“If I Had a Boat” is the title of a Lyle Lovett song AND what thirteen-year-old Aaron Callender thought as he stood in the middle of his flooded street with people staggering toward him against a strong current. Braes Bayou had jumped its banks and was steadily consuming surrounding Meyerland homes. After helping a man with one leg and crutches rescue his family atop an air mattress, Aaron waded five blocks back home thinking, “If I only had a boat.”
Aaron’s mom, Debbie Toler, vaguely remembered seeing a boat somewhere in the neighborhood and told her son, “Let’s just walk until we find it.” They didn’t have to walk far. One house over, they saw a neighbor standing quietly beside his car — anchoring a boat. He’d lived in the rental home for a year, but only minutes before found in his backyard the small, wooden vessel that, according to Debbie, looked fit for Winnie the Pooh. The neighbor navigated it to his front yard thinking someone could use it.
“Cool! We have a boat!” Debbie said to Aaron, implying, “Now what?”
That’s when a man pulled up in a truck asking to use the boat to rescue his son’s family stuck inside their apartment in four feet of rising water. Aaron agreed with one condition: He got to help.
They loaded the boat into the back of the truck and drove until flood waters prevented progressing any further. From there, they launched the boat and rescued two mothers, a teenager, an infant, two dogs and a rabbit, carefully balancing the crew to avoid capsizing. Aaron assured people along the way that he’d return to get them, too, and he stayed true to his word, working for four more hours alongside two of the men he initially rescued.
Aaron said the overwhelming need of people, combined with adrenaline, kept him going through the floodwater that often reached his neck. At those moments, he swam alongside his requisitioned boat, pushing the evacuees forward and using fences, bushes and trees for propulsion when available.
"They needed help and I was the one to help them,” said Aaron. “The conditions were scary, but at the same time these people were putting their lives in my hands. I just kept thinking, ‘How can we save more people?’”
Twelve years earlier Aaron was the one saved, when he defied overwhelming odds and survived a flesh-eating bacterial infection during a 16-day stay at Texas Children’s Hospital.
“When God saves a life, God has a hold of you and you have much bigger things to do,” said his mom. To quote Esther 4:14, “for such a time as this” Aaron — and the dormant dinghy in the backyard of a rental house — were ready and waiting to be used.