An Unlikely Hero

by Carolyn Fansler
Pennsylvania, USA

The street where I grew up in Philadelphia contained 80 row houses, 40 on each side of the street. It was a wonderful place for a child — always something going on and plenty of other kids to play with.

When I was in my late teens, a new family moved across the street. The parents were unemployed and spent lots of time sitting on their front porch with their kids running amok in the neighborhood. Their oldest, Joey, always seemed to be looking for trouble. He and his friends used to hang out on the corner and harass everyone who went by.

Our trolley car let me and my sister off on that corner, and it was sheer torture to walk by them. They followed us down the street, taunting us and getting in our faces, just itching for us to give them a reason to get violent. We tried riding the trolley an extra block or two and then coming up the other end of the street to avoid them, but sometimes they’d be at that corner, too.

Occasionally we heard Joey was picked up by the police for some minor infraction and then brought home — only to be let loose again by his weary parents. One day he was arrested for holding up a bread truck. We thought this might be the last we saw of him for a while, but he was back the next day, up to his old tricks.

The night before Thanksgiving of 1975, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of glass breaking. Groggy, I went back to sleep. Again I heard breaking glass, got up, then smelled smoke. Our house was on fire!

As usual, Joey had been sitting up all night on his front porch. Seeing the smoke and flames, this “juvenile delinquent” came up onto our porch, which was completely on fire, broke our front windows, and yelled into the house to wake us. His yelling woke my mother and myself.

An Unlikely HeroWe couldn’t leave through the flaming porch. We went out the back, and down the alley. When we got around the corner, it looked like our house was completely on fire. If it weren’t for the commotion Joey made breaking our windows and yelling, none of us would have woken up in time. The smoke would have killed us.

Given his history, you might be thinking maybe Joey was the one who started the fire — after all, he was something of a criminal.

Well, he wasn’t. They caught the man who did it. That fellow had lived next door, but had been evicted, so he broke into the empty house and set it on fire.

Joey risked his life to save ours. I heard he received an award for his actions. I don’t know what became of him, because shortly after that I married and moved away. But I think of him occasionally, hoping that his heroic act saved his life, too.

Originally published as HeroicStories #325 on July 25, 2002

3 thoughts on “An Unlikely Hero”

  1. I, too, hope that the positive response to helping others changed the way Joey normally interacted with others. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. What an amazing act of heroism on his part! Considering all of the trouble he caused growing up, there was still some good in his heart. You were so blessed that he was there for you guys and that you were able to get out in time. May Joey turned a corner that night and made something of his life for his courageous act. Blessings come in many forms and we never know which one is going to be an angel in disguise.

  3. I know about those row houses. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle lived in one of them in Reading, PA when I was a small child in the 1940s. If there were a fire, the whole block could burn down, since there were only tunnels between every other house from the street to the alley. Only about 20 ft. wide, with a high porch in front, they were 3 stories tall, and had a cellar with a coal-burning furnace.
    People were mostly good back then, since nobody had much money, and the trouble they got into as kids seems pretty innocent now. I hope “Joey” made a better life for himself, too.


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