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What does a hero look like?
Is a hero one of comic book lore, who flies into danger, cape whipping in the wind, muscles bulging, as citizens watch in awe-struck wonder?
Perhaps heroes are more often found singing on a stage, playing in a stadium or starring in movies as millions of adoring fans fawn over them for their extreme giftedness.
Or perhaps, just perhaps, a true hero doesn't even know he or she is a hero.
Maybe true heroes are so selfless and focused on compassionately loving others, that to even consider themselves heroes would cause them profound embarrassment.
On Tuesday, Jan. 29, 66-year-old Charles ("Chuck" to his many friends) Poland Jr. was doing what he loved—driving a busload of "his kids" home from their Midland City, Ala., schools. Chuck didn't know it, but in just a handful of minutes, the litmus test of hero definition would literally be handed to him.
Chuck and his wife of more than 40 years, Jan, were longtime members of Grace Assembly of God in nearby Newton, Ala. And this rural bus route was not just a job to Chuck; it was a ministry he had enjoyed for the past four years—picking up and delivering kids safely to and from school each day.
Chuck's pastor, Ray Layton, says there was no doubt how much he cared for the kids.
"He really loved those kids on the school bus," Layton says. "In fact, a little boy, named Ethan, was really afraid to ride the school bus, so Chuck always saved the seat right behind him so he could talk to Ethan and assure him and help ease his fears. Jan told me recently that Chuck had said he felt his little buddy—what he called Ethan—was finally getting comfortable riding the bus."
Layton says the Polands were also a gift to his small, but friendly church.
"Chuck and Jan were members of the choir and were usually one of the first ones to be at church on Sunday morning, Sunday night or any other time the church doors were open—and one of the last to leave," Layton says. "He enjoyed the fellowship. He was warm, compassionate and anything we needed help with at the church, he was ready to volunteer."
Layton explains that no matter what words of praise he bestowed on Chuck, it really couldn't be enough.
"He was a humble man, a caring man, who, when he spoke, spoke with wisdom," Layton says. "I can't add to his life. He just really loved the Lord, that was Brother Chuck, that was just him."
But Chuck wasn't just all about the "warm fuzzies" of being surrounded by a loving church family and being a "surrogate" father to about two dozen children each day. No, Chuck lived out what he believed—demonstrating the love and compassion of Christ, even when the warm and fuzzy was more of a "hard and thorny."
When Jimmy Lee Dykes moved to the community, it quickly became obvious to neighbors that he was a hard-nosed loner, who seemed to have a survivalist mentality. He did nothing to ingratiate himself to his neighbors—in fact, he frequently threatened them and their property.
But Chuck didn't see Dykes as an enemy, but rather a soul to be pointed toward Christ. He did his best to befriend Dykes. In apparent appreciation, Dykes created a place on his property for Chuck to be able to turn the school bus around more easily.
So, when Dykes approached the school bus that Tuesday afternoon, Chuck was not overly concerned. Why, just that morning he had brought over some homemade jelly and fresh eggs to Jimmy Lee. But when Dykes stepped on the bus stairs and handed him a note, Chuck probably knew something was wrong.
Few people face that moment when death looks them in the face and gives them a choice—live or die? Fewer still pass the test heroically as the instinct to survive is powerful.
Although no one is certain of the words Chuck responded with to Dykes' note—now backed by a loaded gun—demanding two children between the ages of 6 and 8 be given to him, Chuck's refusal was clear. No one was going to come on to his bus and take any of the kids—not his kids!
"Some people have called Chuck a hero, and deservingly so," Layton says quietly. "But what Chuck was most of all, was a true Christian. He understood what love and sacrifice was all about."
Soon after Dykes stepped onto the bus steps, he fired one warning shot into the bus roof and then four more shots directed at Chuck, with the first of the four piercing Chuck's heart. Dykes, apparently surprised by Chuck's dogged refusal, then grabbed little Ethan, who had passed out with the shock of the shooting, and took off. Things were no longer going according to Dykes' plan as he left behind 21 shocked and terrified children.
"If Chuck hadn't given his life to protect those children, there's no telling what could have happened," Layton says.
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