Heroes and Heroics

20 Jan

HEROS, HEROES AND HEROICS – observed while listening to the neighborhood hero who is full of baloney.

Being in doubt on the subject of heroes, I assaulted three contradictory dictionaries. Enter the hero sandwich, a long hard roll enveloping cold cuts, spices and cheeses, pickles, peppers, tomato and like garden produce. With a dousing of olive oil and or vinegar, perhaps mustardized mayonnaise the construction is complete. Six napkins and three husky friends are required as well. Heroes of all kinds are messy.

Meeting a self-made Army hero face to face can also be a difficult chore. It’s messy for the one who knows, and for the one who knows he knows. The fantasy hero’s story is always under reconstruction. He gets better with the learning. Oh, the web we weave when we at first deceive.

I had a fine chat with a dashing, wavy haired fellow who sported five rows of medals and more combat stars than there were combats to star in. He had diamonds embedded in his platinum wings. The truth? It was his magnificent pile of manicured hair that I envied and saluted; mine is falling fast. What three questions can you ask a suspected puffer? If the guy cannot recall the name of his commanding officer …. What do you conclude?

Having never been the virtuoso kind of hero, my sympathies are skewed toward those many unknown and unknowing mute champions, the heroes known as unknown. The variety of comestible heroes is nearly matched by the variety of those whom we sanctify and glorify for having done something of heroic dimension. They wear no medals and may not remember what they did. They are not well defined. In mythology and legend, a hero is born of one mortal and one divine parent, is endowed with courage and strength, nobility of purpose, is celebrated for bold exploits and favored by the Gods. Hero, the Myth, was a noble Greek goddess.

That definition fits no one who attained hero-hood in my life, nor was he or she favored by the Gods, except for Gene Autry, King of the Cowboys, My Hero. Also, John Wayne, King of the Comedians. Most never expected to be, contrived to be, planned to be or realized they were heroes. Not in any sense of the word. Unashamed others dance, strut and shout their hero status, but were not heroes by any but their own liberal measure and cultivated imagination. Those who laid back while others ran ahead, into the fire, can be pardoned, they had no opportunity to do heroic things. Perhaps they were simply smarter than the champions and are thereby blessed with long life and fine chronicles. There is a talent in being seen in a knightly light by the right folks, while loitering beyond harm’s way. We had a few fringe people who by magic became invisible when the stuff hit the fan.

Empty heroship (self-imaging) and ego lathering (stage performance) are not the same thing: one is venial and one is contemptible. Also, equal numbers of truly heroic people, or victims of circumstance and darned fools did great things. Without knowing we do so, we, many times bring honor to the fools and cheats. They have more color and history is drenched with them. Heroes can be a product of choice, fate – or lack of better options. Heroes are neither born nor made. Fame is thrust upon them. I had a day or two of fame by hiding in a drainage ditch, I was in the wrong place at the right time.

In simplest form, the hero may be the one who did not run. With sunrise he was still there, alone, waiting for the enemy to come again. Listening to the quiet. A long bladed sword lay in the road pointing at him.

Inadvertent heroes of some substance were always plentiful as were common people who set aside reason and instinctively, blindly or purposefully performed admirable deeds. I try to avoid people with swagger, majestic voices or Greek warrior profiles. They are hazardous. Like a cat defending her family, they can not retreat from their image, no matter the contest. The truly heroic-by-circumstance can be found in the chronicles of Sir Harry Flashman. He lived to be a hundred and ten, defeated armies by doing spectacular things and possessed of three testicles. Aside: he was a loveable louse and deadbeat. I recommend George Macdonald Fraser’s crazy books to see real heroism amid debauchery, as the product of circumstance and knowingly taking the wrong road to stardom.

One handsome, fellow with a heavy load of medals never ever left his hometown. For some heroes, simply not being there was grounds for a string of ribbons. One proud group I remember ran from its perimeter post at the first shot, but stood tall and saluted proudly when given their medals. It was the kind of day, misty and moony when someone had to get a medal.

My good friend Bob T. crawled into hellish fire to retrieve his dead buddy and rescue his wounded people. He got no medal for being himself, wouldn’t want one. Instead, he lost his stripes for his rebellious attitude. That is sour grapes, isn’t it? Rebellion is not heroism, ask a few of the Generals who got fired when Bush became President.

In our outfit, epic performance was expected. Getting out of a hole and running hell-bent into an enemy gun bunker was an outrageous and courageous thing, but for us, the customary thing. Being seen in isolation (that was the key) doing something exceptional, even if ten other guys were doing the same thing, qualified for a medal or two. The colonel’s pocket was heavy with them. Living on by laying low while others dragged the wounded from the scene could be rewarded if done with panache, like the guy who won a marathon by riding a cab half the distance. I saw that a few times. Fear, cowardice, madness, courage and prudence are at times indistinguishable. In the balance of life and death they are the same.

I have always favored the authentic hero, the run of the mill guy with no name – who ran another hundred yards when he couldn’t. Who carried fifty pounds more when he couldn’t. Who scaled the bitterest mountain, hiked for days with a fractured leg or pulled a wounded man to safety. There were always quiet volunteers for the dirty jobs. Many times, people refused to accept help because others were worse off. How could a man sit in a cold bog, comforting his friend whose life was passing away? Were there not medallions for agony, compassion, determination, endurance and selflessness? How would we design them or explain them? Beyond what call They are not duty, they are a call from a spirit inside.

Where is this going? The subject is heroes and heroics: those that were absolutely true, some virtually true, some legendary, true or not, fantasy, innocent boasting just for the fun of it and unforgivable inventions told by those who are remade in their own fables. Minor events easily become big ones when the audience is right, that is the skill of the story teller – it is what may have happened and surely did in some fashion, to someone but not this one. With time and sharpening or with memory in decay, many come to believe their creations and what is the harm. None that I can see, except for pity and shame. I listen to the quiet man who looks away and dabs at a tear in his eye.

There is a fraternity of thousands – who did great deeds that were seen or unseen, known and unknown, willingly and unselfishly, remembered and forgotten. There is a medal for those unseen and unrecorded in the flash that the event took to pass. It must be worn inside the heart, where others cannot go, worn without envy, maybe with amnesty for the pretenders. It was yours when you did what you did, that no one commanded and no one saw and no one can say. Congratulations, Soldier. Welcome to our vast, diminishing, proud and private club.

The Sergeant found his way back to the bell tower in Rosario. That’s about the end of his story. The doctors had decided against shipping him around to a variety of Veterans’ hospitals. He wasn’t dangerous, to himself or anyone. Just a gentle guy with a lop-sided face, lost in perpetual melancholy in a distant time. He seemed at peace, had no memory and when he spoke, he made sense in a vacant way. Visitors smiled. He took them about the gardens and grounds and abandoned them halfway. He worked as an orderly with methodical slowness, doing the dirty things that hospitals needed done. Then he would sit with his own people, sharing what they understood, and holding their hands or silently sharing a smoke when they had visions. He allowed his own fragments to fade. Through a Veterans’ Records error, he became a nonexistent patient at a Vets Hospital. With help, he applied to and was accepted, by a humble Mission Society which needed a well digger. There was an overload of missionaries after the war, but few applicants for well diggers in Rosario. He dug a well in the courtyard of the Cathedral. It flourished and served the town, the place where he lost his place. Note: this was told to me by a Navy Veteran. The Sergeant was his brother.


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