July 6, 1995 in City
Revel In Ordinariness - It’s Full Of Life
The article stuck in my mind. It appeared in late May. Robert O’Donnell, the firefighter from Midland, Texas, who had helped rescue little Jessica McClure from a well in 1987, apparently had committed suicide.
O’Donnell struggled for hours in cramped, claustrophobic conditions to pull the frightened child from the dark well. He finally succeeded by smearing lubricating jelly around a tunneled hole and tugging her out by the leg.
In the years after the dramatic rescue, O’Donnell had grown depressed, friends and co-workers said.
At age 30, he had been declared a hero on world news coverage. By the time he was 37, he reportedly was unemployed and having family difficulties. His body was found in a pasture on his grandparents’ property in Glasscock County. A .410 shotgun was found nearby.
Life can be achingly tough for heroes.
That’s why it was so refreshing to see the modest response of Capt. Scott O’Grady when he was welcomed as a “hero” because he had used his wits to stay alive after his plane had been shot down over Bosnia.
“I am not a Rambo,” he said after his rescue. “This is really amazing to me, all this attention I’m getting and everyone saying, ‘You’re a hero, you’re a hero.’ Naaah, I’m not a hero. All I was was a scared little bunny rabbit trying to hide, trying to survive.”
And right there he earned even more admiration for putting the media hullabaloo in good-natured perspective.
Winston Churchill, who knew what it was like to be yesterday’s hero, once referred to “Those two great frauds, victory and defeat.” Life teaches that both the highs and the lows are fleeting.
The downside of being today’s equivalent of hero-of-the-hour is that it’s tough to live up to other people’s expectations.
Mickey Mantle recently was asked why he had seemed to punish himself with a physically abusive lifestyle even though he had earned enduring public affection. The tortured-looking slugger confessed that he felt he might have “let people down.”
Yes, it’s tough to keep your personal batting average up. It’s also tough to go back to the real world after floating on a cloud of publicity.
One newspaper critic observed that what seems to have struck such a deep chord with audiences who see “The Bridges of Madison County” is that they know their own lives are full of kitchen-table ordinariness. They know that they, too, never will run away for a grand romance. They know, as Meryl Streep said so convincingly, that their lives are composed of tiny, mundane “details.”
Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, most people measure out their lives in coffee spoons, not headlines. And for many - like the Midland fireman - the tedium of being a nobody, especially after you’ve been a somebody, is depressing.
Perhaps it would help to be more discriminating about puffing people up to hero-celebrity status. We don’t seem to be doing ourselves much good by building up hyper-glandular athletes into role models. And it’s a dubious development that today’s movie heroes tend to be monosyllabic demolition experts.
Surely there’s some irony in the fact that John Wayne’s name is synonymous with macho manliness - yet, the movie that remains one of the most popular with late-night TV audiences is “The Quiet Man.” In it, the Duke played a boxer named Sean Thornton who retired rather than hurt another human being. The soft-spoken Thornton learns that the good life is not fulfilling other people’s expectations of success; it was in sharing a country cottage with Maureen O’Hara. The beauty of that movie is how it shows that the ordinary “details” of life - a home-cooked meal, planting a rose garden, sharing a laugh with friends - are the essence of a good life.
We still need examples of bravery under fire, strength, courage and character to counterbalance the cupidity, venality and outright evil that are always on the loose.
But it would help us keep our perspective if we would recognize the heroes all around us. Such as the youngsters in the inner city who resist the temptation to sell dope to their young friends and instead take jobs after school at McDonald’s. Such as the physicians who risk their own health to provide care for people in developing countries, where terrifying illnesses may be only a breath away. Such as the custodian who works two jobs so he can support an ailing mother.
In truth, there’s a certain nobility to the millions of people who never will be a Mantle or even an O’Grady, who never will have riches or headlines, but who soldier on.
So plant the roses, forgive your families, plan a picnic, savor the “details.” And give the “heroes” on “Good Morning America” some slack.