“The American psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp has cautioned, ‘If you have a hero, look again; you have diminished yourself in some way.’ I would not go quite that far because I know my reverence for DiMaggio made me a better ballplayer. I tried harder because I knew Joe would have. It was, of course, a disappointment to learn he had feet of clay, but I would not tear down the pedestals just yet. Another hero like Lance Armstrong or Eliot Spitzer will come along . . . oh, never mind.”—Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Skip Eisiminger
“I am the hero of Africa.”—Idi Amin
“[My ‘heroism’] was involuntary. They sank my boat.”—John F. Kennedy
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—March 2017—Though Bette Midler sings, “You’re my hero . . . the wind beneath my wings,” anyone who’s taken high-school physics should know that planes and birds acquire their lift from the current flowing over the wing, not under.
Though heroes do provide lift, they are often misrepresented. Samuel Johnson thought they must drink brandy, Emerson thought eventually they become bores, and Scott Fitzgerald thought their lives must end tragically. I suspect these gentlemen are mistaken, but I’ve yet to find a thoroughly unblemished hero outside of fiction. From Beowulf to Jesus, literature teems with ideals life cannot provide.
To be sure, I misrepresented or misunderstood my share of heroes growing up. For years, I idolized Joe DiMaggio, like many baseball-playing kids in the 1940s and 50s. Joe was heir to Babe Ruth; he was the “Yankee Clipper” who’d hit safely in 72 straight games and led the Yankees to nine World Series championships. After Joe’s retirement, Paul Simon would wail, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo, woo, woo.” It turned out that “Joltin’ Joe” hadn’t gone anywhere. He was making ads for Mr. Coffee even after spending much of World War Two on Hawaii’s beaches and battering Marilyn Monroe because none of that mattered if you ever hit a sinking fast ball.
Incidentally, Simon chose “Joe DiMaggio” over “Mickey Mantle” for the words’ syllable count, not Joe’s “profile in courage.”
The American psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp has cautioned, “If you have a hero, look again; you have diminished yourself in some way.” I would not go quite that far because I know my reverence for DiMaggio made me a better ballplayer. I tried harder because I knew Joe would have. It was, of course, a disappointment to learn he had feet of clay, but I would not tear down the pedestals just yet. Another hero like Lance Armstrong or Eliot Spitzer will come along . . . oh, never mind.
Few Americans are aware that John Paul Jones was once a pirate, Ben Franklin was often overdrawn, and Abe Lincoln lied but, “without heroes,” wrote Bernard Malamud in The Natural, “we’re all plain people and don’t know how far we can go.”
A fair yardstick for our demigods is the speed of their ascent, for a rapid rise usually betokens a quick descent. Just as the diver who rises too quickly risks decompression, so does the explosive rise of the latest pop-culture icon all but guarantee a rapid fall. On the other hand, Dietrich Bonhöffer and Albert Schweitzer labored for decades in the trenches before their sacrifices were widely appreciated. Several decades after their deaths they, like Mohammed and the Buddha, still personify goals worth targeting. As I said, fictional heroes may be the best of all, for no one is going to debunk “a natural” like Roy Hobbs the way Christopher Hitchens exposed Mother Teresa.
The complexities of heroism may be illustrated by the following: in 1984, the remains of an American serviceman killed in Viet Nam were buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier alongside several others from earlier wars. Unaware that DNA analysis would soon make identification possible, the Department of Defense, as is its custom, conferred the Medal of Honor on the unidentified soldier. Fourteen years later, the remains were identified and, at the family’s request ,moved to a cemetery in St. Louis. However, when family members requested the medal, they were denied it. According to a DOD spokesperson, “A most grateful nation . . . must recognize that the award is symbolic, not personal . . . [and as such, it] is not transferable.”
But how grateful are we if the lawgivers, who made the award non-transferable, can’t change the law?
The behavior of James Dickey, a mentor of mine at the University of South Carolina, raises another issue of heroic perplexity. The official record as we now understand it is that Dickey flew 38 combat missions in World War Two and Korea, yet I and many others at USC heard him boast of “a hundred or more.” But isn’t 38 a very respectable number? Would he have been any braver in our eyes if he had flown a hundred or more missions?
“Less is more,” said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, speaking of architecture, but I think minimalism often applies to heroism as well. For all his shortcomings, DiMaggio understood what Dickey did not. Perhaps it had more to do with his intellectual insecurity than any modesty, but “the Yankee Sphinx” seldom puffed up his achievements on the field.
In the 1920s, western film sets were sometimes built to ⅞ scale, but they might have been more effective if built to 1⅛ scale. At 5 ½ feet and 112 pounds, Audie Murphy must have thought he was acting on such a set. The Marines rejected him as “too small,” but 23 decorations later (including the Medal of Honor), his modest stone at Arlington cannot list them all. Thus, physical size, like race, nationality, and gender, may be eliminated from the yardstick, while reserve should be added.
From time to time, the popular press publishes surveys of American heroes. A 1975 poll taken by Mme. Tussaud’s Waxwork Museums recorded that Churchill, Kennedy, Joan of Arc, Robin Hood, and Napoleon made the top five, in that order. Churchill and Kennedy surprised no one, but Napoleon? Have we forgotten Waterloo and the retreat from Russia?
Twenty-six years later, the AP published another poll with Jesus in first place, John Kennedy slipping to third, John Wayne in eighth, and Michael Jordan in ninth. Surprisingly, “His Airness” was the only sports figure to make the top ten, but then Jordan was near the top of his game in 2001. Napoleon had finally slipped under the waves battering St. Helena, but what, I wonder, does a survey such as this one or Tussaud’s tell us about our culture? Are we as ignorant and shallow as it appears? Perhaps so. Those who follow politics as well as sports know that Jordan, a billionaire, once refused to endorse a Democrat in the race for the US Senate because, as he said, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
Anti-heroes like Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock have made a pathetic but comfortable home for themselves in literary circles over the last century, but the misfits I have in mind are those like the LA cop who planted a bomb at the 1984 Olympics and “saved the day” by defusing it just before the timer went off. After he confessed, and someone told him, “You’re my hero,” the ex-cop muttered, “Get over it.” He very nearly redeemed himself.
In the single-line poem “Coward,” A. R. Ammons has written, “Bravery runs in my family.”
With a father who was awarded a Bronze Star, a mother who battled post-traumatic stress waiting for the mail during two wars, an aunt who stood up to opponents of integrating Georgia schools, a cousin who drowned trying to save a cave diver, and a half dozen more who have bravely faced cancer, mad-cow disease, and death, I think it’s fair to say that my own family has a record of courage.
I’m not looking for an opportunity to be a hero but, if the brass ring comes by, I hope heroism will choose me and not vice versa.
The images of a young James Dickey derive from http://christophersworldview.blogspot.com/
To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522.