A science project teaches appreciation for those who go to work each day not knowing what personal fears they are going to have to face — and conquer — on behalf of people they don’t even know every time the phone rings or a siren sounds.

I agreed to the interview in the interest of science.

That should have been my first clue that this was not going to turn out well.

Science and I have never been what you would call close.

It started back in the second grade, when Miss Tuttle told me that King Zor, the battery-operated toy I got for Christmas, was a dragon, not a dinosaur, and was therefore fictional and not an appropriate display for the science fair. That didn’t make sense to me — I mean, really, who cares? Dragons, dinosaurs — they’re all just really big lizards. So I created my display and brought King Zor anyway and proceeded to hit one of the judges in the eye with one of the pingpong balls that shot out of Zor's back.

It was the first D I ever got in science.

But not the last.

From that point on, I did everything I could to avoid science. In high school, I even took summer school science — which was basically a series of field trips to look at plants, trees and rock formations — because it allowed me to skip high school biology. Unfortunately, that caught up with me in college, where professors assumed I had learned some scientific stuff in high school. It took me three tries to get through the required freshman science class — to this day, I wake up with nightmares that I have to take that final again.

So when my youngest son, Jon, told me last night he needed to interview me for his college anthropology class. I should have seen the handwriting on the laboratory wall.

The first few questions were pretty easy, focusing on the extent of force I would use to break up a fight between strangers. My responses were, I think, calm, confident, and both morally and politically correct (“Of course I would use the taser and not the gun,” I said, oozing social consciousness. “I wouldn’t want to hurt the man; I would just want to stop him”). But then he brought my children and grandchildren into the equation, and my responses became less measured (“No gun, no taser,” I said when Jon wondered how much force I would use to stop a man who was attacking my family. “Bazooka.”)

Then Jon brought out his own heavy artillery: “What’s your greatest fear?”

Jon knew the answer to that question. My claustrophobia is the stuff of legend. Just the thought of being trapped in a tight, closed-in place is enough to make my heart pound and my knees buckle. I won’t go to a movie that is set in a submarine. I will take several flights of stairs to avoid getting into an elevator. Not only will I not go spelunking, I won’t even go to the Wikipedia page on spelunking. And I have had a serious conversation with my eldest son, Joe, imploring him to be absolutely sure that I’m really, actually dead before he lets them close the lid to my casket.

So when Jon asked me, “Would you allow yourself to be subjected to your worst fear rather than allow harm to come to one of your children or grandchildren?” … Well, I didn’t know what to say. I want to believe my love for my family knows no bounds or limitations, including the bounds and limitations I place on myself through my own irrational fears. I like to think I would go to hell and back for family members. But would I go searching for them in a dark, narrow cave? Or crawl through a 32-inch pipe to get to them? Or allow myself to be bound and gagged and shoved into the trunk of a car in their place?

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I know. This is real life, not a Liam Neeson movie. None of that stuff is going to happen. Probably. But today I’m wondering about myself and about how far my courage would take me in a crisis. And I’m feeling more appreciation than ever for those who go to work each day not knowing what personal fears they are going to have to face — and conquer — on behalf of people they don’t even know every time the phone rings or a siren sounds.

In the interest of science — or not.

(To read more by Joseph B. Walker please go to