The faces of one plastic hero after another parade before my eyes on the screen or as pictures in newspapers and magazines. A man can't evade them unless he never turns on his television set or skims the local paper. Politicians, sports figures, movie or TV actors, industrial executives, developers of the internet and personal computers, and just the currently popular singer or dancer, all have their transitory day's or week's niche as a celebrity and media darling. Most appear to have no real values, no sense of proportion, and are simply the creation of some keen public relations firm or clever pollster.

Without my knowing why, looking at them disgusts me. I find myself wondering how America really became great, concerned just how long people like these can possibly keep it great. Not long, I conclude.

And then, at our Annual UDT/SEAL Reunion, good fortune led me again to Bill Haley.

I first met Bill three years ago when, as a just-turned 65 year old, I decided to enter Sunday's all-comer's four-mile run with the SEALs around the streets of the Littlecreek Amphibious Base. When I staggered to the finish line, I looked at my time, thought how glad I was to be alive, and noticed someone else had run in the over 65 age group. The name listed was Bill Haley, and his time was two minutes faster than mine. He was 69 years old. At the award ceremony, I noticed one fellow who might have been about my age except his hair was still coal black, and he had all of it. He was trim, fit, and unassuming in manner. I walked up and said if he were Bill Haley, I wanted to offer congratulations and my great pleasure he'd be in the over 70 group next year. He smiled, informed me that everyone over 65 was lumped into one group, and we chatted for a while. I found out from others at the picnic that he'd been a legendary runner in the teams. Later, we ate a hamburger together, and he mentioned his background and long association with Underwater Demolition Teams and SEALs. We talked about mutual acquaintances from East and West coast, and SEAL deployment issues. My impression was that this was a truly modest, decent man.

He didn't enter the race the following year, but last year, we both ran again, and this time I nosed him out on time. Bill remarked matter-of-factly that he'd been unable to run all year because of his wife's illness, and that between his job and caring for her, nothing remained for running or training. Two days ago, at the 1999 Reunion, we both ran, and I subsequently had the chance to talk enough with Bill to get some of the details of his life. At 72, and still with black hair, Bill works daily at his construction job, then returns home to provide constant care for his wife of many decades. She has Alzheimer's disease, and has reached the stage where she has to be watched and nurtured all the time. He's able to work, he said, which is good for both him and her because it allows him to get away for a while and forces her to try to do some little things for herself at home. He'd been able to run that day because his daughter had come by to give him a few hours off. It is a dedication and loving concern beyond the understanding of anyone except another Alzheimer care-giver. They still take walks together, and he said sometimes she'll remark how pretty the flowers are.

What I lack is the talent to convey to you how easily Bill accepts his lot in life without any feeling of self-pity, flashes of anger, or resentment. There are no excuses or subtle pleas for sympathy. He has a solid, fundamental character that doesn't whine or ask for pity. Somehow, we began to talk about the kind of society America has become, and the praise and medals people now expect when they accomplish something. Bill said, "In my day, that was just doing my job." He continued, "When someone said a machine gun nest was in the way and had to be removed, you just went and did it. That was your job. When they ask me today if I'd ever called for backup, I shrug. If we'd waited for backup to come, it would never have gotten done. I didn't consider myself a hero for doing things like that. That was what I was SUPPOSED to do."

I reminded him Tom Brokaw had recently written a book titled, The Greatest Generation, and that it lauded and extolled the people who'd grown up and served with him. He added, "Maybe it's because I was brought up in the depression. We didn't expect handouts or any help. There weren't any victims or people who were treated unfairly. We realized that if we didn't work we didn't eat. That's how we became self-reliant and learned to depend on ourselves."

Right then, I realized how America had become great, and remembered the men and women who had made it so. My grandmother was like that. All we see and hear about today is the plastic heroes who really would never risk sacrificing themselves in the way Bill Haley and millions of others did. Too many of the real, but unsung, heroes among the latter group did not return from WW II, from Korea, from Vietnam, and our subsequent smaller wars, and some of them may not return from Bosnia or Kosovo, either.

Most Americans today have no concept of any of this, and there is nothing they see in the media that would help them comprehend it. I think senators John McCain and Bob Kerrey understand, and probably governor Jesse Ventura, but I do not think George W. Bush or the recently deceased John F. Kennedy, Jr, really do or ever did. How to get people to understand a totally foreign concept that does not touch their lives is incredibly difficult. Few of us write books or stories about it, or make movies or TV specials, though the film, Saving Private Ryan, covered some of the elements.

The truth is, "Today, we expect government to take care of us and save us, rather than caring for and saving ourselves." But through it all, Bill Haley and millions of lesser but real heroes like him who have made this country great, will continue quietly doing their jobs, doing what they were supposed to do. And as long as we have enough of them, America will remain a shining light.

Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)