By Mike Klein
A while back in our American experience heroes mattered. Kids could name the astronauts. You knew about Alan Shepard, the first American to travel to outer space. You could recognize his photo. You knew about John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth. You could recognize his photo. I wonder how many today can name an American astronaut. Do we still have American astronauts? Now do we just call them cosmonauts? I cannot name one.
I remember having all kinds of heroes as a kid in my formative years, the Fifties and Sixties. None was greater than Mickey Mantle. To me, Mickey Mantle was baseball, powerful, fast, and able to drive a baseball into eternal orbit. The Mick made the covers of LIFE and TIME. The Mick was supposed to hit 61 home runs; instead it was Roger Maris. Later we forgave him.
Leaders were heroes. Dwight Eisenhower was one. Douglas MacArthur was another. Men who fought for them spent the rest of their lives honoring their commanders. Can you name even one current American military hero, someone who is universally respected like Eisenhower and MacArthur? The closest I can get is perhaps the late Norman Schwarzkopf. There are a lot of people today who would ask you, who is Norman Schwarzkopf? How quickly we forget.
How often does anyone of us engage in conversations about heroes? Do you have one? Do your kids have heroes? When was the last time you heard someone say, you know what, I think So and So is a hero. Many today are more comfortable bashing and trashing. It seems much easier to tear someone down and rip them to shreds than universally honor someone. The song said Abraham, Martin and John were heroes. The song was correct.
Heroes should exist on several levels. My first video hero was Mighty Mouse because you knew and felt in your heart that Mighty Mouse would save the day. Mighty Mouse was actually a spoof on Superman; did you know that? Other heroes followed, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. No western hero, however, was the equal of Wyatt Earp. That long Buntline Special, the hat, the way that Wyatt Earp walked, this lawman had the total package. It took a while to develop the distinction that Wyatt Earp on TV was actually an actor; he wasn’t the real Wyatt Earp who was pretty much a gunslinger himself with better PR and marketing.
Mr. Leland was a hero. I have no idea whether Mr. Leland had a first name. He taught seventh grade math. Mr. Leland was quite likely the only person in the entire world who had even a snowball’s chance in hell of making me understand whatever all that stuff was that he was talking about on the blackboard. Somehow I got just enough of it to reach eighth grade. Even then I somehow knew that having Mr. Leland was my only chance. I was otherwise doomed.
When you search “American Heroes” the first results are for a 1980’s television series and a 1997 movie. Adjust your search and you begin to find organizations that honor heroes. One internet definition of hero says it is “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” That seems kind of weak. I remember learning about Helen Keller and thinking that what she accomplished was indeed, quite heroic.
Bill Harmon was a hero. Early in my college years I connected with this former Oklahoma City newspaperman who apparently recognized that young, very naïve me had the determination to become a Chicago newspaperman. It happened. My mentor and hero Bill Harmon provided more valuable real world knowledge than anything learned in a traditional classroom.
I started this line of thought because as Memorial Day weekend approaches we once again are being bombarded with the true fruit of the holiday – that is, mattress and automobile sales, well, actually, sales for everything and anything. This ought to be a weekend to celebrate American heroes like Charles F. Klein. My late father spent four years in the United States Marine Corps; his address was usually some tiny Pacific island, helping to fight Japan. This weekend I will pause to honor my late father, my hero, along with so many others who aided my path.