Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Man and the Myth

Book Review: Enduring Courage: Ace Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and the Dawn of the Age of Speed by John F. Ross

Are heroes made, or are they born?

Webster defines a 'hero' as "a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities". It seems then, that to be a hero requires other people, people to admire and idolize; it is an extrinsic quality. Yet the same source defines the term 'heroic' as "having or showing great courage" - a purely intrinsic characteristic.

In reading John Ross' Enduring Courage, the reader is able to get a sense of the often conflicting definitions that we apply to our heroes. How many of our sports heroes, elevated to that status by media coverage and hype, have fallen from grace when we find out that they used performance enhancing drugs to get there? We maintain the expectation that somehow they are different, that they possess some inner strength or character trait that makes them different, we are disappointed to find it was simply a quest for their fifteen minutes of fame.

At the same time, there have been people who worked hard, persevered, and conquered. John Ross gives us a mixture of hyperbole and reality that truly conveys the dual character of Eddie Rickenbacker - on the one hand the hard-nosed, often un-likeable son of immigrants; on the other the self-promoting race car driver and aviator. Sometimes the flowery language of Enduring Courage seems to have been cribbed right off a 1914 advertising poster: "... his ability to handle with nerve and clear calculation those insanely chaotic moments at the edge of speed and fear." This is the 'hero' side of creating the idol, and Ross often goes over the top with his adjectives.

The heroic side of Eddie Rickenbacker lies between the lines, in the character and courage that he brought to bear in times of stress and adversity. This inner strength often alienated those around him, but it was an integral part of Rickenbacker, a foundation for all that he did and was to become. While it may be a less attractive target for flowery phrases, that core is what differentiates paper heroes from the truly heroic. Perhaps without really meaning to, Enduring Courage illustrates what we really want our heroes to be.