left the room and we were supposed to split up into groups of four with two boys and two girls. A girl in one group said, ‘Oooh, we don’t want her.’
“There was a kind of murmur and somebody else didn’t want her either. I remember this sad and distressed look on that girl’s face. Good old Trav yells out, ‘Come with us. Screw those stuck up bitches.’
“The teacher showed up just in time to hear that and to haul Trav off to the principal’s office. Trav didn’t seem to get in much trouble and before long that teacher approached every kid in small groups and talked to us about being good to that girl. Things got better for her after that. I remember a popular girl named Shirley Wingert kind of taking that girl under her wing.
“I remember that incident and I wish I would have been the kid who stood up for that girl. I was too slow to think of it and I wouldn’t have had the guts. Trav had the guts.”
A couple more people told Trav stories and then when no one knew stood up, the minister stood and said, let’s close with a final speaker.
A pretty lady stood and wiped her teary face with a purple bandana. “My name is Toni Hernandez. I did not know Trav Erbeck, but it’s my little girl he saved. My Marisol. She’s not here tonight. She feels so, so bad that Mr. Erlbeck died saving her life. She’s a good girl, my Marisol. And thanks to Trav she can have a good life. I am so thankful to Trav and to all of you here tonight. God bless Trav Erlbeck and God bless you all.”
I think Trav would think what he did was worth the price he paid.