What is a hero? Who is a hero?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 25, 2002

I was just beginning to experience independence, and a walk downtown, a movie, a box of Boston Baked Beans, a theatre full of kids — what more could one ask? It was a time for heroes, and it didn’t take long to decide who a favorite would be. The criteria were tough — was he handsome? strong? smart? could he sing? rope a cow? leap on to his horse? charm the ladies? capture a horse thief, or a cattle rustler, or a bank robber? Gene Autry could do it all.

Saturday afternoon at the Rivoli Theatre was a lot more exciting and educational than anything I ever read in a history book at school. That was where we learned about the social order in the west, and ranch building architecture, and styles of fences, and how to break a horse for riding, and cooking over the campfire, and planning a town site, and appropriate behavior in a saloon, and clothing styles, and the role of women, and climatic conditions, and dry river beds.

It didn’t occur to me then, that maybe some of it, a lot of it, actually most of it was staged. I had never really noticed that when the good guys in the white hats chased the cattle rustlers in the black hats through a rocky canyon, they passed the same rocks over and over again, or when Gene Autry was chasing a bad guy and grappled with him rolling around in the dust, that Gene’s clothes never got dirty nor his hair mussed. I never questioned his ability to leap from the top of a stage coach onto the back of a runaway horse, muscle that horse into obedience with the others on the team following his lead, and then Gene still had the energy to grab his rifle and bring the stage coach robbers into submission.

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It was years later when I realized just how corny those movies were. It was as if that innocent world of the ’40s and ’50s should last forever. It never occurred to me then, that it was our world — the world of children. With movies our world of imagination had expanded into the romance of the west, and we all lived there for a few hours each week.

The adults in our lives were grappling with the reality of life shattering battles in Europe and the Pacific, and later housing shortages and young families and educations back home. But we were somehow protected from that pain and those difficulties.

I recently read a book called “We Were There, Too” by Phillip Hoose. It contains the stories of young people in U.S. history, children and teenagers who were not living in the dream world of western movies, but in the real world of Columbus’ sailing ships, or the American Revolution, or the Civil War, or the Pony Express, or the sweat shops of New York City, or desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. These children were heroes – real heroes.

Olaudah Equiano was the 11-year-old son of an African tribal leader when he was captured and thrown into the hold of a slave ship headed for the West Indies. He lived in slavery for 10 years until he was able to purchase his freedom, and eventually he became a writer whose autobiography was a best seller in both Europe and America.

George Fred Tilton was only 14 years old when he smuggled himself on board a whaling ship out of New Bedford, Massachusetts and three weeks later “Was scared blue” when his ship closed in on “a monster.”

Arn Chorn was 8 when his Cambodian village was over run by the Vietnamese and 12 when they handed him a machine gun and forced him into combat. A year later he was so sick of the killing, that he found a way to escape and for six months lived in the jungle until he was found and taken to a refugee camp.

Jenny Curtis was considered a troublemaker. She was 13 when she went to work for Pullman, working under terrible conditions sewing fancy carpets and draperies for sleeping cars. She was only eighteen when she signed the forbidden American Railway Union membership card, was elected president of the Girls’ Union, Local 269, and became spokesperson for thousands of women.

What is a hero? Who is a hero?

I know that my world of heroes and heroines has expanded considerably since those days at the Rivoli Theatre, but I know, too, that I can still admire the man whose best friends were his horse, Champion and a buddy named Smiley Burnette. My hero was a man who, with his sweetheart by his side and singing a romantic ballad, could ride off into the golden sunset on a black and white screen.

Bev Jackson is executive director of the Freeborn County Historical Museum.