Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Need a Hero- Why?

The Vigil, ca. 1884, by Scottish artist John Pettie

I discovered hero worship very early in life. I can't say exactly when, but I do know I was actually walking by the time I realized I had a hero. He was tall, blond, with big, round brown eyes. He was strong. He could pull me in his wagon, or when I got stuck trying to get down from the couch and my little legs dangled precipitously far from the floor, he could lift me down to safety. He was smart. He taught me things. He could count, and he knew all the letters, and he even taught me the first letters of my own name. And nobody could color like he could.

The parts I don't remember, my mom told me, so I know this is the truth. One day, my older brother took crayons and coloring books and we got down on the floor to color. With great swooping strokes across the page, he made magnificent pictures from those bland black lines on white paper, and in awe, I tried to emulate him. Crayon in my pudgy little right hand, I swooped green stripes over the page. But they were so clumsy-- so-- wrong.

Carefully, I studied my hero to try to discern his secret. Somehow, I could see, his streaks were going in a different direction. Where his crossed the page at one angle, mine were the other way. How did he do that?

Then I saw it. Of course. How dumb of me. In my naive child's logic, I realized my hero was using his left hand, and I was using the wrong hand. Then, very deliberately, my mom said, I moved the crayon from right hand to left, and continued coloring, with my green streaks crossing the page just like my hero's. And mom always said that was why both my older brother and I are left-handed, to this day.

My first hero is still my hero, and my younger brother John eventually also received hero status (although he had to first grow up before his fine qualities could be recognized since he was, after all, YOUNGER. More about him and his amazing abilities another time.) But I learned heroes can come in many forms.

Eventually heroes often became romantic heroes, but the basis for all my heroes is the same. They have to be someone I can admire. In some way. Someone who has some way of making life better. More exciting. That's the tricky thing when it comes to romance, because like most readers/writers, I love a dark hero maybe even more than the shining knight.

It was a sad point in my life when I began to realize heroes all have flaws. But that was something I also quickly learned to accept as I realized this is the one tie they have to all humanity. The Lone Ranger was an early fantasy hero for me. Then I began to realize I didn't exactly like the way he treated Tonto. But he was who he was in his time, and like many a man before him (and he really was a man behind that mask, even I knew that) he hadn't reached the point of realization about prejudice yet. You can't realize what you don't know. Sad to say, the great Bringer of Justice For All missed his own point. But his point was still valid. The quest for justice and fairness is sometimes elusive, but something worth seeking even if the hero didn't quite get there.

You might have noticed, the photo of my brother and me is taken aboard a 19th century ship. It's the Surprise, from "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." Surprise is a replica, not a restored ship, purpose-built for the movies, and it now sits in San Diego Harbor as a museum piece. My brother, despite his desperate need to finish some unexpected work the weekend I visited, knew how badly I wanted to see the ship. Hard though it was, we managed to squeeze in an extra hour right before my plane departed. Wow, three heroes in one! Make that four, even more! In addition to Dave, there was Russell Crowe, all the heroes of the Aubrey-Maturin heroes of Patrick O'Brian's novels, and then Admiral Nelson and his great battle against Napoleon's fleet at Trafalgar. If there had been no Nelson, no Trafalgar, there would have been no basis for O'Brian's novels, for that battle was a huge turning point in world history. The testosterone was overflowing the decks.

Imagine me leaning over the glass of this battle replica, seeing in my mind the battle at exactly this point, explaining to my brother Nelson's great audacity in sailing directly at the French lines to break them, knowing the placement of the French guns is both their greatest strength and greatest weakness, and at exactly this point (my finger dares to actually touch the protecting glass) his flagship is in great danger...

He was impressed. He wasn't all that familiar with the history of this moment and how it changed the world, or that ropes aren't ropes but lines, that they would have been tarred to protect them from weathering, or that sailors were called tars because tar was what covered everything, and sailing ships aren't actually romantic at all, despite the obvious fact that they are. But I saw something different.

I was realizing exactly at this moment why I need heroes. At this very moment, all my heroes had converged into one. They were a grand abstract, a being above and beyond all of them, all one and indivisible, yet all unique and separately outstanding.

For all their flaws and humanness, heroes lead us forward. They reach into the darkness for a light they cannot see. For me, even the darkest hero must rise above the crowd in some way that makes me see more, want more, reach higher. In this way, they all are Alpha, no matter what else they might be. They change the world, or they change one person. They make something, somewhere, better.

So I need heroes. I might prefer mine wearing a Coldstream Guards uniform and fighting with desperate fury at Hougoumont at Waterloo, and you might want yours in a wetsuit, but they're all the same in one special way. Fictional or real, they give off sparks as they reach toward the unknown. They make life shine.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good reminder to keep our heroes larger than life. Yes, they have flaws, but they have to be really special too, in their own unique way.


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