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
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
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 email@example.com