No Heroes Here . . .
Except for REAL Ones!
Living languages are fluid and organic.
Any language so rigid in its rules or word usage it cannot accept or adapt to change is doomed.
Latin is such a language—its rigidity caused its own demise; although it is the key to the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian) its role today is more as a scholarly curiosity.
The French are quickly causing the death of their language by staunchly castigating the use of what they term “Western” phrases in everyday speech. For example, rather than use the “evil”
Another example, though much older, is the term “pommes de terre” (“apples of the earth”). What is an apple of the earth? Technically, it could be the edible fruit of any plant, but to the French it is the humble potato. That’s right—their smugness precludes using the word “potato”.
Finally, just to show how silly French can be, a slangy term used for crab lice (or the more common “crabs”; “morpions” in French) translates into English as “butterflies of love”. Sounds better than “She gave me the crabs”, right? Leave it to the French to come up with such a whimsical phrase for what has to be a really gross and embarrassing condition. I’m assuming their term for “leprosy” is likely something akin to “flowering sores and fluttering skin flaps”.
Its stubborn refusal to assimilate linguistically denies the richness of other languages. The French language’s relative importance in global linguistics has already declined dramatically over the last century.
The English language (both the British and its American counterpart) is wonderfully adaptive, however. English language users readily and greedily adopt foreign words and phrases, and creatively use slang and made-up words. Words gain and keep their meanings by consensus and from common usage. But even users of English are quite capable of subverting, misusing, and ultimately changing what words or phrases mean.
Two very old subversions occurred with the words “awful” and “peruse”. Originally, “awful” meant someone or something capable of inspiring awe and wonder. Kings, queens, and YHWH in his heaven were all once respectfully called “awful”. Today, the word means almost the exact opposite—something that is awful is not desirable or revered. We now use the word “awesome” to describe what we once called “awful”.
“Peruse” originally meant “to use up thoroughly”. This meant if one “perused” a book or manuscript one read every word with undivided attention. Today, it means a quick scanning of written material with little or no thought. No retention happens today when one “peruses” anything. In the past, though, it meant one digested every word and concept.
Other words become subverted and are no longer used by the masses because of perceived negative connotations. The word “gay” once meant “happy”, “bright”, or “colorful”.
But by the 1840s, the word “gay” slangily became associated with sex (specifically, female prostitution). Any woman referred to as having “gone gay” was a woman who had become a prostitute. Still later, the word “gay” was subverted and adopted by homosexual people. Today, heterosexuals experience discomfort in singing “Don we now our gay apparel” from the Christmas carol “Deck the Halls”.
The same is true of the word “queer”—a Victorian man might casually be heard saying, “I feel queer today” as in “I feel strange or odd or ill”. Again, this word has been so thoroughly entrenched and associated with homosexuality no one uses it casually except as a reference to homosexual men and women.
Subversion also happens through overuse and misuse of words.
“Unique” is a word that has lost all of its impact because people no longer seem to understand what it really means. If something is “unique” it is one-of-a-kind. That means something unique is unparalleled, irreplaceable, and cannot be found anywhere else. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is unique, as is the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China, and Elvis.
There can be no degrees of “uniqueness” if the word is used properly; there can be nothing that is “more unique” or “most unique”. The word is a black-and-white word; things are either unique or they are not. There are no cases where Elvis is “more unique” than Buddy Holly—both are unique. The word has lost its superlative sense completely.
“Reiterate” is another word that is losing its meaning as well. “Reiterate” means “to summarize”. It does not mean “repeat” although that is how most people mistakenly use it. A proper usage would be if, after giving a speech, you said, “So, to reiterate . . . ”, and then you simply hit your high points of discussion. Unfortunately, the misuse of this word led many recent dictionaries to include the “repeat” definition as acceptable as well, so it looks as if it is here to stay.
Certain words through their rampant misuse (as with “unique”) are rendered impotent. Their power of description is diminished to meaningless platitudes rather than the sincere strength of their original intent.
“Hero” is such a word. In recent years it has been tossed about, randomly and inappropriately, to such a degree that seemingly almost anyone is a hero. But in reality, not just anyone is a hero.
Who Are Heroes?
I would be willing to lay good money that the average he-man who refers to his favorite football player or action/adventure actor as a “hero” has no idea he is calling that man a woman.
The word “hero” is from ancient Greek mythology tradition. Hero was a priestess of the Temple of Aphrodite. Priestesses had pride of place and honor within the pantheon of pagan cultures and were revered and respected. Hero herself became the object of admiration and affection of Leander, a real obsessive. Leander’s making Hero an object of extreme devotion led to one of the earlier uses of the word, and her name “Hero” passed into many languages as the word “hero” that we use today.
However, a true “hero” cannot merely be someone who is worshipped or idolized for his/her popularity. Rather, I submit, true heroes can be defined as follows:
A hero is an ordinary person who performs extraordinarily under extraordinary conditions.
Or, it is a person who does his or her job above and beyond the call of duty. The kid who bags your groceries is not a hero unless he, as an untrained fire fighter, rushes into a burning building and saves your cat, Mr. Licks ’Nads. Then and only then is he a hero. The same grocery bagger would likewise be a hero if the store manager suddenly dropped dead, and the kid ran the store effectively and efficiently until help arrived from his company.
Superman is a hero not because he has super powers but because he uses them in a capacity not in his milieu. Superman has no obligation at all to help humanity or to fight crime. As a resident alien he could just as easily kick back in his house, get food stamps and welfare, and watch Dr. Phil. He has no reason to help Earth. None. No matter what happens his super powers will save him, and self-preservation (regardless of what anyone pretends to believe) is the first priority of any person. His choosing to help the puny humans in their times of crises and need is what makes Superman a hero.
In today’s world, unfortunately, the average shmendrik cannot make such distinctions. So, a review of commonly misnamed “heroes” may help define better who real heroes are.
This class of hero is one of the worst (but not unique) for many reasons.
First, there are no true heroics involved in playing a sport. But the gravitas associated with moving a football across a line has reached hysterical proportions, particularly here in the US.
The end zone dancing really was the capper, though. Busby Berkley dance routines, spiking the ball: what, exactly, did you do here, chief? What grand heroic act that bettered humanity did you perform? Oh, yeah . . . you moved a ball across a field over an arbitrary line and you scored points for your team. In a game.
And yet you dance as if you had conquered Everest for the first time, discovered an unknown element, or cured AIDS.
Let’s break this down.
What did you really do here, exactly, Mr. Gridiron God?
Oh, yeah—YOU DID YOUR JOB!!
How would it look if we had to suffer this kind of histrionic showboating in our everyday lives? The kid who bags your groceries slam-dunks your eggs, dances around like a Tourette’s victim, and then waves his hands in the air? That would be pretty annoying. Or, if your heart transplant surgeon removes your bad ticker, slams it on the floor of the operating room, and does a Mexican Hat Dance around it while shouting, “Yeah!!! Yeah!!! I so got this!!”
Guess what, Mr. Pigskin Pusher? Your spasmodic, death-throe chicken dance in the end zone is just as absurd.
Sports figures can achieve heroic proportions, comparatively speaking. Lou Gehrig (1903-1941) was “The Iron Horse” of the New York Yankees from 1923 to 1939 when he retired because of the degenerative disease ALS, now commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”. Gehrig played 2,130 games consecutively as a Yankee.
He played his first base position with broken fingers, wrenched back, sprains, and the early stages of the disease that killed him in 1941.
He never missed a game.
Gehrig was no whiner and no grandstander; he was just a man who played his game with respect, sincerity, and honor. Nor was he overly paid (he did well by the standards of his day, but he did not make the ridiculously inflated cash today’s players do).
So, in comparison, back to you, Mr. Touchdown.
You make millions of dollars to do that thing, you know, that really important thing of moving a ball across an arbitrary line in a game that amuses and provides diversion. What do you call it?
Oh yeah . . . your job!
During your asinine booty-shaking, however, somewhere a real hero or heroine is quietly going on about his or her business, those working to cure cancer or AIDS, whose names no one even knows because, hey, in America we have our priorities straight!
This type, while mildly annoying, don’t reach the histrionic level of the sports “hero”.
Most musicians realize what they do is simply entertainment. Others may have loftier pretensions of musical artistry. Still others, though, strap on the mantle of “hero” undeservedly.
My disappointment in the video game Guitar Hero stems not from the game itself (it’s really awesome) but from its very name.
Musicians should strive toward accomplishment, and by that I don’t mean a level of ability to rival Segovia, Brian May, or even Dick Dale, but rather to have the sense of wanting to create something wonderful versus just learning to play so you can bag chicks. Guitar Hero is only one step above air-guitar players (although at least with Guitar Hero you do have to have some sense of musicality and not just be a poseur). Also, the video game led many to pick up real guitars and that’s always a bonus, even if they only picked it up to be glory hounds.
The electric guitar was invented in 1940 by guitar great Les Paul (1915-2009). To illustrate this man’s commitment to his music, while experimenting with an early version of what became known as “The Log” (the first true electric guitar), Paul got electrocuted.
It took him almost two years to fully recover. Then, in 1948, he was a passenger in a car involved in a horrific accident. His right arm was mangled beyond reason. Doctors could not reset what was left of his elbow and forearm to give him free range of motion. The best they could do was set it in a position that would be of most use or comfort for him. Either that, or amputate.
Paul told them to set it in a bent position almost 90o across his chest. That way he could still cradle a guitar and pick and strum. His left hand still worked perfectly for chording, and he went on to become a living legend. His right arm remained fused in the perpetual strumming posture for the rest of his life.
So, any straddler aiming the neck of his crotch rocket at the ceiling of any arena owes a huge debt to the unassuming Les Paul, who really does deserve the moniker Guitar Hero.
This is the toughest “hero” category to broach because of the emotion involved.
In today’s idiot “war” environment (of “god, guns, and country”) many families have lost sons or daughters overseas in brainless military activity. The pain of their loss is real. However, most people think any cop or fire fighter or military person who is killed on the job is automatically a hero.
They are not.
Again, heroes are ordinary people who do extraordinary things. Police officers, fire fighters, lumberjacks, astronauts, military people, and test pilots are not by default heroes because of their work assignments.
We have no draft today. Anyone in the military now is there voluntarily and is merely doing his or her job, the one he or she signed up to do. If such a person is killed in action, while tragic, it is not heroic. And I absolutely do not want to hear about how those people are protecting my democratic freedoms. My democratic freedoms have never been threatened in the course of my entire life time. This country has not been invaded by a foreign power since 1812.
The 9/11 attacks were not an invasion and did not threaten my democratic freedoms. My democratic freedoms are only threatened by things like Homeland Security (beefed up in the wake of 9/11; its absolute invasive power is frightening). The debacle in Afghanistan has nothing to do with protecting the democratic freedoms of Americans, either. Iraq was a political move by the previous administration (thanks to GW Bush), and we’ve been in Afghanistan so long I’ve since forgotten why we were there in the first place (I know it was after the Russians in 1980 said, “Screw you nudniks—ve’re goink home!”)
Similarly, police who get gunned down in cross-fire or fire fighters who die of smoke inhalation are also not heroes—the dangers inherent in their jobs make the loss of life something they live with daily, and it is expected. One never sees a newspaper headline screaming, “Hero Lumberjack Crushed by Big Tree!” It would be ridiculous. Injuries in such high-risk occupations are not heroic. It just means you got hurt or killed at work.
Heroes in the line of duty do exist however. These are the people who work above and beyond their calling. Looking for a hero in law enforcement? Think about Frank Serpico (b: 1936) who risked his life as a New York City cop to expose corruption in his department. His own fellow officers tried to kill him and have him killed. That’s a hero cop.
If Serpico doesn’t do it for you how about Joe Pistone (b: 1939)? He went deep undercover to break up the Mafia. His efforts alone over a period of years led to dozens of indictments and effectively destroyed the power structure behind La Cosa Nostra. Some of those charges are still being played out. Pistone himself had to go into witness protection when all was said and done, and even today there is still a contract out on his head.
But probably the King Daddy of all above-and-beyond heroes (of which there are many) has to be Audie Murphy (1924-1971). At the onset of World War II the young Murphy volunteered to serve his country (and in that case, unlike Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan our democratic freedoms really were on the line—Japan attacked us with full intentions of later invading). Murphy was a small man, only about 5’5” tall and weighed all of 110 pounds soaking wet. He tried to enlist in various branches of the military several times before finally being accepted by the Army (who had rejected him once before). He made sergeant and served in the European theater of operations for 27 months. In total during his term of enlistment he killed over 250 enemy personnel, wounded and took prisoner countless others, and disabled and captured six enemy tanks.
Murphy’s biggest heroic act occurred on January 26, 1945. He and his men were punished by heavy machine-gun fire from a nest of Germans. Most of his men were lost. In a moment of insane bravery Murphy sent his remaining 19 men to safety while he leapt onto a disabled vehicle mounted with a .50-caliber machine gun. He rode that gun until the entire area was clear of enemy personnel— he killed over 50 Germans single-handedly! He sustained some injuries though; shot in the thigh, he was bleeding out as he took his stand.
Audie Murphy left the military after the war and went on to act in 44 movies (mostly war pictures and Westerns). He also dabbled as a Country & Western music performer. He is the most decorated person ever, and he deserved every medal and award he got.
The hapless family lost in the snowy Oregon wilderness, the soccer team stranded in the Andes Mountains in the early 1970s—these people all have one thing in common. That common thing is they are not heroes, they are survivors. Too many times when a person emerges from a survival situation he or she is called a hero.
The infamous Donner Party is a perfect example. In the mid 1800s a westward bound wagon train was trapped in the Nevada mountains during the early snow season and had to cannibalize their dead when their food ran out (only after eating all their draft animals, and then resorting to eating boiled leather belts, shoes, and leaves first). The only heroes were those who risked everything to trek to Sacramento to get help. All others, though perhaps brave, were not heroes but survivors.
The same is true of the survivors of the soccer team whose plane crashed on the slopes of the Andes. They were forced of necessity to cannibalize their dead. None of them were heroes, they were survivors. The only hero of that group was the guy who finally scaled down the mountains and got to civilization. There’s your hero. Everybody else just survived, that’s all.
Frequently, wilderness “heroes” bring their misery upon themselves. The Donner Party used a rumored shortcut without proper guidance or experience (the shortcut was an untried route that actually added miles to their trip). They hit the necessary Nevada mountain pass at the wrong time of year. Incompetence in the group’s leadership is what caused their travails. The same is true for the family trapped in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains within recent memory. They had been advised not to go up to the higher elevations as snow was expected. They went anyway. Not only are they not heroes, they are morons who are lucky to be alive.
Accidents in the wilds do happen, however. The guy who had his leg pinned under a boulder while climbing and hiking? Not a hero: he was an accident victim (and had a movie made about him). The man and woman who floated in the Pacific Ocean for an extended period before getting picked up? Not heroes, either (but had a made-for-TV movie made about them). In fact that couple may have bizarrely staged the whole incident, contriving to get left behind on their scuba diving excursions. We’ll never really know.
Wilderness heroes have made their presences known, however.
Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) was a true wilderness hero. Any accolade that can be thrown his way needs to be. The British Shackleton was involved early in the race to reach the South Pole and had been to the Antarctic on
Shackleton, though, thought that crossing the continent might be a good idea for exploration even if he hadn’t reached the pole first. He mounted an expedition on his ship Endurance. He and his crew (with many dogs and other animals) set out in December 1914.
On January 19, 1915, Endurance became locked in ice near the eastern Antarctic coastal area. The ship was stuck. The nearest civilization was a Swedish whaling station on South Georgia Island over 1000 miles (>1600 km) to the north. Shackleton and his men lived aboard Endurance for almost a year when it was finally crushed by the ice pack and sank in November 1915.
But wait, it gets better.
Shackleton rallied his crew and they set up a camp on an ice floe, hoping it would drift northerly to get them out into shipping lanes. They had stripped Endurance before it sank of as much material as possible including three damaged open long-boats. They lived on their ice floe for two more months until it began to melt and fall apart. They threw what they could into the long boats, patched up what could be patched, and launched into the open Atlantic. Adrift for a few hundred miles they made landfall on Elephant Island, an uninhabited, barren rocky outcropping. Shackleton and his men dug in until April 1916.
With no other alternative except death, Shackleton set out with five of his crew in one of the damaged long boats to try to reach South Georgia Island. The remaining 22 men stayed behind on Elephant Island. Shackleton and his small crew spent weeks at sea. Because of strong currents and storms as they approached South Georgia Island they could not get close to the whaling station—their long-boat would have been torn apart. Instead, they navigated a landfall on the far side of the island, 32 miles (about 52 km) away from the whaling station and salvation. This was mid May 1916.
South Georgia Island is, like Elephant Island, an inhospitable environment. Access to the coastal areas is by sea. Trekking overland was Shackleton’s only choice. The island is split by a small mountain range that had never been traversed on foot before (some earlier explorers had used skis to probe the area). Shackleton took two of his crew and left two behind. He worked his way by dead reckoning across the island, arriving at the whaling station 36 hours later. His two other crewmen were picked up from the far side of South Georgia Island, and the stragglers left behind on Elephant Island were all rescued soon enough.
Almost two years after leaving England, Shackleton and his crew of 25 men were saved. There was no loss of life. Every man survived thanks to Shackleton’s brilliant leadership and bravery. One man lost some toes to frostbite. They were starving, but all survived. Shackleton himself later died of a heart attack in 1922.
The human animal’s need to gain attention often expresses itself in bizarre ways.
Some are harmless.
For example, there are many people walking the planet right now who never even came close to Yasgar’s farm in Bethel, New York, in the late 1960s, but they will claim they were at the iconic Woodstock music festival anyway. It’s a harmless lie, but a dumb one, too. There’s nothing to be gained by saying it. It’s just a bid for attention: “Really? You were at Woodstock?”
Many fake “Vietnam Veterans” are walking around as well. Their motivations for pretending to have served in Vietnam may be myriad, but the real reward for such pretenders is the reaction they get: “Really? You served in Vietnam?”
More pathetic than the outright liar is the person who may have only the most tangential connection to some major event or disaster who then inflates that incidental connection into something far greater and self-aggrandizing.
Hurricane Katrina’s wake is a good example in 2005. There were fraudulent claims, people looking for the quick buck in relief funds by pretending to have been in New Orleans when it hit, etc..
But more onerous is the “hangers-on”, the people who are self-congratulatory about having done something to help with the relief effort. That makes you a good citizen, a volunteer, and a good human being, but it does not a hero make.
The disaster of 9/11 bred such people. Of course there were the con artists, claiming they had family members in the Twin Towers when they did not (just to get compensation from the government). Too many people have taken 9/11 and wear it as some imaginary, and undeserved, badge of honor. Merely being in New York City that day in 2001 doesn’t count. Nor did hearing about it on the radio. Nor does recalling where you were or what you were doing when the first plane hit the first tower qualify you as a hero or even a direct participant in the event.
All things that happened after 9/11 were incidental to the tragedy. Military personnel dispatched to Afghanistan were doing their jobs, with the added responsibility of finding Osama bin Laden, believed to be in refuge there. The US had an Afghan presence for decades so this wasn’t a new engagement. No heroes, just people doing what they signed on to do.
Similarly, all those military personnel called up to serve in Iraq were on a mission completely unrelated to 9/11. Iraq had nothing to do with the assault on the American psyche, and as crazy as Saddam Hussein was (and it is a good thing he is off the planet) even he shunned al-Qaeda overtures of involvement in the plot. Since Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, there are no US Iraq War heroes associated with that attack. Not their fault, although the situation may have bred some beyond-the-call-of-duty heroes. Mostly, they were just people going where George W. Bush told them to go so he could one-up his dad.
The disaster area rescue workers involved, the clean-up people, and police officers all were doing the jobs they were trained and paid to do. Yes, there were heroics involved, and yes, many of those people performed well above the call of duty. But there aren’t as many 9/11 heroes as people like to believe or are told.
There is, however, a group of true heroes, by definition, that emerged from 9/11. Sadly, these true heroes all sacrificed their lives for their heroics (and for what they did, they deserve every posthumous award imaginable and their children’s children need to be sent to college for free). I’m talking about the only flesh-and-blood heroes of 9/11, the ordinary civilians of United Airlines Flight 93.
Every detail of what happened on that plane will never be clear. It was hijacked just as the flights from Logan Airport in Boston had been hijacked before crashing into the World Trade Center Towers. Flight 93 originated in Newark, New Jersey. It was an average passenger plane, a Boeing 757. It was bound for San Francisco, but had few passengers aboard. The crew (pilot, et al) accounted for seven people. The plane had a 182-passenger capacity—that day there were only 37 passengers. Of those 37 people, four were al-Qaeda terrorists.
Less than an hour into the flight, the four hijackers stormed the cockpit and took over control of the plane. The leader of the hijackers assumed the pilot’s position and heeled the jet eastward off its flight path, doubling back toward Washington, DC. Some passengers and flight personnel had the presence of mind to start making cell calls. They found out about the Twin Towers crashes, and they learned about the plane smashing into the Pentagon as well.
With not much time (the plane was over mid Pennsylvania) a group of passengers burst into the cockpit (something apparently that did not occur to the passengers on the two New York planes or the Virginia plane). Flight 93 never reached Washington, DC. Details are vague but the plane was brought down in a field about 150 miles (240 km) northwest of the Capital. It has been surmised this plane’s mission was to slam into the White House or the US Capitol Building, but we’ll never know.
What is known is that a group of ordinary citizens took extraordinary action that day and managed to keep that aircraft from its appointed rounds with destiny. Perhaps they understood clearly that they would die anyway. Regardless, they gave their lives, unselfishly, and for that those people are real heroes.
Okay, so, what did you do, again, with your little touchdown seizure there, Mr. Thursday Night Football?
Oh, yeah—you moved a ball across a line, “hero”.