When Arland Williams buckled into his seat on that snowy night on in Washington, DC, he had no idea that the defining moment of his life was just moments away. Surely, he was anxious to get back home. Perhaps he was becoming impatient, along with the other passengers and crew, over still another delay, even after their Boeing 737 had to be deiced a second time.
Seconds after takeoff, Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the icy waters of the Potomac. Arland was one of only six to escape the crash. A Park Police helicopter was the first on the scene, lowering a rope to the survivors clinging to the wreckage. Arland kept passing the rope to the others, so the helicopter could lift them one-by-one to the shore. But when the helicopter returned the sixth time, he was gone, dragged beneath the waves by the sinking wreckage.
Arland was a graduate of The Citadel, and President Ronald Reagan spoke about him in his commencement address at The Citadel in 1993.
Reagan said, “Sometimes, you see, life gives us what we think is fair warning of the choices that will shape our future. On such occasions, we are able to look far along the path, up ahead to that distant point in the woods where the poet’s “two roads” diverge. And then, if we are wise, we will take time to think and reflect before choosing which road to take before the junction is reached.
“But far more often than we can comfortably admit, the most crucial of life’s moments come like the scriptural “thief in the night.” Suddenly and without notice, the crisis is up on us and the moment of choice is at hand—a moment fraught with import for ourselves, and for all who are depending on the choice we make. We find ourselves, if you will, plunged without warning into the icy water, where the currents of moral consequence run swift and deep, and where our fellow man – and yes, I believe our Maker—are waiting to see whether we will pass the rope.
“These are moments when instinct and character take command, as they took command for Arland Williams on the day our Lord would call him home. For there is no time, at such moments, for anything but fortitude and integrity. Debate and reflection and a leisurely weighing of the alternatives are luxuries we do not have. The only question is what kind of responsibility will come to the fore.
“And now we come to the heart of the matter, to the core lesson taught by the heroism of Arland Williams on January 13, 1982. For you see, the character that takes command in moments of crucial choices has already been determined.
“It has been determined by a thousand other choices made earlier in seemingly unimportant moments. It has been determined by all the little choices of years past—by all those times when the voice of conscience was at war with the voice of temptation—whispering the lie that it really doesn’t matter. It has been determined by all the day-to-day decisions made when life seemed easy and crises seemed far away—the decisions that, piece by piece, bit by bit, developed habits of discipline or of laziness, habits of self-sacrifice or of self-indulgence, habits of duty and honor and integrity—or dishonor and shame.
“Because when life does get tough, and the crisis is undeniably at hand—when we must, in an instant look inward for strength of character to see us through—we will find nothing inside ourselves that we have not already put there.”
Jesus Christ came from heaven to earth, not to snatch us away at the end of our lives, but to put a bit of himself into us here and now. At the end of his life, instead of calling on an angel army to pull him to safety, he chose to pass the rope to give us the chance for new life. Will we take hold of him, and make the daily choice to allow his character to flow into us?