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By Peg Brown
We’re all had them. Individuals who are admired, idealized, courageous, have performed outstanding achievements, display noble qualities…brave…we could all add a qualifier to the long list that leads to the title “Hero.” However, the original definitions, rooted in classical literature, have certainly changed through time.
As I begin my seventh decade, I reflected on how my “worship of heroes” changed for me. Excluding the obvious—Mom and Dad—members of the greatest generation—who continue to rise on my hero list the older I get, I begin in grade school. Remember, this was the fifties, television was black and white and just moving into American homes in great numbers. I remember heroes of this era as fictional characters—among them Hop-a-Long Cassidy (whose image appeared with his white horse at the bottom of my cereal bowl) and Davey Crocket. (Actually, I really worshiped the tall, attractive Fess Parker!)
I have mentioned the camp on the St. Lawrence River where we spent what now should be labelled truly idyllic summers. No television, no telephone, no central heat. We were voracious readers, mostly to keep warm under heavy cotton quilts, and read everything from comic books to classical works which often were too mature for sixth and seventh graders (back then!) One of the earliest biographies I read was of Elizabeth Blackwell, said to be the first woman MD in America. So dazzled was I by her life story that I proclaimed, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied: “A doctor.” That was until I hit college freshman biology—and made a hasty exit to Modern European History.
My second obsession from those years was Scarlett O’Hara-that rambunctious, irreverent, headstrong, of the 19 inch waist Southern Belle. When I asked Mom who Clark Gable was, she swiftly handed me a copy of “Gone with the Wind,” followed by a trip to the movie. I never asked again—after that staircase scene, what is there to say?
As a college student in the turbulent 60’s, heroes changed almost daily. We had only to look to those who led the civil rights movements—leaders and courageous followers- and to those who were assassinated before they reached their full potential. We had men landing on the moon, and our classmates fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. We had college sit-ins, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and the leaders of the SDS (Students for a democratic Society.) Depending on your politics, geographic location, special interests, and passionate beliefs, heroes were not in short supply. In graduate school, just to demonstrate how things change, I applauded the students who led protests against ROTC on the URI campus—only to marry a 25-year member of Army Reserves whose two sons are both lifetime military, with too many tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But enough reminiscing—I have a new hero, perhaps my last. She may stand five feet tall and weigh 100 pounds on a good day. Erect in bearing, with flaming red hair, she reminds of a reincarnated Elizabeth I, sans crown and starched, pleated ruff. Her story is not unique, but its chapters bear witness to her noble qualities. A native of Cranston from a very large family, she worked at Brown & Sharpe during WWII as a hometown version of Rosie the Riveter. Operating a very large machine that produced tools for the war effort, she filled a role that so many women undertook during those years. She met her husband there—a native of Pennsylvania, living in the company’s dorm, also responding to war needs. She married young, and had one daughter who was struck by polio at the age of four. Seeking out the support that her daughter needed, she made sure that all opportunities would be made available, including advanced education.
But it wasn’t that easy. Her husband had died at the age of 44 leaving her to raise her daughter alone, with support from her extended family. She confided to me that both she and her husband had taken driving lessons, enabling her to secure a position at the Outlet Company after his death, traveling into Providence each day and rising to supervisor of her department before retiring in the 1980s. Her pension from the Outlet–$47 a month.
It was not until she turned 57 that she found the right partner with whom she spent nearly 35 years. By all measures, you might call them “characters” in their later life, as they were constantly on the go. My hero, for years, only cooked on Tuesdays—every other night they were out—at the Elks, local restaurants and events, daily earning their informal title of Mayors of Greenville. Rosie the Riveter had hooked up with her match—a mechanic turned reluctant tail gunner, himself a hero of the war. Even though she had to carry the laundry down two sets of stairs, both were always immaculately dressed, pressed, starched, and accessorized—of course due to Rosie.
She was never home during the day-still isn’t. Monday-bowling; Tuesday—golf; Wednesday—defending her label as card shark at the senior center. Driving everywhere, caring for her aging sisters and brother, volunteering for bazaars, selling tickets for the Elks, and having that wonderful carrot top attended to on a regular basis—along with the accompanying manicure. And oh, did I mention, she can out last you on any dance floor—even today.
My hero couple went every Saturday night to Crickets, where they danced the entire evening. Toward the end, Rosie’s partner would take the stage and sing “After the Lovin’.” One of the most poignant moments observed by a friend was when she was visiting her seriously ill partner in the hospital, and the two of them, with Rosie brushing his hair, both singing that song. Her friend had to step out of the room, so poignant was the moment. Her tail gunner died shortly after.
And like all self-reliant heroes, she pulled herself together and kept up with all her activities. But make no mistake, Rosie is outspoken, speaks the truth if asked, sometimes is very stubborn, and fiercely protects her independence. On a recent evening, I called to invite her to dinner. She declined. The reason? She had been bowling a very good game, tried extra hard, and pulled a muscle in her shoulder. Her excuse? Not the pain in her arm, but the fact that it prevented her combing out her new permanent, putting on her eyebrows, and applying other makeup so that she would be presentable to her public.
She also has a wry sense of humor, and often makes unfiltered comments. Once as she was riding in our car on a cold night, my husband turned on the heated seats. Next thing he hears—“Oh, I’m getting turned on!” It took my husband about three seconds to hit the “off” button.
She was also fiercely loyal and protective of her partner. One night at Crickets, another women was occupying a little too much of her partner’s times. She walked right up to them and said, out loud, “If you want to go home with her, I can walk back to the apartment.”
Did I forget to mention that Rosie’s now 94!
From Hop-a-Long Cassidy in Hollywood, to Mary Nauman in Greenville, my criteria for qualifying heroes has certainly evolved.
Just give me candor, self-reliance, a stubborn streak and an independent spirit, and I’m all set.