Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | May 29, 2012

Heroes Among Us

My first aspiration was to be a cowboy.  I wanted to be Hopalong Cassidy

(William Boyd) – he of the white stallion and black hat.  I had my own cowboy suit just like his, black pants, boots, shirt, vest, hat, and black double holster with two silver six-shooters.

I was also fond of Roy Rogers.  I liked the way a small trickle of blood slipped from the corner of his mouth each time he fought bad guys with his fists, never less than three at a time;  and because of Trigger and Dale Evans on both of whom I had crushes.  (And wasn’t she ahead of her time, not calling herself Dale Rogers?)  I couldn’t manage to warm up to Gene Autry though I can’t say why, but I did to Randolph Scott  (and no, I did not change my mind when I found out he was gay) and Gary Cooper.  And John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda.

I defined cowboy as any man who wore boots, a western style hat, and a six gun, although sometimes the men I aspired to be did not wear six guns;  instead they carried Winchester repeating rifles.  I must admit, however, I was always uncomfortable about that, and never quite relaxed until the film was over, fearful till the end that someone with a pistol would get the drop on them when their rifles were leaning in corners or against saddles while they sat by their campfires, or, worse, when their rifles were securely tucked away into the saddle scabbard.   If they were cavalrymen, as often Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne were, I tried not to let it bother me that they wore their Navy Colt’s in flapped holsters that faced backwards and were on the wrong hip.  In my heart I knew that any non-military cowboy, even bad guys, could outdraw someone who wore a his pistol in such a way.   But then, most often the cavalry was more in danger from arrows than bullets.  Arrows had the most startling way of arriving, virtually noiselessly from who knew where, and penetrating deep into the chest of a trooper one had not bonded with. (The arrows did make a noise, but it’s very difficult to reproduce onomatopoetically;  zip doesn’t quite do it – too much sound, not enough air – but maybe you get the idea.)  I don’t mean to say that Messrs. Randolph, Cooper, or Wayne were never struck by arrows, because they were, but always in a non-lethal part of their body, the thigh perhaps, or a remarkably narrow window high up on the chest toward the shoulder where apparently there are no important muscles, nerves, ligaments, sinews, lung segments, veins, or bones.

I lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, when I began to want to be Hopalong Cassidy.  Nothing could shake me from that goal, even the time I was standing on the edge of a dock on the bay practicing throwing my rope and leaned a bit too far into the throw so that I fell into the bay, fully dressed in my Hopalong look-alike cowboy clothes.  I screamed in a very un-Hoppy way.  My father heard me and came to fish me out before anything worse than my being terrified could happen.

The truth is that any great literary or film hero is at heart a cowboy, or could be.  You see what I mean, yes?  Try this list of heroes on:, Galahad, Rob Roy, Travis McGee, Spartacus, Prince Valiant, Robin Hood, Jesse Stone,.  Put any of them (or all if you’re a Magnificent Seven fan) on a horse, let his beard grown for two or three days, put a Stetson on his head and pull the brim down low, let him work up a good squint, and strap on a Colt .45;  and, to paraphrase slightly the immortal words of General George Scott, “Well, he’ll know what to do.”  I have even imagined Oedipus Rex as a Western and in fact have written a screen treatment to that end.

When I was blessed with the opportunity to be a teacher, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was also given the opportunity to further my education.  For instance, while I did not recall much from my seventh grade study of grammar beyond the state-of-being, intransitive verbs Mr. Friedman insisted his First Formers memorize, I learned immediately that in one night I could learn as much grammar as any given fifth grader could learn in three weeks.  Same sort of thing for Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Lord of the Flies, how to write a five paragraph, expository essay, and the next five lists of vocabulary words.  In time, I learned (finally, pace Mr. Spring, Mr. Dorn, Mr. Doan) what hero really meant and what the value to society of a hero really is.  That did not change anything about my appreciation for the heroes of my boyhood, but it did greatly enhance my understanding of what heroes are owed.  All of which contributed to my understanding that to find heroes to whom much is owed one need not look very far.

You will find them among the teachers in the schools near you.  They will be those teachers who know what is right for their students and do what they need to do to provide it.  Weekly, fulfilling that obligation puts the hero teachers up against the odds, too often in the persons of those who ought to be supporting and cooperating with them:  their students themselves, those students’ parents, administrators, and members of the boards of education.  (I don’t exclude state boards of education, the Federal Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights, teacher unions, and politicians, it’s only that those all are rarely encountered in the first person and so don’t exactly fit the bill as antagonists of hero teachers.)  I have nothing but the greatest respect for hero teachers, even if they don’t ride horses, carry a six-shooter, look grizzled, or aren’t men.



  1. Cowboys – imagine. I never gave them a thought. But we didn’t have a TV, and while I was given trucks to play with, I never had a toy gun (or a real one for that matter). There was a bb gun in a closet somewhere but it was off limits for all but Dad, who used it on the rare garbage-scavenging dog. So notions of ‘hero’ develop in different ways – but for all of that I couldn’t agree with you more about Good teachers being at the top of the Hero List, along with EMT’s and fire- and policemen. When people carp about teachers getting ‘all that time off in the summer’ I ask them if they’d like to try to teach. Invariably they say no. I tried when I was just out of college, and I didn’t have what it takes, to my great chagrin. But it sure gave me an appreciation for what the job entails. It’s hard work and gets too little credit – glad to read your heroic account here…

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