“Once again, I was without heroes, and I was becoming quite cynical about the entire idea of heroism. As I became increasingly involved in civil rights work and in the anti-war movement, my focus shifted from looking for a guiding mentor toward a greater sense of personal responsibility in finding ways to help improve the human condition. No more heroes; we would work together to bring about needed change.”—William A. Balk, Jr.
By William A. Balk, Jr.
ELKO South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—March 2017—I gave up on heroes a long time ago, the first time probably when I discovered that Hopalong Cassidy was really somebody named William Boyd, and that the apparently brave deeds and kind words which made him an object of admiration for me were written down by others and given to him to act out. I was only five or six years old, and Hoppy had become, via our first black and white television set, my habitual afternoon immersion in the lessons for becoming a good human being, for being a man.
Except that Hoppy wasn’t real. I discovered this when I asked of my mother how Hoppy could possibly draw and shoot his six-shooter so fast. There were hunters and soldiers and men who liked to shoot around us all the time, and none of them came even close to Hoppy’s lightning speed. My mother patiently explained that he wasn’t really that fast, that he wasn’t really shooting, that it was “acting” and made to look like it was real.
The revelation was a shock, and I was suddenly forced to look differently at television—the Lone Ranger, Buffalo Bob (I already knew Howdy Doody was a puppet, not a person), maybe even Boston Blackie, were all merely putting on an act for me. I realized I could never completely trust who any of these larger-than-life people truly were.
The lesson had a profound effect on my young life, and later, too, even into this incipient decrepitude I am now living. I had learned the hard lesson about actors, but I still harbored strong admiration for people in real life—people who taught us in school, for instance, or a community leader. But by the time I was in high school, the motives and commitments of many of these “heroes” had become suspect. I had learned how easily manipulated were some men of virtue, how secretly corrupted were upright citizens. As much as I sought out emulable figures, I had come to the point of anticipating feet of clay beneath all who drew my initial admiration.
Bereft of heroes, I found Joseph Campbell.
Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces offered a hero who transcended the bounds of time and place, suggesting a “monomyth” which crossed cultures and traditions. The point of the hero story was, it seemed, the story, and that story offered common threads across all cultures with heroes they venerated.
In Campbell’s telling, this archetypal hero has reached a point where he must choose to leave the normal, everyday life he has known in order to face new and unforeseen challenges in a world filled with incomprehensible sights and unfamiliar phenomena. If the hero can survive the tasks and challenges confronting him, he is rewarded with a great gift or superior knowledge, and can return to his former life. The returning hero may then use his gift or new knowledge to benefit the world. It is the story of a journey through trials and discovery, and of a return to improve the lot of humankind.
This was a hero I could understand; the human flaws and weaknesses of this hero were part of the journey, among the challenges to overcome. Once the adventurer had accomplished his tasks, he returned and used his gifts for the benefit of those who had been left behind. Telemachus and his search for his father; Odysseus and his voyages; Boudicca and her fierce defense and retribution against the Romans—these were stories I had long cherished, characters whose failures led to learning, heroes whose journeys had offered me gifts of understanding, aspiration, and strength.
Unlike the undependable heroes of my world, these figures and their journeys vouchsafed me a means of identifying with them and their trials and adventures; but, mirrored in stories, myths, they also provided an option for poetic distance from them. These heroes of legend and these tales of adventure, risk, and discovery, could be set aside with impunity once the story had enriched me or had, instead, left me cold.
My more proximate models, those upstanding preachers or statesmen or warriors I was encountering in life, presented a dilemma, once an inevitable character flaw or gross misdeed came to light. These were real people whose offenses and transgressions affected their communities in very discernible ways. I could not so easily set aside these fallen models of virtue; their failings tainted their usefulness to me as heroic models and caused me to suspect the apparent virtues which had made them heroic in my eyes in the first place.
Eventually, Hopalong Cassidy and Boston Blackie, the failed heroes of my early childhood, were replaced by other paragons who seemed more appropriate as I matured.
By the time I was finishing high school in small town South Carolina, the generations-old system of politics in the South was facing challenge from a number of corners. For most of the South, there was literally a single political party, the Democratic party, which operated as a political machine in each hamlet, county, city, and state throughout the region. By the early 1960s, a rival political organization was rising to confront the entrenched power of the machine—the Republican Party—and I was part of the movement to shake up the Democratic establishment.
I was an early member of the Teen Age Republicans, founding the group in the county where I grew up and active in the state organization. I got to meet leaders of the national party and to plan for the campaigns of Senator Barry Goldwater for President and Albert Watson for the US House of Representatives. My senator, Strom Thurmond, although a Democrat, was teetering on the edge of switching parties, just as Albert Watson had done several years before.
These men became my new heroes: each had left a fairly conventional political career to embark on an utterly new course, it seemed, and the retribution from the establishment made the process a series of trials, trials of which I was a part. My role in the eventual success of the campaigns meant that their journeys were my own. I once even pledged adoring allegiance to the wisdom and motives of the great Strom Thurmond.
I will leave it to the reader to imagine what precisely brought me to see clearly the giant feet of clay supporting these new “heroes” but, having worked with the campaigns and having left for college, I was quickly disabused of my romantic illusions. My heroes had once again failed, and had failed me, although the initial impetus for my campaigning—the urgency of dismantling the single-party political machine—remained intact.
Once again, I was without heroes, and I was becoming quite cynical about the entire idea of heroism. As I became increasingly involved in civil rights work and in the anti-war movement, my focus shifted from looking for a guiding mentor toward a greater sense of personal responsibility in finding ways to help improve the human condition. No more heroes; we would work together to bring about needed change.
Our anti-war efforts led to the establishment of the UFO Coffeehouse. The first such coffeehouse in what became a national movement, the UFO provided a safe environment for military personnel opposed to the war in Vietnam to receive support, counseling, and legal assistance. The combined forces of the military police and intelligence, the federal police and intelligence agencies, state police, and local police were deployed to close down these coffeehouses and, in 1970, the UFO was shuttered, sued, arrested (yes, the business was arrested and charged), and we, its staff of volunteers, were arrested and charged, facing six years imprisonment.
This was no time for heroes, and, indeed, we had seen the dangers inherent in investing an activist movement in the charismatic leadership of a single figure. We sought the support of students and our military friends, community activists, and national organizations. Our arrests were national news, and reporters arrived in Columbia, South Carolina to cover the story.
Our supporters organized a large march from the state capitol building down Main Street to the shuttered UFO building and City Hall across the street, the crowd gathering in a nearby park before the march began. It was a chilly January day, and I had dressed in a lightweight shirt. I was scheduled to be interviewed by several print and television reporters and, by the time I began my third or fourth interview, I was shivering. The reporter, an intense, tall, handsome man, took off his light all-weather coat and offered it to me.
The interview was more pointed and conducted with more focus than most interviews I had done. When we finished, I moved to give the reporter back his coat, and he said, “No. You keep it. We can talk some more after the march and you can return it then.”
I would remember his name, Andrew Kopkind, but I knew nothing of him then. He did follow up with a second interview, then a third and, over four days, spoke to everyone in the community he could find with a connection to the UFO.
By the time he left, I knew he had written for The Washington Post, Time Magazine, and New Statesman; he had been associate editor of The New Republic; with James Ridgeway and Alex Cogburn he had founded the journal Hard Times. And he had become my hero.
I read his work whenever I found it, and my admiration for his commitment and persistence grew, although I moved on from Columbia and antiwar work to Washington, DC, where I joined a political collective working on sexual politics—women’s, men’s, and LGBTQ issues.
Two years after my interview with him, Kopkind still was a hero for me. He had come up through the traditional journalistic ranks, then had committed to following a course conflicting with much of traditional journalism, had borne the slings and arrows of his colleagues and others, and now managed to produce illuminating and inspiring writing.
In Washington, our gay men’s collective would periodically host informal political colloquies with other political groups and, one evening, a new gay men’s collective in Washington had been invited to our house for dinner. A late arrival strode in and sat down in front of me—Andy Kopkind—and I was struck dumb. Very soon, the political purpose of the gathering had been set aside, and we filled in two years of news and gossip. Andy’s partner, the documentarian John Scagliotti, and Andy had recently founded the new collective in Washington, and they were concentrating on using their media expertise in the movement. I still had a hero.
Our collectives collaborated frequently over the next year, often in concert with the radical lesbian-feminist collective, The Furies. Andy and John eventually left for Boston to expand their media projects to include a nationally-distributed radio program.
We exchanged visits between their Boylston Street house and our Dupont Circle house in Washington, and I got to recognize that my hero had his flaws. But, I had begun to accept the flaws in this hero, acknowledging their effect on his writing and his perception, while still admiring his substantial gifts and his kind and generous heart. I began, as well, to examine my own failings, managing to contain my tendency for self-condemnation.
I was, I found, maturing, becoming more able to engage my fellow humans, flaws and all, with some of the same appreciation and acceptance that my literary and mythical heroes evoked.
I still find the term “hero” distasteful when it is applied, as I have done in this essay, to real human characters, but I find it perfectly useful in describing mythical or literary figures.
In the heroic narratives spun around historical figures—JFK, MLK, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc.—human flaws are often acknowledged but walled off from their mythology. That narrative tension diminishes the heroism of living, breathing persons, I believe. The human weaknesses of sheerly mythical or literary heroes are part and parcel of their characters; essential to their standing as heroes. In the case of our clay-foot fellows, however, the failings of an otherwise heroic character mar the heroism.
And it should go without saying: no one ever sees, nor should see, a hero in the mirror.
Image Credits: Image 1: in the public domain, from Wikimedia Commons; Image 2: Photo by Marion S. Trikosko, Wikimedia Commons; Image 3: photograph by The Short Times, 1970, in the TheMarchpublic domain.