Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

Published online: Feb 18, 2022 Below the Surface Tyrell Marchant, editor
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This column appears in the February 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

The other day, something about an upcoming President’s Day sale came on the radio. It set me to thinking about the holiday and what it represents, aside from the obvious plethora of three-day sales at your favorite stores. I thought about Washington and Lincoln, and all the good they did in the world, and how cool it is to have a day to remember those heroes.

Then I started thinking about all the other heroes of the past—the explorers and astronauts, warriors and generals, teachers and trailblazers. Then I started wondering, Is there anyone around these days like that? Anyone with the charisma, cachet and yes-it-was-me-who-chopped-down-the-cherry-tree goodness that every hero needs? My generation’s heroes are Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen and Kobe Bryant. As celebrated as these white knights are, it’s difficult to imagine a world where any of them occupies his or her own official square on the calendar. Theme parks? Sure. Federal holidays? Not a chance.

All of which begs the question: Where have all the heroes gone? Does anybody today even semi-justifiably get tagged with the hero’s label from the lion’s share of population? I might be wrong, but I’m not sure anyone in the public eye right now fits the bill.

Maybe the folks doing the most good in high-profile positions are just trying to keep a low profile, wary of stepping on the land mines of distrust and excoriation so prevalent in the cable news cycle, social media and, increasingly, the very minds of the public. I can’t say that I blame them; it’s not an easy time to be a hero.

It may simply be the case that the world has matured (or jaded itself) past the age of heroes. Perhaps we really never will see the likes of Washington and Lincoln, Patton and MacArthur, Lewis and Clark again. We might never again get the chance to collectively experience someone like Amelia Earhart or Jackie Robinson or even John Wayne. And it’s a little sad.

It’s a little sad, but it’s also okay. And as I once read somewhere, “sometimes you gotta take okay, because it’s way better than terrible and can sometimes turn into pretty darn great.” It’s okay because those kinds of people—the heroic kinds—are still around, even if they’re not as conspicuous and universally adored as they once were. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them common, but if you take the time to look, you’ll find they’re scattered all over the place.

He’s up and moving by 5:30 every morning, the thermos in his hand full of scalding coffee as black as a moonless night. Thanks to fancy apps and technology he couldn’t have dreamed of even a few years ago, he doesn’t need to drive around and check every pivot. But he fires up the ol’ Cummins and does it anyway, because these early morning rounds, when the only sounds are the growl of the diesel engine and the chaotic harmonies of songbirds, are good for his soul.

She’s kneeling on the living room carpet with a toddler, joyfully playing with Hot Wheels even as she longs for just a few moments of adult conversation. She’s simultaneously cooking spaghetti and helping a third-grader come to grips with how a so-called friend could be so darn mean. Later, she’s kneeling again, this time by her bed, pleading with God to protect those little ones and help them know how precious and loved they are.

He’s standing at the front of the chapel in a rented tux, acutely uncomfortable but absolutely beaming as his baby brother promises forever to a girl who graduated from a rival high school. He’s not sure what he’s ever done to merit the title “best man,” but Baby Bro can cite a hundred examples off the top of his head.

They’re in the front yard of the widow next door, hustling to shovel off last night’s snow before the school bus arrives.

They’re forming a mile-long caravan of tractors and diggers on the old highway, heading to the high country to help a 30-miles-distant neighbor get his spuds out of the ground before a late-September blizzard hits.

They’re in farmhouses and apartments, classrooms and living rooms, in the back 40 and in Marine platoons a million miles from home. They wear ball caps and hard hats and cowboy hats, Wrangler and Wells Lamont and even an ill-fitting suit if the occasion calls for it. They work and play and sweat and bleed and pray, neither asking for nor receiving much in the way of accolades, nameless except to those who matter most.

Legend has it that George Washington himself was once accused by a disappointed child of being “nothing but a man.” Legend has it that the general simply smiled and agreed.

After all, what’s more heroic than that?