Heroes are created by popular demand,
sometimes out of the scantiest materials.
Gerald White Johnson (1943)
American Heroes and Hero-worship
The people have always some champion whom they
set over them and nurse into greatness.
Plato - The Republic, Book VIII
Farmers and Gardeners in the Meadow
As kids we all had our own personal heroes. It might have been a pro ball player, teacher, hollywood personality, political figure or even a favorite relative. Usually, it was a man or woman whose personal accomplishments had set them apart from the likes of ordinary mortals. In times of crisis, we relied on them to be our "bridge over troubled waters".
In grade school, most of my friends had heroes who were sports figures or movie actors, though I remember one teacher (a nun) who inspired many of the girls and there was one boy who thought Arthur Godfrey was the ultimate champion. It had something to do with him being a pilot and playing the ukelele.
Up through eighth grade my own personal hero had been J. Edgar Hoover. Give me a break on that one. I was only a kid. What did I know?
When we reached the meadow, along with all the flowers, we found a virtually unlimited variety of new heroes who plowed and raked, sowed and hoed, fertilized, cultivated and ultimately bought into the flower business.
Some were good gardeners, some were natural botanists, many were skilled at arranging flowers and many more were really best at selling them. But good or bad, I'm glad they were there.
They taught us by their presence and by their examples. They inspired us with their rhetoric, entertained us with their talents, fired us with their commitment and all too often, disappointed us with their human frailties.
However, without them we might never have realized that we were standing in a meadow rather than a wasteland.
Americans love heroes.
We love to read about them, honor them, watch them and imitate them. We also love to create them.
No matter how great their real accomplishments might be, we amplify them, exaggerate them and when we get bored we even fabricate them.
We love heroes for what they are and for what we want them to be.
The meadow of the '60s was a good place to find heroes. Ike, Elvis, the Beatles, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammed Ali, Mickey Mantle, John Wayne, Barry Goldwater, Abby Hoffman, Jane Fonda, the Marines, the Green Berets - no matter what social or political values you held there was a colorful, visible, larger than life champion for you to worship and emulate.
And each one had a message.
Political giants like Jack Kennedy told us to ask what we could do for our country and the world.
Civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of seeing the Promised Land on the horizon.
Woodie Guthrie reminded us that "This Land is Our Land".
Abby Hoffman told us to fight the Establishment, the Establishment told us to fight Communism, die-hard right-wing conservatives recommended dropping the bomb and Timothy Leary recommended dropping acid.
Maharishi Mahesh, the Beatles' personal Guru, promised that if all men prayed for peace, then peace would come naturally to mankind.
Activists all over the country sang about giving peace a chance and Scott McKenzie wanted us to wear flowers in our hair if we went to San Francisco.
The popular singer, Donovan, blamed all wars on the 'Universal Soldier', war resistors burned their draft cards, liberated women burned their brassieres and the 'I hate America because...' groups burned the flag.
Barry Maguire sang that we were on the 'Eve of Destruction', another vocal group argued that we were approaching the 'Dawn of Correction' and I picked up my guitar and wrote a song titled the 'Noon of Confusion'.
I think we were all off our medication at the time, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
It was an era of greatness: great ideas, great promise, great honesty, great sadness, great joy, great music, great progress and great men and women.
Great events, certain to change the course of American and world history were taking place and great champions were showing us the way through a crowded meadow.
We were going places!
Kruschev came to Washington, the Pope came to Shea Stadium, the military landed in South Vietnam, Jane Fonda landed in North Vietnam and as the '60s closed in on the '70s, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
Vietnam veteran Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler sang about the Green Berets, John Wayne immortalized them in a movie and their courage spoke for itself in Southeast Asia.
The Marines prevailed against impossible odds at Khe Sahn during Tet '68 (although nothing has ever been impossible for the Marines), Richard Nixon went back to Washington in 1970 and LBJ went back to Texas.
There were major changes taking place in every sector of American society and it seemed that every change created a new breed of hero and a new gospel that their followers endeavored to preach to the world.
I had several heroes in the meadow.
They all differed in their messages and views but my reason for admiring each of them was the same. I respected each one for having the courage of their convictions and a sincere desire to make a positive difference.
John Wayne always made me feel good about America.
So did JFK, Ike, Jimmy Stewart and Elvis.
I understood and respected anyone who volunteered for Vietnam but I also respected the true concientious objectors who went to jail for their refusal to serve.
That took courage - a lot more courage than it took to go to Canada or Scandinavia.
I loved Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix because they saw things no one else could see.
I liked Bob Dylan and Joan Baez because they said things no one else would say.
I admired Martin Luther King Jr. because he believed in his dream, Bobby Kennedy because he had a vision, Richard Nixon because he had a plan and Sonny Bono because he had Cher. (And until Sonny's tragic death, I still harbored hopes of them getting back together some day.)
I never told anybody this before, but I have to admit that after twenty years I've gotten over my hatred for Jane Fonda as well. I think that for whatever reason, she really believed she was doing the right thing. She knew she was taking an unpopular position on a controversial issue but she took a stand and accepted the heat that came with it. She believed in her own mind that she was Barbarella, out to save humanity.
But she was still dead wrong.
Many of our heroes and champions are still with us today.
Some still inspire us, some disappoint us from time to time and some just faded from view as their message slipped out of vogue.
But we left far too many behind us in the meadow.
Janis and Jimi, Jack and Bobby, Dr. King, Mama Cass, Elvis, Jim Morrison, the Duke...
They're all back there.
They belong there. That's their full time job now, taking care of the meadow so that we can go back and visit from time to time.
I think it's probably something like what heaven is supposed to be.
Or maybe it is heaven, or Valhalla, or whatever you care to believe in.
I've never been that concerned about dying. I try not to think about it actually. But thinking about it now, just the idea that we might go back to The Meadow when we die is reassuring.
With all those talented farmers and gardeners going back every year, I'll bet the flowers look better than ever.
|This essay is dedicated to True American Heros
Major John Terence McDonnell - USA
Captain Donald Gene Carr - USASF
Sergeant First Class Daniel Raymond Phillips - USASF
Colonel Ted Guy - USAF
Always My Brothers