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.

Over there.

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.






About stan

Author of eight novels featuring the adventures of Deputy U.S. Marshal Merlin Fanshaw, Stan Lynde is a fourth-generation native Montanan and the creator, author, and artist of two highly acclaimed syndicated cartoon strips, Rick O'Shay and Latigo. He lives in Cuenca, Ecuador, with his wife, Lynda.
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2 Responses to Heroes

  1. David Ellen says:

    Rick O’Shay was my guy, with Hipshot a close second.

    Nobody ever got shot.

    Except maybe an elk or two.

    I wish we could say that about Batman.

  2. David Ellen says:

    Here’s another old family friend, whom I remember from the Hipshot days of my youth. I talked to him last year, in Missoula.

    Doolittle Raiders share memories of their exploits at EAA

    David Thatcher, a veteran of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s April 1942 bombing raid on Japan, signs autographs underneath a B-25 Mitchell bomber at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture in Oshkosh on Wednesday. The American raid was the first in World War II to strike Japan.

    By Meg Jones of the Journal Sentinel
    July 25, 2012

    Oshkosh – As they flew over Tokyo, Richard Cole and David Thatcher realized with relief that Japanese anti-aircraft gunners had never before fired at enemy planes.

    As the first Americans to strike Japan’s home islands during World War II, Cole and Thatcher found that the ack-ack-ack of the flak guns did little damage to the 16 B-25B Mitchell medium bombers that achieved fame as the Doolittle Raiders.

    It was only four months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and Japanese military commanders had promised their nation that it was invulnerable.

    The American crews lost all their planes and their bombs did minimal damage, but the Doolittle Raid was considered a success, proving to be a big morale boost to Americans and a punch in the gut to Japan.

    “When we were approaching Tokyo, there was a lot of anti-aircraft fire, but it wasn’t accurate because they didn’t have much experience,” Thatcher told a large crowd Wednesday at Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture.

    Thatcher and Cole are among the five surviving members of the Doolittle Raid. During their visit to Oshkosh, they talked about their experiences, posing for photos and signing autographs as part of AirVenture’s salute to the Greatest Generation in the Air.

    Commanded by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, the raid was noteworthy because it was the only time Army Air Force bombers were launched from an aircraft carrier during World War II. The B-25B Mitchell bombers were chosen because they had a long range – made longer for the mission by added fuel tanks – and were narrow enough to fit on the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet.

    Thatcher, a staff sergeant who turns 91 next week, was awarded the Silver Star for helping wounded crew members in his plane evade Japanese troops. The pilot of his plane was badly injured when it ditched in the sea and flipped over. The pilot’s leg became infected – and was later amputated – because it took three days for the airmen to reach medical help in China.

    Cole, a colonel who turns 97 later this summer, was the co-pilot in Plane No. 1 piloted by Doolittle.

    The raiders had only a few weeks to practice taking off from an aircraft carrier. There was no need to learn carrier landings; they knew it was a one-way trip, with the plan to land at friendly airfields in China not under Japanese control.

    After training for the top-secret mission and seeing their planes safely stowed on the deck of the Hornet in San Francisco’s harbor, the 16 five-person crews were given the night off before shipping out the next day. Cole recalled going to a bar at the top of a tall hotel and looking out over the harbor to see the unusual sight of 16 Army Air Force bombers lashed to the carrier’s deck.

    “We wondered if Japanese spies were looking at the same thing we were,” said Cole, who later piloted C-46 cargo planes in the China-Burma-India campaign.

    After they dropped their bombs, most of the planes crash-landed in China, though three ditched at sea and one landed in the Soviet Union, where its crew was interned for more than a year.

    Because the convoy carrying the B-25s was discovered by a Japanese fishing vessel, which alerted the Japanese military, Doolittle’s Raiders took off much earlier than planned. They were farther out to sea, making their journeys more hazardous.

    “The main thing I was thinking about on taking off was keeping the gentleman next to me happy,” said Cole, referring to Doolittle.

    The B-25B bombers flew only 200 to 300 feet above the waves to avoid radar detection.

    When their navigator told Cole and Doolittle they didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Chinese airfields, “we didn’t feel too good about it,” Cole said as the crowd laughed.

    Fortunately, favorable weather gave the crews tail winds that proved to be the difference between life and death for most. Still, Doolittle told his crew to prepare for ditching their plane at sea.

    “Nobody was interested in ditching. Flying as low as we were, we saw numerous sharks sunning themselves,” Cole wryly noted.

    Both Thatcher and Cole remembered Doolittle as an intelligent, friendly commander who called everyone by their first name and was known for his incredible piloting skills and aircraft knowledge. Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor for the raid.

    The B-25 was the perfect plane for the mission because it was a medium bomber with enough range to get crews to Japan to drop their bombs before veering south to China, said Ed Bowlin, a B-25 pilot and volunteer at EAA’s extensive Warbirds area on the AirVenture grounds. Several B-25s are displayed at the aviation convention and are flying in the daily air shows.

    “They’re the original heroes of World War II,” Bowlin said of the Doolittle Raiders. “They’re the ones who took the war to the Japanese.”

    The Doolittle Raiders who survived the war – some were killed in action in Europe and the Pacific later in the war – have gathered for an annual reunion since the late 1940s.

    At each reunion, the survivors perform a roll call and toast those who died in the previous year, using silver goblets engraved with the names of each of the 80 Raiders. The goblets of those who have passed away are turned upside down.

    The last two alive will drink a final toast of vintage cognac from a bottle kept with the goblets at the Air Force Museum in Ohio.

    Thatcher and Cole were asked Wednesday whether they believed they would be the two to drink the cognac. They smiled.

    “The man upstairs has to make that decision, so I don’t worry about it,” said Cole.


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