Heroes (April 2012)
Last month I had the privilege of working with author Nancy Polette on her latest book, The Spy with the Wooden Leg: The Story of Virginia Hall. I had not previously known the story of Virginia Hall. I learned a lot about the Resistance effort in World War II and this extraordinary woman who helped change the course of history. It got me thinking about heroes.
All good stories have some sort of hero. Writers spend endless hours developing believable protagonists. There are lists throughout the Internet extolling the virtues of a good protagonist. Writer Jeff Goins says a hero is unexpected, unknown, and ordinary, who shows up at the eleventh hour to fight for others. Antonio del Drago adds couragous, skilled, sacrificial, motivated, destined, and wounded to the list. Norman Mailer says being a hero requires you to be prepared to deal with forces larger than yourself. Aparna Jadhav believes heroes must have perseverance, valor, selflessness, and humility. And Robert Bruce adds that a hero is decisive, helpful, and determined to do what is right. That’s a lot for a writer to put into one character!
When I write, I usually try to think of real people I know. I think about their flaws, special skills, challenges they’ve faced, opportunities they’ve had to become heroes. I think about what these ordinary people do in their ordinary days and what happens to them when something out of the ordinary steps in front of them.
I am fortunate to meet many heroes in my work. I’m currently working on the second edition of Surviving Deployment: A guide for military families. I sent out a request for volunteers to share new stories and provide feedback to ensure the content’s helpfulness to today’s military families. The response was overwhelming. I received hundreds of emails from service members, vets, spouses, and parents—ranging from a mom of four soldiers to a couple on their fifth deployment to a young wife about to have their first child any day now. It would take much more than a blog post (in fact, it will take a book!) to write about all the amazing everyday heroes I have the privilege of getting to know over the next few months. One Army spouse of 12 years, Amy C, had read the book’s first edition nine years ago. She wrote: “Thank you for soliciting the feedback of your readership. I'm sure after more than a decade of combat deployments, so many spouses and family members feel they could write a book on deployment, but your approach has already helped an untold number of families.” In my reply I thanked her for the kind words and said, “My readers are my heroes.” I truly believe that. Our service members are willing to put their own lives in danger to protect our freedoms. Their families are willing to endure separations and all the challenges of military life to support that heroic effort. It’s no small measure and one I very much appreciate.
When we encounter an everyday hero, it touches something deep inside our hearts. We’re all looking for a hero. And we’re all hoping we’ll be a hero when someone else needs one.
Whether it’s a neighbor who comes to mow the lawn when you can’t or a firefighter who rescues you from a burning building, heroes surround us every day.
I married two very different heroes. My first husband, Bob, physically rescued other people. As a Marine, he traded MREs to Kurdish children in exchange for booby-trapped grenades in northern Iraq. Once when we were wilderness camping, he saved a woman whose face was burned in a fire. He even saved a man’s life in the grocery store. Bob could have worn a cape. He did have a pair of those Clark Kent government-issued “birth-control” glasses.
When Bob died of cancer, our neighbors became heroes, mowing the lawn and fixing the snowblower. Our son, Alexander, spent hours and hours with his Fisher Price Rescue Heroes, saving people over and over and over.
Every child wants to be the hero. If only they recognized the importance of simple acts of kindness. The other day I met one of my son’s friends, a new student at his school. I asked him how they met. He said, “One morning before school, he needed help with his homework, so I helped him and we started talking. After that, we just became friends.”
Sometimes being a hero is about finding courage deep inside you and pulling it up when you need it most. In one of my favorite children’s stories about courage, The Good Fire Helmet, Tommy saves his younger brother in a river rescue. The boys thought their courage came from their deceased father’s fire helmet, but with the helmet floating away from them downriver, Tommy summons the courage to rescue his brother without the helmet. The book’s author, Tim Hoppey, is a New York City firefighter who lost a close friend in 9-11. He knows a lot about courage.
The preface of my children’s book, Perch, Mrs. Sackets, and Crow’s Nest, begins: “Mom called this my Summer of Courage. She said that when you need courage the most is when you realize what’s happened in your life and you decide to get up the next morning anyway.”
Which brings me to my husband, Geno, who is a much more subtle hero. He has been through many life-changing situations, got up the next morning anyway, and emerged with a positive outlook. He’s helping me be a better writer. Geno doesn’t know the first thing about writing or publishing. But he does know about strength of character, sense of humor, forgiveness, and faith. He reminds me every day that the small gestures make a difference, too. He tries to be my wing man but he doesn’t rescue me in dramatic fashion. Geno reminds me that not all heroes wear capes. A hero can save your life over many years, one hug, one encouraging whisper, one love note at a time.
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