I grew up with heroes. They were all around me. Oh, sure. I read about Superman, Batman, Thor, Green Arrow, Submariner, Aquaman, The Flash, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and all the rest of those guys, and got to watch some of them on TV or at the movies. I have always been a big John Wayne fan, and Hopalong Cassidy, Zorro, and The Lone Ranger were Saturday morning favorites. My brothers and the neighbor kids and I would spend hours emulating their adventures, too. Even before it call came with “Do Not Try This at Home” warning labels, we knew better (OK, I jumped off the garage while wearing my cape). The thing is, we also knew that those were all actors or merely drawings. The real heroes that were our role models, however, lived in our house or close by or they were real people we knew.
Maybe it’s just the generation—Boomers!—or the fact that we simply knew the difference between truth and fiction, but I don’t think any of us ever doubted that in times of trouble, when we needed a hero, we could find one right there, coming home from work or doing the laundry. I had a hero who was the custodian at the county courthouse. Another who was the cook at the bus station. One hero drove a tank wagon for Standard Oil. A real mild-mannered hero made amazing chicken and noodles and dollar-sized (that’s a silver dollar to you young’uns) pancakes. Of course, the closest was the highway patrolman/minister/English teacher/college dean and his sidekick/secretary who wielded the thunderous Yardstick of Judgment.
Lots of others come to mind, too. Out in the country I could find a really stubborn hero who had lost the tops of his ears from frostbite at 40,000 feet above Germany and taught me how to stack hay bales. I spent some time with a debonair hero, a very sophisticated chap who ran a dry cleaning business. I realized many, many years later that a hero who had saved my hide in secret a few times had been one of my grandmother’s kindergarten teacher, and then I was one of her last high school English students the year she retired. I used to mow her lawn for a quarter and now and then she’d give me a jar of homemade grape jelly from the vines I trimmed for her.
As I sit here and think back over my life and the multitude of people who have influenced me in one way or another, I am amazed at the heroism I was fortunate to witness as all of these folk and so many others not only lived their lives but showed me how to live mine. This vague list is merely scratching the surface. Those who know me recognize my parents and grandparents, of course. I’ll name B.W. Nauman, Virg Watts, Mrs. Linville (like my own students I can’t call her by her first name even after she’s been gone so many years). I’d have multiple volumes if I tried to list everyone. Some are gone. Some are my age. Some are younger than I.
I doubt if any of them who come to my mind would accept the accolade of “hero” from me or anyone else, and they would never think of themselves in that way. I think that’s part of what makes their lives heroic. They go about their daily lives, living their “secret identities,” while all the while performing deeds of great strength of spirit, nobleness of heart, and virtuous idealism. With their examples as guides, I have been fortunate to find so many others around me. If you’ll look, I know you will find them. Don’t look for masks or capes or tights. That would give them away.
Now and then, take a good look in the mirror, too. Look closely. Behind that façade of everyday existence is a hero making a difference, even if you don’t know it. You don’t even have to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
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