My heroes have always been cowboys.
And they still are, it seems.
Sadly, in search of, but one step in back of,
Themselves and their slow-movin’ dreams.
— Sharon Vaughn
Back in what my grandkids consider “the Olden Days,” I was a pre-teen collector of comic books.
“Big surprise,” you say. “Weren’t we all?”
Yes, I guess most of us were. There were no smart phones or Ipods in those days, and a Blackberry was merely something to eat. If you ask my grandkids, it was an age not long removed from the age of the dinosaur.
But anyway, my buddies and I bought, read, collected, and traded comic books back then, at a time when superheroes were just coming in. Two Jewish kids from Cleveland, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, came up with the idea for a character called Superman, who fought crime and upheld truth, justice, and the American Way.
They sold the concept to DC Comics for a reported $130 and the Man of Steel went on to become a cultural icon.
Other superheroes quickly followed–Batman, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Captain America–and teens and pre-teens all over America became faithful followers of their favorites. In the small reservation town where I lived, the lines fell into two camps. Kids were devoted either to Superman (sort of like being a Yankees fan) or Batman.
If memory serves, my buddy Keith was a fan of the Man of Steel, while I was committed to The Dark Knight. Oh, I liked Superman, of course–what’s not to like? Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound–all handy qualities to possess.
But I knew I couldn’t really be Superman, much as I admired him. I couldn’t fly. A bold but bone-headed attempt from the roof of our barn convinced me of that. Even at age ten I knew something about firearms, and I was pretty sure bullets wouldn’t bounce harmlessly off my chest. And even though I wasn’t bad at the high-jump in those days, I knew I couldn’t even clear the outhouse in a single bound.
And even though Billy Batson, in the Captain Marvel comic books, was only a kid like me, all he had to do was shout the magic word SHAZAM! and suddenly he was Captain Marvel himself, with all the big guy’s superpowers and his red-and-yellow suit. My buddies and I ran around saying SHAZAM! until our throats were sore, but we never turned into Captain Marvel. We must not have said it right.
But Batman was my guy.
I could see myself as Batman. On the back pages of the comic books, Charles Atlas promised that I (even I!) could transform my pipe-cleaner body to a physique that would prevent bullies from kicking sand in my face and cause every girl in the county to swoon dead away. (Except my sister, Chris. After watching me plummet into the manure pile behind the barn, superhero cape and all, she wasn’t easy to impress.)
Later, I found new heros at the movies.
As a pre-schooler my heroes had been working cowboys from neighboring ranches and our own. But now came Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Elliott, Sunset Carson, Lash LaRue, and the rest. These movie cowboys ran down the bad guys in thrilling horseback chases, played guitars and sang some, and rode well-groomed and curried horses that seemed as intelligent as Einstein.
I graduated to other movie heroes–Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart. They didn’t sing much in their movies, but they were stalwart and true. They let the outlaws draw first, shot guns out of their hands, and sometimes winged the durned polecats. They frequently overcame the villains in furious fist-fights that seemed to go on forever, standing tall at the end and looking well-groomed and fresh as a daisy.
By the time I was in high school, I began to become more aware of real heroes. The big brothers of my classmates came back from World War II and took their places again in our small community. They were quieter than when they’d left. They didn’t talk much about the war. Some returned with a thousand-yard stare, and scars on their bodies and souls. And as I learned (not from them) what some of them had seen and gone through, I found a new definition for hero.
‘Hero’ is a word they never call themselves.
Call them heroes and they say hell no, they weren’t heroes, but they had known some.
The ones who hadn’t come back.
Other wars have come and gone. Other kids’ fathers, brothers, sisters, and mothers have gone to war. As always, many have come back wounded in body and in spirit. They still don’t call themselves heroes. They say, if they say anything, that they just did their job. They served us. They served their country, even though their country has not always served them well.
It seems to me the world has grown darker in recent years.
The superheroes of the comics have changed. Superman and Batman are portrayed today as flawed beings, assailed by self- doubt and conflicted even about right and wrong. Movies now feature anti-heroes who are little different from the villains. They use trickery and violence to achieve their ends, and often the “hero” wins only by being nastier and more violent than the villain.
Who are today’s heroes?
Men and women of our military, certainly. First responders. Firefighters. Policemen. Teachers. EMTs. Doctors and nurses. But maybe there are others we don’t usually think of as heroes. Maybe a “hero” is just a person, as John Wayne described, “who is scared to death, but saddles up anyway.”
Maybe a hero is a single dad who works two or three jobs to support his kids, and cleans house at night after he’s tucked them in their beds. And does it day in and day out, not because he has to, but because he wants to.
Or maybe a hero is a young mother, a cancer survivor, who has just learned from her oncologist that she’ll have to undergo yet another round of chemotherapy and radiation.
Or a grandfather and grandmother who are spending their “Golden Years” bringing up their grandchildren because their parents can’t or won’t.
Maybe a hero is any person who stands up for what is right, in spite of the criticism and mockery of the crowd.
I think heroes are all around us.
Maybe you know a few.
Maybe you are one.