Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Two p.m., downtown Washington, D.C., where the road construction and repairs never stop. My friend Jim and I are sitting at a Chinese restaurant chopsticking our way through dishes of moo shoo pork and garlic beef. Jim is the best-read man I know, a former publisher and editor, a casual bon vivant, and we are talking about heroes and coming to the disturbing realization that there are none left today.
He remembers as a child being taken by his father to see a parade in London for Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, the British nobleman who in World War II was in command of all ground forces for Operation Overlord, from the initial D Day landings on June 6, 1944, to the end of the Battle of Normandy. On May 4, 1945, the Field Marshall, accepted the German surrender at Luneberg Heath in northern Germany.
When I was a child, my father took me to Louison Bobet’s parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Bobet’s fame was decidedly un-Montgomery-like, as it came atop a racing bicycle. He was the first truly great French rider of the post-war period, and he won the Tour de France three times in a row from 1953 to 1955. Bobet was a gentleman though not a nobleman. He was one of three children born above his father’s bakery and got his first bicycle when he was two. Within mere month, or so it is said, little Louison was routinely riding the bike six kilometers. By the time he retired from racing in 1958, he had ridden more than 400,000 kilometers.
Both nations, devastated by war, were in dire need heroes. In Great Britain, Montgomery came to personify England’s steadfastness and refusal to give in. In France, a country that had given in too quickly, Bobet signaled a renewal of faith, and on his slim shoulders he bore French pride with both dignity and unease.
Where have all the heroes gone? Are there any left? Certainly not among the people we now venerate, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. According to Webster’s, a hero is an individual of distinguished courage or ability admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities; any person who has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal; and in antiquity, an individual possessing godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity. Sadly, I can’t think of a single example in our times.
And yet people act heroically every day, but we somehow either do not hear about it, or their fame is so fleeting it fails to even approach Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes. Instead, we’re told to idolize captains of industry, pop stars, overpaid athletes and people without notable accomplishments—individuals famous simply for being famous.
Need proof that the heroes are a vanishing breed? New York’s Downtown Alliance sponsors the Canyon of Heroes Parades, the classic and celebrated ticker-tape pageants that run along Broadway from the Battery to City Hall. There have been 205 parades honoring champion athletes, pioneers of air and space travel, soldiers, sailors, sea captains, firemen, heads of state, politicians, journalists, and a virtuoso pianist. The first one was held on October 28, 1886, for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Of the last 10 parades, eight have been for football, baseball or hockey teams. One was for Sammy Sosa when he tied—tied, mind you, not surpassed—the single-season home run record, and another, on November 16, 1998, was for the Senator John Glenn and the crew members of the US space shuttle Discovery. The last parade held for war heroes was June 25, 1991, for Korean War Veterans.
The trouble is, heroes are not teams or groups, they’re individuals. So where have all the heroes gone?
In his book, Heroes of My Time, the late Harrison Salisbury says, "We do not live in the age of heroes. This is not the era of Jefferson, Lincoln, or Commodore Perry. Nor even of Charles Lindbergh. The politicians of our day seldom remind us of Franklin D. or Eleanor Roosevelt. Athletes signing five-and ten-million- dollar contracts do not resonate as did Babe Ruth."
Today’s heroes are not chosen, they are thrust upon us, cosseted by press agents, delivered to us bright and shiny on television’s entertainment news or with too many inches of superfluous print in People and Us magazines. Neither are they homegrown. We will not meet them nor know them; they have never lived next door…
And yet we must have heroes, they are necessary to our well-being, to our national psyche, to our beliefs that the epic and superhuman can be attained.
How can we find the heroes we need?