Thursday, January 21, 2010

Childhood Heroes

Growing up in the forties and fifties, there was no lack of people after whom a boy could model himself. America was in the midst of the post WWII boom, and it seemed like the sky was the limit. Military men like Eisenhower, Patton and MacArthur brought us victory over the hated Axis powers, and drew the admiration of young boys everywhere. Science and medicine were breaking new frontiers, from the exciting, like early space exploration, to the mundane such as the invention of Saran Wrap . There were sports heroes galore: Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Bob Cousy and Rocky Marciano. Television was ushering the American cowboy into our living rooms, and Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Hopalong Cassidy competed for viewers and sponsors. I guess in my pre-teen years, I began to have a growing awareness of the men I most admired.

I didn't know a lot about politics, but the more I read about President Harry Truman, the more I liked him. Truman, a Democrat (when they still had a clue) was in office from 1945 to 1953. A no-nonsense man with the common touch, Truman was appointed to fill the third term of Franklin Roosevelt who died in 1945. He then confounded his critics with a startling upset of Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, despite the newspapers printing premature headlines to the contrary. Truman made one of the most difficult decisions ever faced by an American President when he decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. This act hastened the end of World War II and saved countless lives on both sides. There was an openness and honesty in Truman, mistaken by some as naivete, but those who underestimated him soon learned of the keenness of his mind and the strength of his will. The Democrat Party could sure use Harry today.

Speaking of Franklin Roosevelt, he contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39. While his illness was well known during his Presidential terms, how debilitated he was due to his illness was kept from public view through the cooperation of the press, something that would never be possible today. Polio, rarely seen in modern times, was still a serious illness when I was growing up. It was stopped in its tracks by the brilliant researcher, Dr. Jonas Salk. While working at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Salk saw an opportunity to develop a vaccine against polio, and devoted himself to this work for the next eight years. Salk's vaccine was composed of "killed" polio virus, which retained the ability to immunize without running the risk of infecting the patient. In countries where Salk's vaccine has remained in use, the disease has been virtually eradicated.

I was a sports fanatic as a kid, especially baseball. As a New York Yankee fan, I naturally gravitated to their players when looking for someone to look up to. My sports idol was Joltin' Joe Dimaggio, a phenomenon who quietly went about his business of hitting, fielding and running the bases like no other Yankee before, and maybe since. Joe's quiet manner and modest demeanor showed me the true meaning of sportsmanship. His personality changed later in life. The failed marriage to Marilyn Monroe broke him as a man. He had a half-dozen red roses delivered three times a week to her grave for 20 years after her death. I read where he became very cold toward his fans, and finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1999. I prefer to remember Joe as I saw him as a boy, incredibly talented, shy, and the quintessential Yankee who did it all, without steroids.

Finally, there was the Lone Ranger. No other western star on radio or TV impressed me like that masked man. He, like Dimaggio, possessed that quality of modesty I so admire, never hanging around to accept the thanks of the grateful townspeople he helped. He would press a silver bullet into their hands to remember him by, and ride off into the sunset with his faithful Indian companion Tonto. The Lone Ranger never drew his gun unless drawn on, never killed a man, but always wounded them instead, and never had much to do with women folk, not for lack of opportunity. He stood for truth, justice and the American way. And then there was that unforgetable theme song for the show, the William Tell Overture. I'm sure when Rossini wrote that great piece of music, he had no idea that more people would hear it listening to the Lone Ranger than in concert halls.
In retrospect, I know now that the real heroes in my life were my parents who taught me by their example, my teachers who stirred a love of learning in me, and later in life, my wife who, in spite of my many shortcomings, continues to love and support me. One of the many qualities I admire in her, as I did in my childhood heroes, is her quiet modesty.


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Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I don't know, maybe it is the Brooklyn water in Bushwick, but the sentiments seem like mine! Especially about Truman. The Yankee part I still have to get over.

Jim Pantaleno said...

You can take the boy out of for the Yankees, start small, buy a pinstriped suit.