Friday, February 26, 2010

The fine line between hero and goat

Heroes have been frequent subjects in my writings. Today, I'd like to hang a "U" turn.

Let's talk about "goats." 

I would define a goat as someone who commits an act, intentional or otherwise, which profoundly affects that person's reputation, whether fair or unfair, for the remainder of their lives.

First, let's back up a bit. I've got a rather strange, pathological habit, which I inherited from my mom, of reading the obituaries, probably three days a week. I find it interesting to learn about ordinary folks like myself—how many kids they've left behind, what they did during their lives, what their interests were.

This morning, I came across an article in the New York Times about a man named Kermit Tyler, who recently passed away at the age of 96. Mr. Tyler rendezvoused with fate on the morning of December 7, 1941, as he served as the senior army officer on duty for the aircraft tracking center at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Two privates watching the radar screen reported picking up a large group of approaching planes and informed Lieutenant Tyler. Tyler, who was performing his duties for only the second day at the tracking center,  possessed little knowledge of radar and mistook the large blip for a squadron of American B-17s. He famously advised them, "Don't worry about it."

This large swarm of aircraft was actually the first wave of Japanese bombers and fighters, on their way to wreak havoc on the American naval base and subsequently plunging the United States into World War II.

Many factors contributed to the lapse in America's defenses that day, but Lieutenant Tyler's name emerged as synonymous with our country's historical unpreparedness, and although he continued on to an illustrious and decorated career in the Air Force, he was forever haunted by this singular event.

How unfair I thought, that history judges people so harshly. So many more examples came to mind after reading this piece, of others who received the "goat" brand, none with the severity of Mr. Tyler, but all highly stigmatized nonetheless:

-There are the politicians. Who can forget Howard Dean, the guy who watched his front runner status as the Democratic presidential candidate fly out the window on the tails of a crazed-cowboy, testosterone-laden, screaming frenzy? Or John Edwards and Gary Hart, who self-administered their own goat horns and blew their presidential aspirations due to their colossal, libido-governing deficiencies?

-There are the sports figures. Just name a major league baseball star who played during the 1990s, and I'll show you a goat who looks more like a centaur from all of the human growth hormone injections. How about the Dutch speedskating coach, whose ill-fated advice cost his protégé both an Olympic gold medal and a world record?

And then there's Bill Buckner.

Here's the thing—we've all been goats and we'll probably be them again. What I wouldn't give to go back in time and not ask the woman at my wife's work Christmas party, "So when are you due?"
She wasn't pregnant.

The difference is that most of us can wallow in relative obscurity over our gaffes, while a select few are forever judged in the worldwide court of public opinion. Some deserve it, some don't, but either way, the burden's got to be heavy.

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