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Starting Point

Young need heroes, old are heroes


Ernest Hemingway, who wrote a lot on the subject, once said that heroes become less important as we grow older. And he was right.

Kids, still struggling with becoming, have a real need for heroes -- role models, as we like to call them today. And when we were kids and saw through the glass darkly, our heroes usually performed a single task and performed it exceedingly well. Our heroes did things like hit home runs, race automobiles, fly across oceans, act in movies or make music. They didn’t write stories about such things: They did them!

For kids, the heroism lay in the doing. And the doing must be quantifiable. That’s why the obsession with statistics was born. Heroes had to have records. Heroes had to hit so many home runs, win the Indy 500, be awarded an Oscar or sell lots of records. If a kid brags about his hero, he has to be able to back it up with some objective evidence other kids will accept.

Sometimes, even when we are kids, our heroes let us down badly: That’s a part of heroism, too. They have a way of behaving like ordinary people sometimes, just as confused, just as lost. They take drugs, drink too much or run off with somebody else’s wife. But kids have more forgiveness in them than a saint on fire. They just bite their lips, swallow their sorrows and will themselves to believe anew.

The reason that adults don’t really need heroes is because they are heroes themselves (although many of them don’t know it), and thus they should know how fragile and vulnerable heroes are. They have been through it all themselves and know that a home run is a wonderful thing, even for an adult, but it’s nothing like patience or endurance or acceptance or faith.

The only thing a home run will ever change is the box score of a baseball game; but faith, as the saying goes, will move mountains. And while home runs will desert you, patience is key if, later on, your wife or husband or father develops Alzheimer’s disease.

A few years ago I attended a gathering of my old Army Air Force outfit, going all the way back to 1943. It was our 50th reunion. And as I stood there, full of drinks and fellowship and memories, I looked around and the thought washed over me like a tide: These guys, my old buddies, are all heroes! They were pilots, bombardiers, navigators, aerial gunners. They were part of a story you will still be able to read about in a thousand years.

But their heroism lies not just in the stuff we all know about, the daring in combat that’s part of the public record. It’s also found in things only they know about. After 50 years, some had lost wives and children. They had survived operations, had colons spliced, prostates removed and pacemakers sewn up inside their chests. Some had seen their children turn out badly, make the same mistakes they had made and yet went on loving them in spite of it. They had buried their parents and now were orphans in a shrinking world. They were over 70, and the hardest part was still ahead.

They drank too much, some of them, especially when the memories surfaced. On top of all that, they still had to figure out how they were going to exit this world with dignity and yet have a chance at making it across to whatever might be waiting for them on the other side.

All that and more made them heroes. They survived; they endured. They were there! Hemingway called this quality “grace under pressure,” and he was right again.

Some might call Hemingway a hero, and some might not. Maybe he thumped his chest too much for a real hero. Or maybe he was silly and overly romantic where women were concerned. Maybe he wasn’t loyal enough to the ones who really loved him. Maybe he put too much emphasis on the physical, the doing.

Whatever we make of him, we know he got old and sick and frail at the end and sensed what was ahead for him, knowing all along that incapacity was the worst, the ending up as an invalid. I think maybe toward the end he thought of Manolete or Ordonez or the running of the bulls at Pamplona. I think maybe he figured the sun would never rise again as it had before. So he put the shotgun butt on the floor and leaned over it as a priest might lean over a chalice. He bent until he felt the cold muzzle just over his eyebrows and then he pulled both triggers.

Maybe a real hero would have done it differently. Maybe a real hero would have reached down and summoned up all the strength he had from deep within and then gone on living like a wounded hawk, waiting for the end with a kind of fierce and distant pride. Maybe a real hero would have remembered a fallen comrade or a childhood prayer. Or perhaps a real hero might just have fallen quietly asleep, dreaming of lions.

Harry Paige writes from Potsdam, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999