Old Red and Dodger Knew, by Ed Evans
It seems like our heroes today are all imaginary.
We watch the movies made in Hollywood where actors get paid to stand up for truth, justice, and all the right things. But those are movies, and they are all paid actors.
When the real battles of life come, where decisions and sacrifices must be made about truth, justice and all the right things, we are dismayed to see our actor “heroes” standing on the sidelines with the effete and the elite. We either cut corners on what we believe and accept that truth, justice and all the right things are not really as important as being with the “in” crowd, or we end up standing pretty much alone knowing some things are more important than make-believe heroes.
Meanwhile the real heroes we meet in life go unrecognized and very much unrewarded on this earth. These are the men and women who go out there into life everyday, who put their shoulders to the wheel, who invest their lives and their futures, and make a difference.
They don’t go by scripts someone else has written, they often don’t get a chance for a second “retake”. They take their shot and they take their chances, and they live or die by the roll of the dice. Those are the real heroes.
I am privileged to say I served in the uniform of the United States Marine Corps with some of those folks. But it isn't the uniform that makes the difference. Those kind of men and women are in all the branches of our military service. I learned early on that courage is simply fear that has said its prayers.
The virtues of life are real. We don’t need paid actors and highly paid sports people to lead us into pretend virtues that even they don’t follow when the cameras stop rolling.
When I was just a little boy I spent my early years in a petered-out gold mining town the early California settlers called Mariposa; Spanish for butterfly. We lived too far out of town for my little brother and I to have other kids to play with, so most of the people I knew were all adults. My grandmother was a cook and waitress at the Gold Coin Café and Bar in town. The drinking bar was a men’s bar, up front. It was all heavy brown mahogany, a large mirror covered with colorful bottles, a brightly-lit juke box, and the smell of old leather, cigars and spilled liquor. The café was in the back and I can still smell the green peas and carrots, meat loaf and that rich, brown gravy.
But up front, where I wasn’t supposed to be, were the first men of my life. My grandfather didn’t care much for me and my brother being around, since our mother dumped us and went off to live her own life. So, after my first grade class at the town school, I would walk the four blocks to the Gold Coin and spend the afternoon there until my grandmother went home.
That four block walk, past the rigid stone upright County Courthouse, the sideways church on the steep hill, and the few houses, took varying amounts of time for a small boy, and that walk is probably worth a book in its own right. Stray dogs, colorful rambling nasturtiums, curious squirrels, cactus plants with succulent red prickly pears, kumquat trees burdened with tasty fruit, elderly housewives with “leftover” milk and cookies, all elemental things of life to be investigated in the life of a small boy.
There in the old style Gold Coin Bar I found men who treated a boy close to an equal. The only names I remember were Old Red and Dodger. Old Red always wore a slouch hat over his long, red hair. They say he sold his mining operations years ago and now and then got checks from somewhere. No one knew, but no one asked. Dodger just appeared one day and did odd jobs around town. He always had a funny story for any occasion. In the winters he stayed with a sister in Modesto. But there were more than just those two. There were ancient pan and sluice miners, cattlemen who herded cattle and mended fences all day, a telephone lineman, an old Indian they called “Chunky” sometimes, and “Chief” other times, and usually a “drummer”, a salesmen of some sort. There were hard-bitten men who in their old age had come in from the cold to be store clerks and shade tree mechanics. There was only one town drunk; he lived in an old trailer down by the river. He always handed out cookies to the kids, never bothered anybody, and never came in the bar.
In the words of another author, they lived lives of quiet desperation. But at least they knew who they were; they made their own honest lives. From my spot by the door between the café and the bar where I wasn’t officially allowed, I received an early education on the merits, and the heroics, of living an everyday life.
They were independent men but they weren’t loners. They had their own Christian standards but they didn’t judge one another. There was right and there was wrong. There were grey areas, areas that were tolerated but were certainly never promoted. You took care of the widow and the orphan. You looked after your brother, and didn’t take advantage of him. Because in that town, a seemingly ethical eon ago, if you did, you were frozen out of town. Nobody would sell to you, nobody would deal with you, you might as well move on.
They were sometimes quiet and sometimes rambunctious, but personal pleasure never overrode what was true, what was just, and what was right.
They went down to their graves with only the medals given them during the war. No one called them heroes, and yet their stand against the ravages of life, if not the ravages of time, was remarkable for men whose only formal education was from the university of hard knocks.
What was right was supported. What was wrong was set down. And for the small corner of the earth for which they were responsible, people survived and led decent lives. When nature and need allowed, they spent their Sundays in the little white church that sat dug into the side of a hill partway into town. And a little boy noticed.
Those have been my first heroes.
In time I would join the Marine Corps and learn of another kind of hero. These are the men and women who, though scared, do what must be done, anyway. Someone has said all men are scared, but the heroes are scared for a few minutes longer.
They were never play-acting movie stars, or game-playing sports figures. They were real people dealing with real life. The precepts of the Christian life – love God with all you got, and your neighbor as yourself – these were flesh and bone of their very lives.
I have a friend who works these days as a state park ranger. Every time he sees me he says, “Hello, Hero.” The first time he did that I smiled indulgently. But every time he sees me now, he greets me that way. “Hello, Hero.” Then I found out he was a Navy Corpsman during the war in Vietnam, and he greets all Marines that way. And he means it.
I relate this because of the irony. You see, to Marines, Navy Corpsmen are the heroes. When you get shot up in the confusion of battle, and you’re laying out there and your buddies are getting hit trying to get to you, it's the Navy Corpsman who runs through the enemy fire and throws his body between you and the enemy. Then he starts working on your wounds, right there. That’s just what they do.
And if you look around you today, the real heroes are still at it, day in and day out. One way or another they are putting their bodies, their fortunes, and their influence between someone vulnerable and whatever is after them. We could do well to learn from them, and quit being swayed by those who talk the talk but either cannot or will not walk the walk. We need to re-think our heroes these days. We need to look a little closer at who our heroes really should be.
Old Red and Dodger would certainly have recognized them. If we look closely, so will we.
In fact, everytime I'm asked to speak to some group, I'm invariably looking out at an audience of heroes.
My wife and I raised five children, four boys and a girl. Of those, two joined the military. One retired a few years ago as a Gunnery Sergeant of United States Marines. The other one, one of those Air Force bad boys that flies around the world rescuing pilots when they go in, he just retired a few months ago. I tell people, my wife may look like a sweet, gentle soul, but she raised two men who know how to rip the heart out of any enemy.
And likewise I say of you who read this, out of your sweetness and decency, you raised heroes who gave America back its future. You, like they, are the real heroes. As my Corpsman friend would say, "Hello, heroes."
May God richly bless you, each and every one. And may God bless the United States of America.