When I was a kid, I had a lot of heroes, starting with my dad and going everywhere from there.
The Second World War started in 1939 in Europe or December of 1941 out here in the west, and one of my personally memorable heroes died in that war.
He was a Charles Bronson type, only a lot better looking. He was a Marine. (Or he IS a Marine. The Marines I know say that once you become a Marine, you are one forever.)
My Marine hero is Raymond Martin. He was killed in the Pacific Theater, not long after the war started. I used to talk to him when he was on leave, as he would always come to church.
He was every inch a Marine. You could cut yourself on the creases of his uniforms, his shoes shone like the harvest moon and he was Charles Bronson-tough. He had a small script "R" tattooed on his forearm.
In the eighth grade, I drew a small script "R" on my forearm and was rewarded for it with a session in A.T. Smith's office for what seemed like a week. I told Mr. Smith the "R" stood for "Robert," but we all knew better. He just didn't think a kid should write on himself; as he put it, your skin is not an outhouse wall.
When the word went out in Lodi that Ray was killed in action, the pall that went through the whole congregation was as much for the fact Ray was killed, but that his parents both died in spirit on that pathetically sad day as well. I have always said that you can't kill a kid without doing the same thing to his parents.
Ray's mom especially was never the same. I was just a kid, but I knew that family and saw what happened. There is a country song that says, "Cry Me a River." And that's what that poor woman did. Smiles are hard to come by when your hero son goes, without warning, to heaven. As one squarehead I know put it, "It don't matter what you believe; you won't see him again until you walk through them pearly gates your own self and that can be a lot longer than you think."
It's interesting to look back and see the impact Ray had on the guys who went to church at Salem Evangelical at that particular time. I wasn't even a teenager, but the impact of losing a hero, when he himself was barely out of his teens, left a mark that comes to mind every so often, especially on Memorial Day.
It was still called Decoration Day when Ray died. That started in the 1860s and was declared a holiday when we would honor our Civil War dead. They changed the day from Decoration Day to Memorial Day in about 1965.
Herb Caen said Memorial Day was the first day we men could wear a white belt and shoes to match without being laughed at by the clothes snobs. (Of course, the average squarehead still wears a white belt, because for him, all it's for is to hold up his pants.)
As it turned out, the Salem Evangelical Church had another hero. I knew him as Willie Williams, an Air Force officer. He was the Clark Gable kind of a guy. He was Smilin' Jack. You know, the tall, blonde, good lookin' guy with the straight teeth and the crooked smile. He was another of my real heroes. He went to war, did his hero stuff, came back and married the beauty queen, bought a little place in the country and lived happily ever after.
I got to know him as the real hero guy. He drove a snazzy car, dated and married a girl that looked like an Andrews sister.
He was fearless; he would step out of church on Sunday morning, take out a cigarette and light it in front of God and everybody. Not even my mother complained.
My dad and Will got to be friends and Willie said he needed a man to work out at his place. My dad had a rule about that: Unless there was a manure shovel or a hay fork and a few blisters involved, he didn't want his son to take any job that didn't enhance his understanding of the value of the dollar. When I went to work out at the Williams dairy, it was — and had been — raining, and the feeding barn was knee deep in nice, foot-warming fertilizer, and it had to be shoveled clean then and there and weekly thereafter as well.
There aren't many things that create a bond of understanding between a boy and a man as much as when the boy is knee-deep in cow manure, sweat running off his face in a veritable torrent, and the boss is standing here, smiling that crooked smile, enjoying a Camel and asking the boy, "Well, how do you like farmin' so far, Robert?"
Bob Bader is a chiropractor who writes. He can be reached at email@example.com.