Heroic is a word overused in any era but especially one when heroes are so extraordinarily rare. Ours is a society obsessed with self. The modern era is one in which talking not only suffices for doing but equates to it. Our attention is so affixed on worlds not our own — Washington, celebrity, fantasy — that we can’t see the world in front of our faces.
Talking with a colleague the other day, I recalled meeting paratroopers from the 3rd Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Those were true heroes, among the precious few I’ve been privileged to meet.
One of my favorites among that group was Joe Beyerle, a 6-foot, 1-inch lion of a man from Muskegon, Michigan, known as “Jumpin’ Joe.” German forces captured him three times and he escaped all three times. He awoke once wondering whether Nazis had killed him. When he heard a nurse talking alongside his hospital bed, he knew he’d survived. “Angels don’t speak German,” he reasoned.
Military officials declared him missing in action and presumed him dead. His hometown newspaper carried the story. Talk about fake news. Joe finished World War II fighting alongside the Soviets and lived to be 81. Age got him, but the Nazis could never hold him. We spoke once about the D-Day jump. I asked whether he felt fear as the C-47 aircraft in their flying V’s whirred in the night skies over France on June 6, 1944.
“Scared?” Jumpin’ Joe snorted. “Hell no. I was excited. I was going to jump down there and kill me some krauts.”
America’s history is checkered. The country of that era had many strides yet to make on civil rights. But the America of the 1940s also was composed of men like Jumpin’ Joe, true heroes possessing the will and fortitude to leap straight into the teeth of a Nazi war machine that had swarmed over Europe. Their valor and that of women who, among other things, helped keep alive factories left behind by men at war combined to topple Nazi tyranny and end the systematic destruction of entire peoples.
Acts of heroism weren’t carried out by mythical characters of comic book imagination — the sort of which inspire movies these days, when Hollywood is incapable of original thought or genuine appreciation for real-life stories like Joe’s. Heroism was the stuff of otherwise ordinary people, sons and daughters of butchers, railroad workers, taxi drivers and coal miners. They were the people who formed the indestructible fiber of the country.
Knowing that period only through history books and the eyes of those I knew among the greatest generation — an appellation that is dead-on right — I can’t say for sure that political parties and ideologies mattered less than they do now. But I do know they did a lot more doing than talking in those days.
People like Jumpin’ Joe weren’t the type to mock people for their service having never served themselves. I met Joe in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in 2004, the same year he died. Joe was kind and gracious but even in the last year of his life, he had the aura of a man with whom you’d not want to trifle.
Remembering my time with Joe, I think of America’s most recent former president and his remarks about the late Sen. John McCain, a former POW. “He was a war hero because he was captured,” Donald Trump said. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Among those people, Trump likes himself best and himself only.
Editors, those left among us, have their foils in every town, and I surely have mine here. I heard from one earlier this week. “With all due respect, Mr. Wolverton,” he wrote, referring to last week’s offering in this space, “your article is just a huge collection of garbage.”
I recalled him writing last summer that one of our dailies was “on fumes” and “a Trump victory might put you under.” Well, that worked out, didn’t it? Naturally, he referred to the paper as a “liberal rag.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that reference, I’d save newspapers, but it’d take more than that to rewire the scattered synapses of so-called conservatives like him.
There was a time when questioning the service of a man who’d been captured while fighting for his country would get you scorn from conservatives if not a well-deserved punch in the nose. I surely wouldn’t want to be the one who made such a remark to a man like Jumpin’ Joe. I think he would have turned into Thumpin’ Joe.
But guess who the hero is now? A reality TV host who’s the worst kind of loser, a sore one. Choose him if you wish. I’ll stick with Joe.