Albuquerque, NM - 1998
By Billy Grieves
First delivered at a Regional Convention in Phoenix, April 1998.
The time was the early 60's. Pittsburgh was playing football on their home turf. Pittsburgh had the ball but they were down by three points and there was time for only one more play in the game. In desperation, the quarterback faded back and threw a long "Hail Mary" pass to the right end. But the pass was high and the pass receiver jumped striking the ball with his fingertips. The football bobbled high into the air and seemed to hang there, suspended, before slowly drifting earthward ...... and fight into the arms of another Pittsburgh player who dove across the goal line.
The crowd snapped to their feet and erupted with a roar. The runners team mates swarmed around him. And, for two days, the media proclaimed him the "hero of the day".
But anybody who knows anything at all about football knows that no football game is ever won by any one play or any one player. Football games are won by a concentrated effort by many unsung players starting with the very first kickoff and right on down to the last play of the game.
But it seems there is a law of nature which says that Americans must have their heroes ...... but who are they? Oh, we're not speaking now of heroism as defined by the traditional interpretation of the word. They don't have to be war heroes with medals on their chests to prove their courage or outstanding performance of duty. We don't even demand they be engaged in some hazardous field of endeavor. But Americans seem perpetually obsessed with idols to worship, and applaud, and place on a pedestal. Idols, such as the fearless ball carrier in the National Football league charging blindly into a solid wall of carnivorous humanity. Or men with speed in their veins and death under their wheels like movie star, Paul Newman, careening around a tight turn in the Grand Pris. Or arrogant superstars of the basketball court and the baseball diamond with pay scales that have reached new levels of absurdity. And then there are the new "gladiators" in the fiercest arena of them all: The astronauts who plummet through the unknown frontiers of space in their tiny capsules, all seemingly with charmed lives and a certain indifference to their fate. These things can all be very exciting but is this heroism?
What is heroism today? The purity or the sincerity of their motives does not seem to be a factor. And traditional moral values are certainly not a requirement. But over-hyped, greedy, self-seeking performers whose main concern in life is for their own public image are regarded with bewildering awe while, in the meantime, our public schools give only cursory attention to the true courage and human sacrifice that made this country great. Would today's "heroes" be so eager to perform knowing their only reward would be to return to a job in a factory or on a farm without publicity, without fanfare, but having only the satisfaction of saying, "I have done my job. I have contributed my share, more than my share, in making this country great."
I don't mean to detract from the luster of these modem achievements but let's put them in a more balanced perspective. The accomplishments of our astronauts are legendary, not just for their contribution to the scientific and military communities but also for the lofty pinnacle of esteem with which America is regarded in the world arena today. And space, like the ocean depths which we invaded, is a hostile and unforgiving environment. But men who challenge space have a lot less reason to fear it. Because these men are but projections of a thousand other men who planned and designed the capsules and developed the instrumentation which monitors their every move, their every heart beat. And when you stop to think about it, this "hero" who goes into space is himself a machine, thrust into space by other machines. He has been examined, analyzed, tested checked out ..... and finally launched. But all the while, he is constantly connected to the earth by this invisible umbilical cord which advises him, directs him and, if need be, can take over his controls and bring him safely back to earth. Wouldn't it have been a source of great comfort if we had had such an umbilical cord which could have brought us safely home?
Captain George Grider, CO of the FLASHER, in his book writes, "The submarine kept its individuality. When we went out on patrol we were on our own. There was no one outside the unit to give us orders on how to make the approach, how to attack, how to follow through. We were corsairs in a world that had almost forgotten the word. " Without the leadership and driving motivation of submarine skippers like George Grider, World War II would have had a much different scenario.
But like the football game I mentioned earlier, no single person can ever take credit for the final success of any submarine. General Eisenhower put it this way, "Who are these men who have carried the security of a great nation? National heroes like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt or George Patton? Or was it the little man who, when called upon, soared with the eagles? " Heroism knows neither rank nor rating aboard a submarine.
So what is heroism? That's like asking, what is honor? And who are America's true heroes? Let me tell you who they are: They are people, ordinary people who can rise above greed and self-interest- people who, when called upon, will fight and, if need be, die for a cause or a way-of-life in a country they believe in. People whose only reward is to return and live in a peaceful world with the self-satisfaction of knowing they helped to make it so.
But let's go back to the sports arena for a moment. Yogi Berra has long been famous for his candid observations of his beloved sport of baseball. In one of these he said, "It ain't over 'til it's over. " In baseball, these words make a lot of sense. But isn't it sad the same thing cannot be said about all of life? Because for 3,622 true American heroes who gave their lives on submarines in World War II, it was over before it was over. Bravely they died. In proud remembrance we salute them.