By Kenneth W. Mathews, Billerica, Mass.
Carnegie Medal awardee #4836
When I was about 10 years old, I purchased four goldfish at the W.T. Grant store in Nashua, N.H. I recall clearly they were 10 cents each. I took good care of them, giving them at first a common fishbowl and then an aquarium as they grew. I made the aquarium from four pieces of glass and a piece of Masonite, which I coated with aquarium sealer. It held water and served its purpose quite well.
In the spring of their third year as pets, I realized my fish needed more space. I asked the owner of the local telephone company if I could put them in the waterhole behind his house, figuring they would have a happy summer, though I expected it to be their last. He agreed, and I left my pets to enjoy the freedom and space of a pond. Throughout the summer, I went to the pond and occasionally saw two or three, and sometimes all four, of them swimming happily in their new home.
The next spring, I was amazed to find that the fish had not only survived the winter but had hatched a family. The young ones were small and varied in color greatly: silver and brown, orange and pink. The following spring, the pond flooded from runoff and formed an extension in the adjacent field. The goldfish seemed to enjoy the shallow water there with so much grass to swim among, and I think the water there was warmer even though it still had a few pieces of ice floating in it.
Intending to catch a few of the smaller goldfish for pets, I went to the pond on April 7, 1963. I was 14. There were two neighborhood boys there, younger than I, and they were attempting to sail a small raft that they had fashioned from an old wooden pallet and a large wooden spool. I watched as Bobby, the younger boy, took the raft on its maiden voyage. As the craft was top heavy, it tilted and quickly tipped over, dropping Bobby into 10-foot-deep water at a point about 25 feet from the bank. When Bobby surfaced, I saw a look on his face that is as vivid in my mind now as it was then, the look of ultimate panic and fear. He was almost instantly pulled back under by the weight of his wet clothing, his arms flailing in desperation. His friend Jimmy, who was standing to my left, was frozen, like a stone statue.
I had no control over what happened next. I quickly ripped off my jacket and dove head first into the pond. Although I was an excellent swimmer, I was not prepared for the shock of the almost freezing water. The muscles in my chest and abdomen instantly contracted, forcing almost every bit of air from my lungs. I swam to the overturned raft and managed to pull myself onto it, to my waist. After a brief moment, I was able to get a breath of air, and then I swam over to Bobby within a few seconds of his second submersion. I grabbed onto him, pulled him onto the raft, and then swam, pushing the raft to the bank. I still had my boots on, which slowed me considerably, and I remember feeling the strength draining from my body.
By the time we reached the bank, Bobby was breathing fairly well. We crawled out of the water and just lay there for a couple minutes. I helped Bobby get his wet coat off and wrapped mine around his shivering body. I realized I had no sense of feeling in my hands—they had been cold before, but this was a sensation I had never experienced. It was several minutes before I began to have a burning, tingling sensation in my fingers. It may seem unusual, but my hands have never been the same since. So often in cold weather, I notice numbness in my hands, and my fingers turn white easily.
Word travels fast in a small town. We had numerous telephone calls that afternoon and evening, one from a reporter for the local newspaper, which printed an account of the rescue. For two or three weeks people would mention it to me, and I would simply say, “We were both very fortunate.” I think Bobby and I were the only two ever aware of the true severity of the situation, although we never discussed it in detail. We didn’t have to.
Almost two years after the event, I received a telephone call from a gentleman in Pittsburgh. He informed me that I had been awarded the Carnegie Medal, and news of the award traveled fast. At that time, I was a sophomore in high school, and the principal called me to the office to talk to a reporter and have my picture taken. The story appeared on the front page of the next day’s paper.
For 53 years I have been reluctant to talk about the rescue, as it has had a deep and permanent effect on my life. At the very least, surviving it was a miracle; I came so close to death that day that I often think I did die. Since then I have looked at things very differently: I am much more aware of the fragility of human life and much more appreciative of other people and their individuality. I also lost something, the desire that most young people have to tease or torment their peers. My underlying feeling is that I was simply an agent of God for a brief period of time. He took control of my mind and body and the situation at hand and blessed me with a second chance on earth. I am not a hero. It was God’s will. How can I take credit for that?
Along the outer edge of the Carnegie Medal are some words I often think about. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Was it love that made me dive into the freezing water? If so, I was unaware that I had it before that day. I do know that it would have been impossible for me to watch Bobby as he struggled for survival and that I would not have been able to live with myself if I didn’t do all I could possibly do to prevent him from dying. I think the medal’s inscription is correct and now accept that that type of love is a part of me, realizing that it was instilled by my parents, those who were influential in my childhood development, and the grace of God.
Mathews was awarded the medal in January 1965, and an accompanying financial grant and additional scholarship monies from the Hero Fund were used by him to attend Bentley College of Boston, Mass.