Awhile ago, I republished here a column I'd written in 1994 about barbershops and, specifically, about Bob Noody, who used to cut my hair, drive my school bus and usher in my church, and who, it turned out, had also been a member of the 101st Airborne and had dropped into Normandy on D-Day. That's him on June 5, 1944, looking at the camera over the pile of gear he was about to jump with.
I mentioned in the piece that he hadn't planned to go back for the 50th anniversary D-Day reunion, but just got a comment on the blog from his niece that he has gone back since, a couple of times, and is worth Googling. And, indeed, a search for him gets a lot of hits, including this one and this one. In both cases, once you get to the page, you need to scroll down a bit. It's worth it.
Turns out this kind, gentle man who helped me understand the world did a lot more than parachute into Normandy and get wounded. Reading about his record is kind of jaw-dropping, in fact, because he not only was in the thick of things, but he kept going back for more. And learning about what he did reinforces the lesson I originally took away from him: It's not a simple as "some people talk and some people do," but it certainly is that there are people who do great things without letting that moment forever define them.
It reminds me of the time I tracked down Cpl. Rupert Trimingham, the black GI who wrote to Yank magazine during the war about being forced to go to the backdoor of a Jim Crow cafe at a Texas train station while German POWs ate at the counter.
By the time I found him, he was gone, but I spoke with his daughter, who said she had never read the letter and didn't know much about it, just that they used to say he wrote a letter that got published. Yes, and provoked a storm of hundreds of angry letters from black and white GIs around the world who were infuriated with the treatment he and his buddies had received while wearing the uniform of their country, and was turned into a radio program on Mercury Theater and was the basis of a short story in the New Yorker and has been stolen several times since for every story of black GIs in World War II. It was transformative, but he never thought to talk about it, apparently.
There are heroes among us whom we do not know. But here's the real lesson: I already knew that Bob was a good guy, and I'm always happy to see him. I'm hoping to go back to Star Lake for a weekend this summer, and I hope I see him then. And I'd feel that way about him without knowing he'd ever served in the army at all. But I do think that what he did under the circumstances in which he found himself was reflective of the things in his personality and character that make me like him so much.
There are probably people in Detroit who knew Rupert Trimingham and liked him, too, without ever knowing that he wrote that letter. Good people do good things, and the example they set is in their character, not in their deeds.