Who Are My Heroes Now?

The other night I watched a PBS rerun of Agatha Christie’s Marple, the British TV series featuring the elderly sleuth, Jane Marple. For those unfamiliar with this character who played a central role in a dozen Christie novels and a number of short stories, she is a village spinster whose outwardly mild demeanor belies a shrewd, tenacious mind that allows her to unravel the most tangled mysteries. The policemen who are invariably misled by her persona and treat her as a meddling old biddy always end up being abashed when her powers of observation and deduction far outstrip their own.

Watching Miss Marple’s cleverness in action led me to wonder if fictional creations have any light to shed on our own forays into the shadows of old age. Or is the sharp-witted old lady who gives a policeman his comeuppance as much a stereotype as the foolish old woman or doddering old man who invites laughter or pity? Is the make-believe of a TV series like Agatha Christie’s Marple just a momentary diversion from life’s inexorable progress toward conclusion, with characters forever fixed in time, like framed portraits hung on a wall? Characters who might learn a thing or two, might make mistakes, might lose their tempers, but never essentially change.

When I was a boy my fictional heroes were courageous, upright males, cowboys like Red Ryder and the Lone Ranger. Later there was the suave, daring James Bond and the insouciant nomads of Route 66, the latter pair the first to occupy a milieu that I could realistically aspire to inhabit. At one point while that TV series aired, I even bought a used Corvette and had earnest conversations with a friend about traveling around the country in search of the excitement woefully missing from our lives.

That never happened. A bout of reckless driving led to the Corvette’s demise, and I got married, had a child, and applied myself to a career. But I eventually traveled to many parts of the United States and a number of foreign countries, many of the trips involving moments of genuine excitement although not quite equal to the stirring adventures of Buzz and Tod, my Route 66 heroes. Even the most realistic of my youthful heroes were in some way cartoonish, and had to be shed, like stuffed animals and toy trucks, on the way to genuine adulthood.

In the real world, there were people I admired, but they didn’t ignite the same longings and aspirations as my fictional heroes. Today, as we observe Martin Luther King’s birthday we honor a genuine hero whose work for racial and economic equality had a profound effect on society, work for which he paid the ultimate price. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, igniting a year-long boycott and bringing King to national attention, I was in junior high school and idolizing baseball players like Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams. Despite the fact that I had little innate athletic talent, they were who I wanted to be.

How much better it would have been, I think now, if my parents or other adults had pointed to Martin Luther King and told me to emulate him and other leaders of the nascent civil rights movement. If I had been told that it didn’t matter that they were Black and I was white, the fight against injustice is everyone’s fight, and if one person’s humanity can be devalued then the humanity of you and your family and friends and neighbors can be too.

I did have a fictional hero who provoked a rudimentary sense of social justice in my childhood, and that was Robin Hood. The idea of robbing the rich and giving to the poor had an appealing simplicity.

In my earlier years, our family was decidedly poor—we always had a roof over our heads and enough to eat but a lot of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my older brother and when I visited other kids’ houses I couldn’t help seeing all the toys and games that we didn’t have. Ostentatious displays of wealth were rare in our rural community, but it was impossible not to notice that some people had much bigger houses and newer cars and kids who came to school in snappy clothes and talked about the brand new bicycles or baseball gloves or air rifles they had gotten for Christmas or their birthdays.

Reading the swashbuckling adventures of Robin Hood didn’t lead further than an already-established envy of those kids in big houses with new cars in the driveway. Nobody tried to explain the feudal system of Robin Hood’s time, with its rigid social hierarchy that condemned a large swath of the population to poverty while a much smaller group amassed great wealth that they often displayed in highly ostentatious ways. If I had somehow been aware of this deeply embedded injustice and asked about it, I might have been told that our own society was completely different, based on the principle of equality. I might have been told that everyone starts out life with the same opportunities, and if some turn out to be wealthy and others poor, well, that’s a matter of individuals being responsible for what they make of themselves.

In fact, I’m sure I was told that. The Lone Ranger and the other fictional cowboys I admired fought the bad guys, not the societal influences like child abuse, dysfunctional families, substandard education, and poverty that push potential good guys in the wrong direction. Those childhood heroes operated under the doctrine of good vs. evil, where the ambiguities and nuances that color almost everything we are asked to believe in the real world are nowhere to be seen. So it is with Miss Marple, who exposes the murderer who nobody else has suspected because his or her depravity is concealed by a mask of normality. The cause of the psychological disturbance that led to the heinous act is usually revealed as well, but it’s not really important. The good guys have won, the bad guys have lost.

Today, I’ll think about Martin Luther King and others who may have behaved in a less-than- exemplary manner in their personal lives but acted in heroic ways in the public sphere. If King were alive today, he would be 94 years old. I like to imagine this old man, still in possession of his formidable intelligence, his voice gone hoarse but still possessing some of the oratorical flourishes that made his speeches powerful and spellbinding. And still speaking out against the inequality and injustice that

infects our society fifty-five years after he was shot and killed while standing on a Memphis motel balcony. I’ll let this old man be my fictional hero now.

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