The Heroes Among Us – And the Meaning of Courage – On the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The upcoming anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 reminded me of an essay I wrote for PARADE in final month of 1979, as the decade of the Seventies was ending and we were still trying to recover from Vietnam. The essay was based on my attendance at a gathering of recipients of the Medal of Honor and it revolved around the meaning of courage.  I think its message holds just as true today, as we look back on a shocking, tragic event of American history that occurred sixty-eight years ago, when our country was suddenly catapulted into World War Two:

An Essay by Hank Whittemore – PARADE – January 1980

Have Americans lost their courage? That question is often heard these days, along with the cynical observation that we’ve grown too soft to produce heroes.

Last November, I decided to attend the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s biennial reunion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Perhaps a good place to learn about courage would be among those who had demonstrated it in battle.

First I consulted the government’s list of the 3306 recipients of the Medal since it was first awarded during the Civil War. Under each name a citation tells what the man did to deserve his honor. You can open any page and find a story to match your worst nightmare. It is impossible to read these accounts of courage and not be overwhelmed.

Many of the Medals had been given posthumously. One soldier had “saved the lives of his men at the sacrifice of his life by throwing himself directly on the mine as it exploded.” That’s a typical description, not the exception. For those who remained alive, personal survival was an afterthought, an accident of fate.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States,” I read. “The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life, and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”

There are 275 Medal-holders still living among us: 10 from World War I, 144 from World War 11,38 from Korea and 83 from Vietnam. Of these, about 160 would be on hand at the Tulsa reunion.

At the meeting place in a downtown hotel, the “national media” were conspicuously absent.  There were no hordes of reporters, no TV crews shoving their way into the reception hall.  The local press was there, but most of the country would never learn that the event was taking place. Those who had exhibited the highest form of military courage while serving America were reaching out to each other in virtual anonymity.

Attack on Pearl Harbor - Dec 7, 1941

Many of the men had brought their wives. They were dressed informally, with sports jackets and ties, and each man wore his Medal draped from its ribbon around his neck. They had name tags on their lapels. At first glance, you might have mistaken the group for a collection of ordinary businessmen. They greeted each other with handshakes, smiles, occasional embraces.

And soon you could feel that there was much more in the room, a more powerful emotion beneath the surface. Wandering around as a stranger, I saw two men who had each lost an arm.  I saw a man who had lost one of his legs. Others were limping.  Several had scars from burns.  Nearly all, I learned, were carrying wounds of one kind or another.

At some point it struck me. The world may forget these men and what they have done, but as long as any are still alive, they will not forget each other – because they know what courage is; because each man knows that the others understand what he went through; because of a common bond, transcending generations and races and all other differences; because they share a secret that is almost impossible for them to express to anyone else.

If I could learn that secret, I thought, maybe then I would have answers for those who worry about our courage. And so I joined the Medal-holders as they took bus tours, attended banquets, listened to speeches. I spoke to dozens of them, in small groups and individually – trying to learn the secret.

Each man openly admitted that he had been afraid. His courage had required an awareness of danger, not blindness to what was at stake. His act was not rash, but deliberate.  What counted was how he had controlled or handled his fear. He had “respected the situation” and then risen to it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall - Washington, D.C.

But along with fear, I noticed, there had been anger. A man had gotten mad as hell at the course of events and said, in effect, “I won’t submit to that! I won’t let it happen!  Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be, but I’m going to change it!” And so, rather than give in to torture, he had slit his wrists. Or jumped on top of a deadly grenade.  Or stood up and fired at the enemy in the face of almost certain death.  And by his action, he had made all the difference.

Underneath the fear and the anger, however, there had been a dedication to others.  This sort of courage – perhaps courage itself – is not selfish.  It regards comrades’ lives as more valuable than one’s own. It means being willing to crawl back into a flaming helicopter to save the pilot, diving down to a submarine to rescue those who are trapped; instead of fleeing for safety, racing out to treat the wounded and helpless and dragging them away from the bullets.

Courage, I found, is not the result of a contest. You don’t “win” the Medal of Honor.  You have a certain amount of training and experience, but then comes an event that calls for spontaneous action. You either respond in a certain way or you don’t.  You cannot predict, ever, what you will do.  Not a single Medal- holder was aware, beforehand, that he really had the “guts” to be a hero.

And that is part of the secret:  These men, holders of the highest award for courage we’ve got, are just like the rest of us. Among them at the reunion were a college professor, a furrier, a police chief, a real estate salesman. They had come from steel mills, farms, assembly lines and executive suites.

The important fact was not their differences from us, but their sameness. As a group, they represent the diversity, and the ordinariness, of the whole nation.  They reflect the actual and potential courage that exists throughout American life.  They are a national treasure, symbolizing our capacity for valor. By taking a good look at them, it is possible to see ourselves.

For each of the Medal-holders there had been no script to follow. Before they acted, they had been just as “normal” as you or I. If a situation calling for courage arises, will we respond as heroes or will we shrink away to save ourselves?

There is no certain answer.  Which, I believe, is also part of the secret.  Heroism is an individual matter that cannot be “seen” in the absence of a test.  You cannot find it by looking at your neighbors or in a mirror. It is something that happens at the moment. Until then, no one has the right to judge who among us does or does not have courage.

These lessons, I believe, apply to courage in all its forms, not just military. For everyone, crises arise throughout life that test courage – in our jobs, in the family, in relationships with friends and with strangers.

What saddened me at the Medal of Honor reunion was the feeling on the part of the recipients that their courage has so little meaning for the rest of us. “The Medal has a different significance these days,” a Vietnam veteran said. “If I had received it during World War II, I’d be treated differently. I came home as a soldier in scorn, so to speak.  Today, most kids don’t even know that the Medal exists, much less what it means.”

Isn’t it time we distinguished between the traumatic Vietnam experience and those who fought in that controversial conflict?  Isn’t it time we re-learned the Medal’s meaning, for ourselves and future generations?  Surely another war isn’t necessary in order to know that we haven’t lost our courage.

The men who gathered in Tulsa have put away their Medals until the next reunion. They go about their lives with that secret they share. They know what courage is – and so should we.

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The Muppets – Three Decades Ago…

Given the current celebration of Sesame Street’s fortieth anniversary, I reached into my files to find an article I wrote on the Muppets for PARADE, the Sunday supplement, more than thirty years ago in 1978.  Jim Henson was forty-two; he died twelve years later, in 1990, at fifty-four.  Richard Hunt was twenty-seven; he died fourteen years later, in 1992, at forty-one.

December 24, 1978

The Magical Hands of TV’s Muppet Zoo

MUPPETS

Article on the Muppets in PARADE on December 24, 1978

By Hank Whittemore

It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature is stir ring, not even a – frog?

Unless, perhaps, there are visions stirring in your head inspired by the likes of Kermit—the nation’s First Frog – and his Muppet friends, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and all the other funny, fantastical, foam-rubber TV creatures whose weekly antics make us laugh while reminding us of ourselves. The Muppets delight children and grownups alike with a magical blend of illusion and reality. They may not quite have the appeal of Santa Claus, but they’re the most popular puppets in the world.

Over the last decade, more than half of America’s preschoolers have grown up watching Cookie Monster and other Muppets on Sesame Street, the daily show on National Educational Television.  Forty million viewers in the U.S., and 230 million in 103 other countries, tune in for The Muppet Show, the weekly TV series now in its third year of syndication.  And now, folks, The Muppet Movie has just been filmed, for release this spring.

With Kermit and his friends already superstars, it’s time for a look at those behind – actually, under – them. Beneath the characters is a team of five men whose hands and voices give life to the Muppets. Each is tall, slim, agile, multi-skilled and possessed of a streak of nutty humor:

Jim Henson, 42, a soft-spoken man with long brown hair and full beard, is the Muppets. Twenty-three years ago he created Kermit (Out of a partiality to frogs) and coined the word “Muppet” to describe his own unique cross between marionette and puppet. Since then he has built a veritable Muppet empire, operating out of his New York-based Henson Associates – or just plain HA!

“I love the anonymity of it all,” Henson says, although he has allowed himself a degree of public visibility. He’s the guiding genius behind the Muppets’ success, acting as a designer, writer, producer and director, while continuing to perform below Kermit, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, Captain Link Hogthrob, Waldorf the Swedish Chef, the Newsman and Mahna Mahna.

Frank Oz, 34, has a mustache, spectacles and receding hairline that gives him the high-domed look of a scientist. “I was a perfectly normal kid,” he insists. “You know—serious, studious, rotten. This craziness is a contagious disease I caught from Jim Henson.” Oz, a veteran of 15 years of Muppet service, is creative consultant for The Muppet Show and a vice president of Henson Associates. Henson says Oz is “probably the person most responsible for the Muppets’ being funny.”

Oz based Cookie Monster on his own addiction to chocolate-chip cookies. He drew Grover’s character from that of his dog, Fred. When 0z’s Bert began his first routine with Henson’s Ernie, one of the great modern comedy teams was born.

Perhaps Oz’s most inspired creation is Miss Piggy. “I am certain,” a colleague jokes, “that she’s a reflection of Frank’s warped soul.” She’s a complexity of bravado and vulnerability, a coy lady pig whose delicate identity is not only sustained but fiercely protected by Oz.

* Jerry Nelson, 38, a lean, bearded, actor, is regarded as the “master of voices” among the five, especially as a singer. “With the Muppets you never stand still,” he says. “You keep growing. The character keeps learning, expanding, changing – just like a human being.” He brings alive a range of Muppets, including Robin the Frog, Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Dr. Julius Strange- pork, Fleet Scribbler, Crazy Harry, Uncle Deadly, the Count, Herry Monster and Sherlock Hemlock.

Richard Hunt, 27, with a mop of curly hair and seemingly boundless energy, had never sent up anything more exotic than a basketball before becoming a Muppet performer. “I came aboard when I was 18,” he recalls,” so I’ve been kind of a younger brother to Jim and Frank and Jerry.  You might say I’ve grown up with the Muppets.” Hunt gives us Scooter, Sweetums, Gladys, Beaker and Statler, among others,

Dave Goelz, 32, the newest member of the regular team, with a beard and a mischievous glint in his eyes, performs for Great Gonzo, Honeydew, Muppy and Zoot, “My background wasn’t show business,” he says, “but my whole family was raised in an atmosphere of weird.  So I guess my doing this was inevitable,”

“We’re all pretty much group people,” Henson points out, “To become part of the Muppets, you have to know how to share and work unselfishly for the total effort.”

And what an effort that is! On the set, the Muppeteers stand together, jostling around with their arms up, moving their Muppets’ mouths and arms for the camera, which is poised up high to catch the action. They speak or sing into microphones attached to headbands, following a memorized script. On top of all that, they must constantly glance sideways to watch TV monitors so they can see what the camera sees.

For a character like Kermit, who cannot grasp objects with his hands, Henson moves the arms with thin rods painted to match the background. The many other characters who can hold objects require two performers standing together. One manipulates the mouth and the left arm (and hand) while the other operates the right arm, “It takes twice the work of an actor,” Hunt says, “because you’re trying to communicate everything through a piece of foam rubber.”

“We’re really actors who use puppets,” Nelson adds. “The Muppets have a personality makeup that extends beyond caricature.  I think it goes all the way back to the cavemen, who wore animal heads. It begins as a visual stimulus, but it also goes deeper and touches something basic in man. The Muppets let people indulge in fantasy, but they’re also rooted in real emotions that people can identify with.”

New Muppets are born only after much creative input from designers, writers and performers. When a character is ready, Henson tries to “link the puppeteer with the Muppet, whenever there’s an affinity.” Only after a long period of practice with a mirror and a tape recorder does the fledgling character go public.

Rehearsals are usually relaxed, jovial sessions. “When you’re squashed under a stage all day with two or three other guys, you’d better like each other,” Nelson says.

This genial, creative atmosphere is a reflection of Henson’s quietly offbeat personality. He maintains a firm artistic hand but is singularly unthreatened by others’ talents. His wife – the former Jane Nebel, his original puppeteering partner – says the best insight into his style comes from close observation of his alter ego, Kermit the Frog:

“Kermit is the emotional pivot point for the other Muppets to work around. He sort of watches and enjoys the characters around him, taking them for what they are. Jim does the same for the people around him. The result is that they all have great respect for their characters and lend a general balance to each other,”

Jim and Jane Henson met as art students at the University of Maryland. Henson, who grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., had joined a puppet club during high school. Alter graduation he started building his own creations and, in 1955, toward the end of his freshman year in college, he landed a late-night five-minute TV show of his own on a local station.

Married in 1959, the Hensons kept that show, Sam and Friends, on the air for eight years. Kermit went on The Ed Sullivan Show as a regular for five seasons, and Rowlf the Dog, created for a dog-food commercial, wound up as resident comedian on The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960’s.

“From the beginning we played to an adult audience,” Henson says, so in some ways Sesame Street was a set back. Starting in 1969, it became a tremendous success – but mostly for preschoolers.  Some of the Hensons’ own children (there are five, ranging in age from 7 to 18) helped with their reactions. It wasn’t until The Muppet Show began in 1976 that Henson’s original conception was proved once and for all: the Muppets are for everybody.

Sesame Street is taped in New York while The Muppet Show, produced by Henson and ITC Entertainment, is done in London, “We have a schedule to drive people crazy,” Hunt says, alluding to the additional travel to Hollywood to do The Muppet Movie.

“The feature film has been one of our big goals,” Henson says. “We’ve reversed the format of the TV show. Instead of guests coming to visit from outside, we’ve taken the Muppet characters out into the real world. The story begins with Kermit down South in a swamp. He hitchhikes across the country, and all the friends accumulate.”

Another movie, planned for 1980, would involve all new Muppet creations in the form of “gnomes, wizards, elves and other uglies,” according to Hunt.

Henson says it’s coincidence that all current members of the performing team are male. There have been female performers in the past – notably Louise Gold of London – and he says there undoubtedly will be again. “There are always people on the fringes and working toward joining us,” he adds,

The Hensons live in Bedford, N.Y. Of the others, all of whom are bachelors, Oz and Nelson live separately in Manhattan, Hunt in New Jersey and Goelz in California. They all have outside interests. Oz, for one, has been an Off-Broadway actor and is also a playwright, sculptor, videotape producer and enthusiastic sailor.

One day he was strolling on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near his apartment, when he overheard two men discussing Cookie Monster. “Excuse me,” Oz said, “but I am Cookie Monster.”

“Hey,” said one of the men, “no kidding! He’s great!”

Not you’re great, but he’s great – which pretty well sums up the public identity of a Muppet performer.

The White House Press Corps – A Nixon Photo Op in 1971

I traveled during eight months of 1971 with the White House press corps for a possible book about reporters who cover the president.  When in Washington, D.C., often staying with my brother Bill when he was in law school, I’d arrive at the White House in the morning and go to the press room in the West Wing.  I’d take notes during the day, interviewing reporters when they had time and at lunch or dinner.

There were some wonderful people — off the top of my head, I count among them Helen Thomas of UPI, Robert Semple Jr. of the New York Times, Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, Dan Rather of CBS, Herb Kaplow of ABC, Fay Wells (the pioneer aviator; see photo below) of Storer Broadcasting — these are just a few of the folks who were covering President Richard Nixon at the time.

dan rather ron zeigler

Dan Rather of CBS and White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler (standing, right) in the early 1970's

Ron Zeigler was press secretary; Diane Sawyer was one of his assistants.   Here’s just one little incident that somehow always stands out for me:

One late morning in the press room, when things had been pretty uneventful so far, there was an announcement of a “photo op” in the Cabinet Room.  A couple of reporters got set to go with some photographers, along with Cleve Ryan, who held the light for them.  (He had been doing that job since the FDR days.)  On this occasion I asked to attend the photo op and was told it would be fine.  A few minutes later we were trooping up the hallway past some Secret Service agents into the Cabinet Room, where Nixon was meeting with Republican governors seated around the big table.

press-briefing-room-nixon

President Nixon in the White House Press-Briefing Room - 1971

The reporters and photographers were on one side of the table and Nixon was across the way, looking good with a tan and wearing one of his favorite blue suits.  Cameras started flashing and clicking as the President spoke to the governors — making small talk — and he pointed across to Doug Cornell of the Associated Press, who was seated at the table with his pen and notepad in front of him.

“There’s Doug Cornell of the AP,” Nixon said.  “He’s covered five presidents.”

“Six,” Cornell shot back.

“Six,” Nixon said.  “He started when he was a Boy Scout.”

The governors around the table took their cue from the president and they all laughed.  Then one of Zeigler’s assistants shouted to us that it was over and
Cleve Ryan switched off his big round light.  On our way back down the hallway, I caught up with Cornell.

“Hey, Doug, that was something, hunh?  I mean, how’d it feel to be singled out by the president like that?”

Cornell laughed.  “Oh, God,” he said, “we’ve gone through that routine more times than I can count!  Nixon likes to do it because it loosens him up.  He says ‘five presidents,’ I say ‘six,’ and then he gives the Boy Scout line.  Works every time.”

As we walked back into the press room of the West Wing,  I realized how naive I’d been to assume that the little back-and-forth between Richard Nixon and Doug Cornell had been spontaneous!  A tiny matter, perhaps, but it taught me something nonetheless.

Fay_and_Amelia

Fay Wells (left-center) with Amelia Earhart (right-center)