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20 December 2008

The Heroes Around Us

I watched the old movie classic, High Noon, this evening. Unless you’re a teeny-bopper or a visitor from Mars, you’ll recall that it’s the iconic tale of heroism, in which a frightened cow town sheriff, abandoned by his fair-weather friends and timorous neighbors and with nothing going for him but his sense of duty and personal principle, stands alone against a gang of vengeful ex-cons who are intent on killing him and trashing his village.

After turning off the DVD player, I sat for a time, searching my memory for the heroes I’ve known. Heroism, according to Webster, implies superlative, often transcendent courage — especially in fulfilling a high purpose when the odds are against one — and so, because my thinking was somewhat constricted by the conventional view of heroism as a phenomenon that usually accompanies conflict, my list was at first topped by soldiers I’ve known who persevered in face of great peril or sure death.

However, I eventually began to think outside the military box, and I realized that I am, this very day, surrounded by heroes. Unconventional heroes in unlikely places and facing the most dreadful peril of all: the struggle to do one’s duty, to hold to principle and self-respect, while alone in an uncaring world.

But first, let me deal with the soldier thing. The most unconventional hero in my memories of World War II was an aging German.

He took his place in my memory the day in 1945 his tiny mountain village was entered by the leading tanks of an advancing American armored division. Not a villager was to be seen as the column rumbled out of the hills and clanked along the cobblestone main street. All the quaint medieval houses, melancholy and subdued in pastels that had no name, were silent and shuttered, with seeming acres of white bed sheets — the sign of surrender — hanging from window sills and door lintels.

Suddenly a door — showing no trace of white — was opened by a willowy old man dressed in the standard early German infantry reserve uniform of World War I, complete with jackboots and Pickelhaube (the antique helmet with a spikey point on top). He tottered onto the street, aiming an ancient fowling piece at the lead tank and rasping, “You want my village, you must fight for it!” He fired, and those few pellets that reached the command tank rattled like flung rice.

Immediately every machine-gun and cannon in sight was leveled on the lonely defender, and it appeared as if he’d be reduced to instant tatters. But the American commander, from high in his open turret, signaled hold-your-fire, then stepped down and strode up to him. Taking the fowling piece from the old man’s hands, he smashed it to pieces against the tank’s bogey wheel. Then, regarding the lone defender with astonished eyes and a half-smile, he threw a snappy GI salute and escorted him to the doorway from which he’d come. There the old man came to something resembling attention and returned the salute before disappearing into the interior gloom.

It wasn’t about politics or ideologies. It was about a soldier honoring a generation-old oath to protect his homeland and another soldier, half his age, showing open respect for such solitary, tenacious bravery.

They don’t give medals for things like that, but neither do they give medals to the heroes who surround us every day.

I don’t recall, for instance, any government honoring the bravery of the single working mother, striving in lonely resolve and on a coolie wage to keep herself under roof while giving her kid proper schooling, good clothes, and three squares a day. Or to the elderly widower, forgotten and spending his dwindling days in a dreadful solitude while writing thank-you notes to our troops overseas. Or the employee who quits a lucrative job because he believes his employers are foisting a crapola product on an unsuspecting public. Or the bureaucrat who is consigned to a life of isolation and abuse because he blows the whistle on thieves and corrupters who raid the public coffers.

I have a daughter, victimized and set adrift in her youth by two faithless husbands, who overcame her fear and loneliness and won her battle against cancer while mothering a beautiful, intelligent daughter and working her way up from a steno’s job in a lawyer’s office to state bar certification as a paralegal — all while studying nights and weekends for a college degree. Her daughter (my ganddaughter) is now an executive with a major New York retailer.

I have a nephew, who, as a department head at a famous university and armed only with tenure, endures total ostracism by his colleagues because he believes it’s his duty to provide his students with a good education — and not to forfeit that obligation simply to remain popular among his peers by blind acceptance of their ideas of political correctness.

I have a friend, a hearty mountain of a man, who one day walked out of a high-salary management job in a major corporation because he was uncomfortable with the prevailing ethos. Just quit. No recommendations, no golden parachute, no prospects. His only assets: a loving wife, a computer, and a fascination with history. He is now sole owner of an internationally famous on-line supplier of historical artifacts to museums and major collectors.

The list grows: the single mother who overcame loneliness and despair to parlay her gift for persuasive writing into a top editorial job in a leading Western daily; another single mother who did likewise by writing her way into a key editorial and administrative post in state government; yet another single mother who endured years of minimum-wage drudgery as a housecleaner to provide her son with a fine education.

Heroes overcome psychological demons, as well. I know another lady who suffered a childhood filled with such brutality and abuse she entered adulthood virtually paralyzed by the fear of men and a distrust of women. Incapable of working for any length of time in conventional venues or of maintaining any continuing social relationships, existing on meager savings and refusing to borrow money she couldn’t pay back, she was condemned to a life of solitude and penury in a tiny flat in a nowhere neighborhood. Until she got sick and tired of being sick and tired, of being a fearful outcast. It was then, when she finally accepted the idea that the past was dead and the future was hers to make, that she was as smart and capable as anybody else, she met her demons full on. She pulled together the bucks and got herself a good computer. She read omnivorously. She studied. She read some more, studied some more. All day long and into the night. Month in and month out. Today she still lives alone, but she’s also atop a growing on-line business that feeds her, clothes her, and provides her with a car and a nice apartment that shelters her from unwelcome associations and, above all, gives her a sense of accomplishment, dignity, and worth.

Heroism? You bet.

Wherever we go, whatever we do, almost every face that passes is sure to represent — somehow, in some context — a kind of High Noon.

Respect it.


Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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