“I bet you’ve never heard ole Marshal Dillon say
Miss Kitty have you ever thought of running away
Settling down will you marry me
If I asked you twice and begged you pretty please
–Toby Keith, “Should’ve Been A Cowboy”
It’s not easy being a hero these days. I think it was easier to be a hero back when James Arness played Dodge City’s Marshall Matt Dillon on the TV series “Gunsmoke,” which ran for an amazing 20 seasons from 1955 to 1975.
Of course, what most people don’t know is that James Arness actually was a hero, in real life. The 6-foot, 7-inch tall Midwestern boy from Minneapolis of German and Norwegian heritage wanted to be a fighter pilot in WWII, but felt that his poor eyesight would keep him from it. So he went into the Army instead, joined the 3rd Infantry Division and was subsequently severely wounded during Operation Shingle in Anzio, Italy.
Following numerous surgeries, he was able to walk, but after his honorable discharge, he suffered from chronic leg pain; which is why you may remember him walking sort of stiff legged in the show. Maybe that’s why they gave him a foil in Chester who had an overly-pronounced limp, to distract us from Dillon’s awkward gait.
Anyway, after the war and college in Wisconsin and a stint as a radio announcer/actor in Minneapolis, he hitchhiked his way to Hollywood and began acting in films. One thing led to another, John Wayne recommended him for the part in Gunsmoke and, voila, he was a star.
So what is it that sets a very rare few people apart from the others and makes them heroes?
I don’t know; I was hoping maybe some of you Week-Enders would have some thoughts on that.
I think it may be harder to be a hero today because the world is more jaded; ironically, perhaps the thing that propelled Arness into Hollywood hero status is also the thing that has been the downfall of heroes–TV, or more specifically these days, mass communication and technology.
But I think it started with TV and movies.
Before TV and movies, there was radio; but radio is not graphic. You had sound effects and people had to use words and the audience had to use their imagination. When done well, it could be very effective–the Mercury Theater airing of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast is a prime example.
But movies and especially TV began the era of leaving nothing to the imagination. From Dillon gunning down bad guys (though I don’t recall ever seeing blood) to Ed Sullivan bringing the shaggy-headed Fab-4 on stage to Richard Nixon telling his fellow Americans he was not a crook to seeing the first man walk on the moon, we were slowly robbed of our ability to imagine. Then Vietnam brought war to the dinner table each night, we saw the burglars at Watergate, professional athletes were caught lying on camera about taking steroids, and on and on.
So, we became jaded, and it became harder and harder to believe that there were really any heroes left.
However, I submit to you, gentle Week-Enders, that we are still surrounded by heroes, every day, all over, no matter where you live.
They aren’t TV stars–even most of the fake heroes on TV today are less-than-heroic compared to Dillon. They aren’t sports figures–though there are a few that do stand out in that arena. They certainly don’t live in the halls of politics–enough said there.
No, I think the true, Dillon-like heroes walk the halls of our schools each day, doing their best under sometimes life-threatening conditions to teach our children.
I think they walk the streets of our cities in law enforcement uniforms, in firefighter uniforms, in public health uniforms and sometimes in plain clothes but always on the lookout for threats to our safety.
Certainly, there are more than a fair share of heroes wearing the uniforms of our five military services: Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard. They walk the streets in bad-guy territory, putting themselves in danger-close situations so that we hopefully will never have to. They are out there fighting terrorists and narcotics runners and narco-terrorists and all manner of vicious characters who would do us harm.
They are in hospitals and other medical care facilities and yes, they are in parks and recreation departments serving the needs of youth and adults nation-wide.
My point is that there are heroes all around us, every day but they don’t get the ink, they don’t get their 15 minutes of fame, they don’t get video at 11. Good news doesn’t sell advertising. So they go unheralded–except by those whose lives they touch … which, mostly, is enough for them.
I just wish that TV, movies, radio, Internet, social media and all other forms of mass communication would start focusing more on the positive, less on the negative. I think if that were to happen, heroes would once again have a place to walk in the sunshine.
Maybe it’s time we bring Dillon back in to clean up this town.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.