JONESPORT, Maine — For the fishermen who ply the waters off the coast of Maine, some days are good days, with warm breezes, high sun, and full lobster traps. Some days are bad days, when the icy rain blows sideways, hands and faces quickly become frozen, and the traps come up empty.
For 8-year-old Matthew Drisko of Addison, May 29, 2009, started out like a thousand others but in the end it became his watershed. It was the day the slight, shy boy went lobster fishing and became a hero by saving his grandfather’s life.
Matthew, now 9, was honored Monday with the U.S. Department of Homeland’s Security’s Certificate of Valor, only the 16th person given the award since its inception in 2003. The Certificate of Valor recognizes those heroes who risk their own lives to save others.
He was presented with the award at a mid-morning ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard station at Jonesport, served a steak for lunch, and taken on a tour of the Coast Guard’s search and rescue vessels.
True to his love of the sea, it was his time on the boats that Matthew most treasured.
Lester Drisko, 55, the boy’s grandfather watched his grandson clamber over the boats from the window of the Coast Guard station and covered his face and cried as he recalled the events of that day.
The elder Drisko has been lobstering all his life and Matthew had been going out on the boat with him since he was five.
“Fishing is born in him. His great grandfather, his grandfather, his father — all fishermen. He can do everything but haul the traps up over the side,” said Lester, explaining that the 4-foot long traps weighted with four bricks are just too heavy for the youngster. “But there’s not a rope he can’t tie or a job he can’t do. He gets my traps ready for me every year.”
Lester said the weather that May morning was cold and windy, about 20 knots, and the seas were choppy.
“I didn’t let him go with me the day before,” Lester said. “That day I said no but I turned and saw him crying in the living room and I just couldn’t leave him. ‘Put on plenty of clothes,’ I told him.”
They pulled, emptied and baited traps all morning, with Matthew working hard. They didn’t talk much, they both recalled, being content in each other’s company.
But somewhere off Hardwood Island and Mackerel Ledge, everything changed in an instant.
“He was baiting the pockets,” Lester recalled. “I was shoving the traps overboard.” Just as he pushed a trap back in the water, Lester watched in horror as the rope curled around his leg and grabbed him. He had just a second to yell to his grandson before Lester was dragged overboard, deep in 44-degree water.
“I went quite a ways down,” Lester said. “I could barely see the light on the surface. It took me a few minutes to get that rope off my leg and then I swam up.”
The elder Drisko was about 100 yards away from the boat that had drifted in the choppy seas, yet somehow the young boy sensed where his grandfather would surface.
“There was Matthew, looking right at me,” Lester said.
Matthew brought the 34-foot lobster boat around to where his grandfather was struggling and attempted to get him back in the boat.
“He grabbed the hood of my sweatshirt and tried to pull me in but I was way too heavy for him,” Lester said. Matthew took off his own lifejacket and fastened it around his grandfather’s neck.
“I kept thinking, I can’t drown. I cannot drown. I’ve got to see Matthew grow up.”
Lester blacked out. When he came to, he heard Matthew say, “There’s a boat way over there, Bampy.”
Lester told Matthew to go to the boat about a quarter mile away for help but the boy didn’t want to leave his grandfather in the water.
“If you don’t take this boat and leave me, I’m gonna freeze,” Lester told the child.
Matthew did as he was told. He piloted the lobster boat through the choppy sea to the other boat in the water.
“At first, they couldn’t believe why a little boy was driving that big boat,” Lester said. “And then he hollered ‘My grandfather is in the water.”
Lester blacked out again and when a cold splash of water struck his face, he reawakened.
“I could see Matthew coming back in my boat with the other boat following him,” Lester said. “I blacked out again.”
Lester isn’t sure exactly how long he was in the water, but estimates it was 35 to 40 minutes before lobsterman Lester Faulkingham pulled him on board his vessel. Faulkingham took the boy and grandfather and towed their boat to the Jonesport dock.
“We went home and Matthew filled the bathtub with hot water. He kept asking me if I was all right. I got in my recliner and he covered me up. He sat right there and never took his eyes off me,” Lester said. “Eventually I tackled the coffee pot and knew I was going to be OK.”
But he really wasn’t. Lester now suffers from severe nerve damage in both legs and arms from floating in the frigid water.
“I’m only here today because I took him with me,” he said of his grandson, as tears coursed down his cheeks.
His fishing vessel, which previously had no name, is now called Bamp’s Hero, in honor of Matthew.
Matthew, however, would just as soon put the events of that day behind him.
When he was presented his awards and honors on Monday, Matthew twisted his hands, shuffled his feet and didn’t crack a single smile.
“He just wants to forget it,” Lester said. “He doesn’t think he is a hero. He just did what he had to do.”
Matthew’s mother, Melissa Wright, agreed. “He just wants to put it behind him. He never talks about that day.”
“I worried a lot,” Matthew said, when pressed about the rescue. “I guess some people think I’m a hero. People talked about it at school and said nice job.”
But it was clear to those at Monday’s ceremony that they were in the presence of a real hero. As U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud and Coast Guard Commander Brian Gilda presented the Certificate of Valor, the 30 or some members of the Coast Guard unit snapped to attention.
It is only in the most stressful and urgent situations that people display their best qualities, Michaud said. “This was an incredible act by an 8 year old. Matthew’s quick thinking and actions showed an outstanding level of courage. This is an impressive young man.”
When Michaud asked Matthew if he would rather be in school or out on his grandfather’s boat, the answer was predictable: “On the boat.”
But after all the hoopla at the Coast Guard station, Matthew did go back to the D.W. Merritt Elementary School in Addison Monday afternoon to receive even more kudos — this time he was recognized for achieving the first quarter honor roll in the fourth grade.
“When I’m gone, all my traps, the boat, everything goes to Matthew,” Lester said.