Hero

 What characteristics must someone have to be a hero? Are there other characteristics that cancel out the “hero-positive” ones?


When I was around 17 years old, the family physician told my father that he had to walk more. Rainy or snowy, sunny or cloudy, the doctor wanted my father outside walking everyday. The season was balanced on the cusp of late winter and early spring. My father and mother headed to a nearby state park to walk, rather than stroll alongside the road.  To get to the park, they had to descend the north side of a steep hill that still had ice on the ground. My father failed to see a patch of that ice, and slipped. As he fell he stuck out his right hand to catch himself.  The wrist broke. He jerked his hand back, calling out, “I broke it!” When the rest of him slammed into the side of the hill, his hip broke, too.

Although my mother was unwilling to leave him there helpless and crying in pain, she knew she had to find help. This was decades more mobile phones, so she climbed back up the hill and ran toward my grandparents’ house which was immediately across the street from where we lived.

While she was gone, the neighbor who lived two or three miles up the road drove by in his pickup truck with his father-in-law in the passenger seat. The two men saw my father, pulled over to the side of the road and hiked down the hill.  Like most country men, they were dressed in heavy, everyday work clothes, so the neighbor sat down in the ice and snow beside my father to hold him so that my dad wouldn’t slide farther down the hill, or re-injury himself somehow.  The father-in-law went back up to the road to stop traffic so they could gather together enough people to carry my 6-foot-tall father up the hill.  By the time my mother returned with my grandparents, my brother and myself, a small collection of people were there.  My grandfather, a retired police officer, wanted to roll my father onto a ladder and use that as a stretcher to get my dad up the hill.  None of the rest of us wanted to move my dad, but we were women and children to my grandfather and he dismissed our objections out-of-hand.  The neighbor is the one whose refusal convinced my grandfather to simply wait for the ambulance. 

It took the ambulance a goodly while to get there – out in the country few things are convenient by city standards – and with the help of everyone whom the father-in-law had recruited, my father was hoisted safely up the hill and into the ambulance.  Afterward he was laid up for several months. From time to time he would say, “Once I can walk again, I’m going to [my neighbor] and shake his hand.”

He never did, though.  He recovered. He walked first with crutches and then on his own without any problem. The thing that kept him from expressing his gratitude was that several months after my father’s accident….a year or so…the neighbor was arrested for attempted murder.

So there’s my question.  What is a hero?

In fairness, I must tell you that the neighbor was never prosecuted. All the charges were dropped. The story came to me at least third-hand, so I won’t say where it happened or who was involved, but apparently teen-age friends from school were visiting the neighbor’s children and one of the visitors was stabbed. The victim had no memory of the attack and couldn’t say that the neighbor did it.  Remember how I said this was gossip that had passed from ear to ear for a while?  The story as it came to me was that the real reason the victim couldn’t remember the neighbor assaulting him is because the assailant was the neighbor’s wife. 

Did the man allow himself to be arrested as a way of protecting his wife? 

I don’t know. I’m not even sure I conclusively know what a hero is.  I think that in some ways all of us are heroes, and all of us are not.

Random memory on International Women’s Day

Back in the 1980s I was managing an office staff of about 4 and a cashiering staff of about 40. It was Spring, which was our busiest time. It was Saturday, which was our busiest day. Lines at the checkouts were long and relentless. The husband of one of the cashiers phoned me. He had unexpected company and needed his wife to come home immediately to make coffee. I told him that I would talk him through making the coffee, but that I wouldn’t let her go home. I explained what happened to the cashier and she said that she agreed with my decision and that her husband was being unreasonable. She finished the day, then never came back.

Medal of Honor

In every dogwood blossom his face
smiles too perfectly.
He never yelled about
my forgotten homework; never
buried my first dog by the fence
in our backyard; never
went eyeball-to-eyeball
with a used car salesman
to get my first car.
He’s a photograph now,
an old one in gray scale.
Only I remember
how the dogwood bloomed
the last time he leaned from the train
to wave goodbye.


~Note: Written to honor Technician Fifth Grade F. Peden who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on February 13, 1946. All events but the dogwood and the train are fictional.

Thoughts on hearing about ban on Art Spiegelman’s Maus

Tennessee is worried about one drawing of a woman without clothes on? How about actual photographs of the piles of naked people murdered in gas chambers? How about images of bulldozers burying those bodies? How about the skin from those people being crafted in lamp shades? How about the images of people starved? Used for experimentation?

In the 1960s PBS did not yet exist, and all of America chose between three television stations ABC, CBS, or NBC. I don’t recall which one of those three aired the documentary, but it was an especially frank broadcast for the times. It may have been shown as a result of Adolf Eichmann being captured and facing trial. Since I was so young, I don’t remember the name of the program. Research leads me to think that it may have been “Remember Us” by director Arnee Nocks and producer: Ted Yates which was aired in July 1960.

I was five years old. I watched it. It still haunts me 60+ years later. That is as it should be. Anyone who isn’t haunted by the holocaust has surrendered their own humanity.

Lasdays

The first time I invited him in
I was fourteen. I waited all afternoon
but nothing happened.
Four years later
in a lonely car on a dark, dirt
backroad, I opened the door
and let him ride along.
Only a pair of intervening headlights
coming at us changed the course of events.
After that I kept him hidden,
behind alcoholic wildness and stern,
absolute uprightness and brilliance
and genius and I don’t know what else.
Now, he shares every sidewalk with me.
We trade off using my cane.
I’ll glance at him
and the corners of his mouth will turn up,
his hair, as white as mine,
tumbles into his eyes,
and with that soft, enticing voice
he’s always had, he asks: was it worth it?
Turning me down, sending me away,
Was it worth it?
Yeah, I say back to him  
then pause to consider all the things
we’ve done together, and I say,
Yeah, it was.