What Defines a Hero?

Unlike most of my meandering strolls down memory lane which start with me saying “I remember”, as I crack a beer or three, this one does not.

I do not remember having a particular hero as a kid. Friends of mine would talk about how their idol was Mr. T. or Hulk Hogan or Boy George (no, that didn’t happen, though it was the 80’s…) and I always kinda just… nodded along with them. “Cool,” I’d say.

I knew what a hero was, obviously. Every kid back then had He-Man action figures, and god help you if you called them dolls, you’d end up with Battle-Damage. One of my favorites was “Thunder-Punch He-Man”. Anything with two hyphens in the name is alright in the book of a seven-year old. He had a back pack that you could load one of those round red plastic “Caps” cartridges into, and when you twisted his spring-loaded body, he’d spin back around, throw a punch and BANG! Freakin badass. I’m 32 years old, and I wish I still had that now.

I knew early though that “hero” meant different things to different people, and I won’t get into specifics, but the heroes in question were something to these kids that they wished they had from someone else. (I don’t even wanna think about the boy George comment).

But I had everything, really. I mean, aside from super powers of course. While my friends were dreaming of becoming professional wrestlers, I was hounding my mom for things like beanies, cause I thought if I ran fast enough I could fly. She loves telling that story. Isn’t it odd how most parents’ favorite stories are about their kids and how disappointed they were when reality reared its ugly head? …I know mine are…

I’m not sure when swearing entered the scene, but I think it was probably fourth grade. Our school, William H. Lincoln School in Brookline MA (for all the google searches out there!) was divided, when I went there. K-3rd was on Kennard Rd., and 4th-8th was down on Rt. 9. (aka Boylston Street). Keeping the K-3 rather sheltered. 4th grade was a bit of a shock, cause recess was outside, and we had like, 1 teacher out there… We swore like longshoremen.

Along with the cursing came the need to feel smarter / better than others. Sarcasm is always the gateway drug for folks looking for that kind of high. (everyone dabbles, few master). The term “No shit, Sherlock” was one I fell in love with. You got to swear, point out that something someone said was obvious / stupid, AND do it by inferring that they thought they were a magnificent detective like Sherlock Holmes, all in one three word phrase! Talk about efficiency! No, shit Sherlock!

The time tables in my mind are all askew, cause I don’t have my “How old was I in what grade” spreadsheet opened (yeah, I have one.) but I know that this phrase was clear in my mind before finding out something that would warp my sense of right vs. wrong forever.

My father (and mother, but I think it was primarily my father, cause since my father died, my mother watches mostly things like Dr. Phil and Xena Warrior Princess – not that that’s on anymore…) used to watch things like “Masterpiece Theater” and “Mystery”. “Mystery” was interesting, they’d have a different show each time, sometimes it was a bunch of stuffy English people in the 1800s solving mysteries, other times it was Murder She Wrote and now and then it was Sherlock Holmes. Stuffy English detective in 1900s…

I remember a small piece of the episode vividly. There were a handful of men in the room, and Sherlock, who was a thin man, with gaunt facial features and slicked back black hair (who actually reminded me of my father when he was sick – Cancer) was pacing the perimeter of the room which was the crime scene. He determined that one man stood here. Another here. Another there, and he was smoking a cigar, and he had very nice teeth cause he bit the end of the cigar and spit it on the floor. I don’t remember anything further about the episode, except for the fact that, of course, Sherlock Holmes was right… Mostly because I started thinking about cigars, and why the hell someone would bite one.

At some point while watching this, something was said by me, I think… And my father said “well he had a cocaine problem.”

My entire foundation of “hero of this story” was absolutely rocked. You have to understand… Until this point, the mysteries I’d read were Encyclopedia Brown. Good kid, always wins, the end. And around that time, the local police department were coming in with suitcases full of drugs and telling us that anyone who does drugs is a horrible person!

No! This could not be! How could the hero of the story be on drugs! He’s a genius, for christ’s sake! Doesn’t he know? Drugs are bad! Someone, send the DARE officer to him!

I grew up a fairly naive child, and even as a young adult, I refused to believe how convoluted life really is. There are no heroes, at least not as I saw them as a kid. Nobody is perfect. There are no paragons of physical / mental / moral perfection out there just doing things perfectly all the time. There may be Thunder-Punch He-men, but at the end of the day, they aren’t perfect either.

I think it’s a mistake to call people with super powers “heroes”. He can fly, he can burn shit with his eye lasers, he can twist metal into shoelaces… I hate that the word “hero” is synonymous with special powers.

When I look back on my childhood, in stark contradiction to my first statement of this post, I had heroes. I had them all around me. I had a father who taught me. A mom who smacked the shit outta me when I needed it. I had 3 older brothers who threatened the bullies and taught me all the cool shit in life, even if they didn’t realize they were doing it at the time. I had a solid family, and even though we had our issue, we were there.

The true definition of a hero isn’t someone who beats up bad guys. It isn’t someone who can fly off the top turnbuckle and drop a deadly tomahawk chop. It’s someone who cares about what happens to you. It’s someone who does what they do simply to make sure you’re able to do what you do.

Heroes aren’t perfect. They have problems, just like everyone else. They have obstacles, they have vices, they have misguided thoughts, they have weaknesses, they have momentary lapses of reason…

It’s always the people who don’t wear costumes. There’s no insignia painted on their chests, and if you offered them one, they’d laugh at you. “I’m not a hero,” they’d say.

I think being a hero can’t be done by people setting out to be the hero. They have to just set out to do what they think they need to. Becoming a hero is secondary.

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6 thoughts on “What Defines a Hero?

  1. A very lovely post. If you don’t mind I think I’ll put it on my FB page later today. You’re right, a true hero doesn’t think that they’re a hero. Like we hear in many of the news reports about Good Samaritans, the person who saved the cat/dog/child/woman/untold lives are “just doing what anybody would have done in the same situation.”

    Two random bits: No shit Sherlock was also my fave.
    You can get your Heman action figure on ebay. I did a search and there’s like 50 for under $35. Make it happen man, live the dream. 🙂 http://bit.ly/M0ImXg

    • Heya! Nope, I don’t mind at all, I appreciate it. 🙂

      I did consider checking ebay for Thunderpunch He-man, but decided against it, for fear that I would actually buy it. Tryna pinch the pennies!

      $35 though… not a whole lotta pennies, is it…

    • Incidentally, thanks for stopping by! I posted about my kid’s pre-school graduation a couple years ago, I have a link to it up on the left side bar, “It’s just something in my eye”.

  2. Truly a magnificent piece of writing here, Matt. Not only do you meander about in entertaining personal reminiscence, which makes it dear to my own meandering heart, but you actually makes a valid point, which is that the term “hero” generally is applied too loosely and those who truly deserve the tag mostly aren’t setting out to get it. Well done.

    • Heya Jim! Thanks, that’s some great feedback! I have to say, I think reading your posts over the past couple years, your writing style was more than a little influential.

      I remember reading three or four of your posts and thinking “Wait, I don’t HAVE to write like this??” It was a realization that I was blogging what I thought people wanted to read, rather than blogging what I wanted to blog. It’s much more enjoyable now.

  3. I’ve always had heroes and still do. I divide them up into ranks… as in “A,” “B,” etc. The A rank contains historical personages, those larger than life people like Reagan, Churchill, Thatcher, yadda, yadda; the B rank are real people I know that bear emulating, and so on. Here’s my list if’n yer interested.

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