June 17, 2008
“We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud as they march by.” – Will Rogers
Sometimes childhood memories are as surreal as dreams. But the man I’m going to describe was very real to me. He was a giant of a man ” not in stature, but in my mind.
He is not immortalized for jumping on the Metro tracks to save someone from the on-coming train in New York. Nor is he remembered for trying to disarm the hijacker on the United Airline Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania. He isn’t even the lone protester who tried to stop the advancing tanks on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, or one of the brave soldiers who took part in the heroic attack on the beeches of Normandy. These are heroes who had exceptional courage, and were willing to lay down their own lives for others.
He is not Joe DiMaggio or Lance Armstrong, nor is he Elvis Presley or Brad Pitt. These people are celebrities, not heroes. They are famous for their achievement in their field.
They excelled in what they were trained for. I don’t want to belittle the importance of their accomplishment, but they didn’t perform a noble deed. They just did their job exceptionally well.
Today’s hero worship is running rampant in our society, especially among the young. You cannot compare a sport figure or a movie star to Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi or Rosa Parks or Dr. Albert Schweitzer, all of whom dedicated their entire lives for the benefit of others.
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My ‘un-sung’ hero is my father, who in unsettling times in a war-torn country sacrificed a lot to bring up two children to be upstanding citizens. He possessed a character far greater than that of a typical person. He set examples of decency for us and expected us to adhere to his strict rules, but whose love for his family was beyond reproach. He was a man of his word, and you could depend on him in thick or thin.
On one hand he was a disciplinarian who would spank my naughty 8-year-old brother before going to a church service to make sure he would behave himself during the mass, or who would send me out into the garden to find a willow stick he would use on my behind when I deserved it, but at the same time he would pick flowers for my mother daily from our big garden that he single handedly terraced. I never heard him complain about his work, even though he was relegated to a menial job because of his refusal to join the communist party. He was always the last to serve himself at dinner, and the first one to get up in the morning to light the fire in our coal burning stoves so we would wake up in warm rooms. We felt safe in his presence.
He loved all animals almost as much as he loved us kids. He built the most beautiful two-story, elevated rabbit hutch with a wrap-around balcony, where his pampered rabbits spent their days in splendor. Our chickens and the ducks were his personal friends, with names he carefully chose, and when the time came to butcher our pig, he came inside and asked me to pound on the piano until the squealing was over, and the butcher made sure the pig was dead.
He was a ferocious reader and crossword puzzle addict. In the evenings, in bed, he would read the Lexicon, which was a heavy, leather bound encyclopedia he used to put on the headboard, above his head when he was ready for sleep. I remember the countless times it fell on his head in the middle of night.
He was a good substitute nurse when he had to apply his knowledge to others, as when he had to pick the gravel out of my bleeding legs after I wiped out with a bicycle, or bandage up the broken leg of our dog. But he couldn’t stand the sight of his own blood.
One time when he had to have a doctor stitch up a cut on his finger, he passed out in the doctor’s office, hit his head on the tiled wall and came home with one more wound then he went in with.
He was loved and respected in the community, and at his funeral the church could not hold all the people who came to say goodbye. He will always be my ‘un-sung’ hero, but I will gladly sing his praises as long as I live.