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Lack of fear, courage - Bob Paslay

I have mentioned in the past that I have just about every phobia in the world. I am a walking testament to the fact that you can function in a world in which just about everything petrifies you. I don't drive over high bridges, I am afraid of heights, I don't drive on big roads like interstates and I hate to fly.

Is there a difference between courage and lack of fear?

I wondered this as I sat safely away from all my phobias and watched the thrilling flight this week of SpaceShipOne in which 63-year-old pilot Mike Melvil rocks and rolls and breaks into space.

It was reported that this was the most watched aviation competition since Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic to claim a $25,000 prize. Inflation being what it is, the SpaceShipOne team is competing for $10 million.

At one point in this historic flight, the plane began rolling, 25 times in a minute. Melvil, undaunted, shut down the rocket engine, worked some more aviation magic that righted the craft and then successfully landed. He has another flight in two weeks to claim the prize and I will be watching with great excitement.

Melvil made light of the whole rolling incident as every daredevil with ice water in his veins would do.

I am so envious of people like Melvil and Lindbergh, who are not afraid. Fear is just not a part of their lives. It never occurs to them.

I have friends like that. And I envy that state of being.

It takes people like this to push the frontier forward. And make no mistake about it, we are pushing the frontier of space forward.

Once we take out the incredible cost of getting into and out of space, then you can make safe travel affordable. Once you make travel affordable, you make colonization a reality.

What drives some of this is the bragging rights. You go to a party and you say, "Well, when I was vacationing on the moon, I found it exhilarating." You are the center of attention. People who went to Cancun and London are now standing around with nothing to top this.

I have no doubt that some of my friends, if they could afford it, would be the first in line for this space travel.

I am disappointed in the pace of American space exploration. The glow wore off the excitement and the funding fell away. Once we proved we could land on the moon, we should have picked out a spot and planted a development on there. That is why this latest flight is so important. You can't haul all the needed equipment up for colonization if it costs millions each flight. If we are to succeed it appears it will have to be done by the private sector.

The reason I wondered about the difference between courage and lack of fear is that I believe courage is a different thing entirely.

You are standing in a group of friends and one of them makes a racial or sexist joke and you pause and look at them and say, "That offends me. Don't do it again." That, in my mind, is courage.

When I was a teen-ager selling newspapers on the street, there was this great old Southern man who drove his multi-tone green car by my spot on the slab of concrete in the middle of the road and bought a paper. If the light was red we would chat a minute before it turned green and he drove off. He seemed like everyone's grandfather, bespectacled and wearing a straw hat.

I mentioned him to my mother and she knew who I was talking about. He was many decades earlier the sheriff in my home county.

A mob of people on a hot summer night descended on the jail, determined to pull a black man out and lynch him. This gentle man who bought a paper from me had decades earlier stood in front of the jail, his shotgun pointed at the crowd. He said basically, "You may get past me, but some of you are going to be dead." And all night long he stood there, unflinching, and eventually the mob dispersed.

That in my mind is raw courage. Courage to put his life on the line. Courage to know that his heroics might later cost him the election.

In everyday life there are acts of courage. Most, unlike the aviation fete of this week, go unsung, un-rewarded.

I have lived with my fears all my life and as much as I thrill at the sight of this raw lack of fear, I know I will never have it. It is not something you can make yourself have. But I do hope that when the time comes I will have courage. And courage to me is probably the most enduring quality.

Bob Paslay is the assistant managing editor for the News Daily and Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Extension 257 or at bpaslay@news-daily.com .