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The Men Who Wear the Tights

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The Men Who Wear the Tights, The Women Who Wear the Pants

As children, our earliest exposure to the notion of a hero is typically a character in tights. Sporting a bath towel cape and pretending to be imbued with super powers, we dream of measuring up. Soon we are introduced to ‘community helpers’ –- those kindergarten days celebrating the men and women who keep the cogs of a community going, as well as those who wait in the wings of daily obscurity to launch a rescue when needed. But while I would never denigrate the heroism of those who truly sacrifice to serve — especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in any line of duty — I have to say I’ve never been at ease with the status of auto-heroics.

Auto-heroics have nothing to do with the Indianapolis 500. It is my own term for the automatic assignment of the title of hero to anyone just because they chose a particular job. Trust me. I’ve walked in these shoes. Mine is a view from the inside out. Granted, it’s true those most often paid homage -– firefighters and police officers –- are in a position to act heroically; more than anyone else they’ll get the chance; but pinning on a badge, alone, doesn’t put anyone on a pedestal in my mind. It’s simply not enough.

Altruism is a myth. I say this because even in serving others there is a pay-off. If not a paycheck then a sense of self-worth or the accolades we think we are likely to garner: our personal stairway to heaven. This is, instead, a look at a different kind of hero, at a type of day-to-day heroics to which most of us, save the horribly unfortunate, can relate from one side of the fence or the other. This is a column about parenting.

Parents are a quiet kind of hero, an unsung species who are the building contractors of society. They are the build-it-and-they-will-come dreamers who with a funny sort of blind faith cast their souls into the fray to help make tomorrow come true. Most, looking back, would re-think the decision. It’s no accident God made the view so different from opposite sides of the fence, for if as children we knew what it was really like to be parents we would never deign to procreate; that, or it’s a matter of rampant hormones. Either way, the result is the same: parents are born right along side of their children, as fresh and unmistakably new as the babe in their arms.

To Serve and Protect

Yes, parenting is a lot like policing and fighting fires. There are times of lull and emergency; times they take pride in what they do and times they curse themselves for the job they’ve undertaken. It’s a strange blend of foolishness and pluck, of soldiering and softness, of small triumphs and sequestered tears.

My Pop went to work at what was then Armstrong Cork Company and he went almost every day without fail. It took an act of the Almighty to keep him home. Like many children of the Great Depression he worked hard and left his complaints in the break room. For a time I shared the squalor of his world when as a college work-study student I drove forklift there, and one utterly exhausting day was even assigned to load the hopper by his side. Dyes, I think it was: a humbling experience through which I knew I never would have lasted the more than forty years that he did. But not to go would have been to turn his back on duty. Pop knew duty.

As a teen he worked the Civilian Conservation Corps, sending most of the money (what little he made) home. In World War II he was a battlefield lineman in the Army doing tours in Normandy and the Philippines. I came across his discharge papers the other year.

As a parent he had a duty to provide, having come by it willingly or not, and he fulfilled that duty nine times over. He went to work at the same dirty, tiring, unrewarding job day after day in order to feed and cloth and shelter his children despite anything else he might have wanted to do with his own life. That’s heroism.

My Pop didn’t plan to have children (not that he was wholly innocent in the matter; though parenthood was thrust upon him he was wont to admit with a smile on his face that he’d done his share of the thrusting). His own preferences were subjugated to the Catholic mentality of the woman he married: a woman apparently determined to bear all that she could bear, giving Pop an awful lot to bear in the bargain. To his credit he stayed and supported the hoard. On a planet where so many fail to meet that bar, it alone can constitute a heroic leap.

Now here’s where you, the reader, come in. I want to hear from you. I want to hear about the way in which your own parents or parent-models (the guardians, aunts, uncles or grandparents who raised you) met the role of unsung hero in your life. With your permission, I’ll highlight some of the stories in a future column. I also want to hear your tales from the Dark Side -– of your own heroic struggles as parent or those of your partner or even of another parent you admire. Send your thoughts to: To Serve & Protect c/o garrie keyman, Box 431, Lititz, PA 17543.

If you’re a police officer, firefighter, or other public servant, I’d especially like to hear your own comparisons of parenting to what you do on the line. Till then, take courage; it doesn’t ever get easier, but you’re never alone.

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