The San Antonio Living History Association re-enactors’ guns blazed to tribute again the heroes of the Alamo. For all of its political uncertainty, the battle of the Alamo gave America a thick portfolio of heroic moments, topped by a memorable battle cry and Travis’ line in the sand. The short but valiant struggle also put a crowning moment on the career of one Davy Crockett, whose legend would be appropriated by Walt Disney a century later.
Bob Thompson has a recent book about the real Crockett that he discussed with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition March 2. You can separate the myth from reality if you want to, but our heroes have always been larger than life, larger than their real selves.
It all began when gods (and goddesses) consorted with mortals. Their offspring were demigods, each one possessing magical powers – Heracles (Hercules), Achilles, Daedalus among the Greeks, Maui in Hawaii, Shikhandi and Bali among the Hindus – most cultures gather hope and admiration around beings with amazing capabilities and inexplicable courage. When the going gets tough, the world needs a hero.
In America, we have packaged our legendary heroes into entertainment. From classic stories of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed through the early years of film, radio and television, we found cowboys and superheroes to pin our aspirations on. Some female superheroes have been auxiliary counterparts to their male headliners – Batgirl and Supergirl. But Wonder Woman was no sidekick, nor Zena. With few exceptions, until storylines needed thickening, heroes have usually sought justice.
Story is built on the hero’s journey (as Joseph Campbell thoroughly explored), wherein a person is confronted with challenge and rises above it for the good of his or her community (that’s a very bland abridgement – check out Chris Volger’s much better summary on The Writer’s Journey website). But we continue to spin our folktales of derring-do and valiance, keeping our spirits up with fantasy.
And in that, we know there are real heroes, from Captain Sulley landing his airplane to the next mom that grabs her child from harm’s way or inspires a fledgling to fly. First responders stand vigil in their firehouses and vehicles, ready to run to the next call, and their counterparts in emergency centers save lives all night long and on holidays.
We send our young into war, and we learned from Vietnam to “support the troops,” even when the battles they are called to fail to make sense or merit their expense. They are our heroes, yet we fail to respect them enough to make sure they are paid adequately or restored upon re-entry into “society.”
The word “hero” was pulled from the Greek, originally meaning “protector” or “defender,” but the lineage also includes ancient words for preserving the whole and standing vigil. Carl Jung was interested in the UFO phenomenon for reasons less related to the actual existence of visiting extra-terrestrials than the persistent notion that someone or something will eventually swoop down from the skies to save us. Or destroy us, or challenge us enough to save ourselves.
And that’s what the Alamo heroes did 175 years ago. They stood on the ramparts of the former mission (the characteristic shape did not become a brand until the U.S. Army renovated the building with a new roof in the 1840s or 50s) and greeted an overwhelming force with determination and valor. Most, including Crockett, died defending the Alamo, though Crockett’s actual demise is greatly disputed. During his interview on Morning Edition, Thompson refused to give his opinion. “It really takes at least 25 pages of explanation,” he said. Cue Disney.
Who's your hero? What does it take for someone to merit the exalted title in your estimation? Tell us in the comment section, below.
San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford shapes thoughts into words day in and night out. You can read more of his writing on www.garyswhitford.com. Together with his partner, Cat Lee, gary works for Extraordinary Words (www.extraordinary-words.com).