Not all of the superheroes wear capes and masks.
I know. Because I’ve watched them when they show up at cemeteries on Memorial Day, standing over top of the graves of old friends.
Some of them have gray hair. And dentures.
They are wearing polyester pants, button-up white shirts and navy-blue hats, trimmed in gold. They are grandpas, and retired farmers, and members of the church choir.
These are the real heroes, and they wear courage. You can take the man out of the uniform, but you can’t take the uniform out of the man. It’s a part of who he is, I tell you.
They also wear pride.
Not the kind of pride that makes your stomach churn, but the kind that makes you want to put your hand over your heart. Or bow your head in thanks. Because you know that you wouldn’t be able to call this the Land of the Free, if this weren’t also known as the Home of The Brave. You can’t have the one without the other.
Some of the superheroes still wear their camoflauge. At night, they stretch out on their backs, looking up at the twinkling sky and missing the way it feels to hold their wife, or their babies. They pray that they’ll get to do that again someday, Lord-willing. They know that some of the heroes don’t get that chance. They may be superheroes, but they don’t have superpowers.
They are, after all, mere men.
Yes, some of the superheroes wear skirts. And Maybelline. And from time to time, they’ve worn the scorn of people who have wagged fingers at them, saying they ought to stay home, instead of gallivanting around the globe.
They served anyway.
For most superheroes, their uniforms have long since been relegated to the backs of closets.
This is what they wear:
Pressed pants on Sunday mornings. Oil-stained hands. Levi jeans at the factory. Some wear prosthetic limbs. Some wear the marks of war … horrific memories that they couldn’t discard in foxholes or on desert fields.
For them, and for all soldiers, there’s nothing quite like these six words — “thank you for serving our country” — to show deep appreciation for their sacrifice.
I remember what one hero wore. His name was Paul Lee.
I remember his red Christmas sweater. And his work boots by the back door at the farm. I remember how he wore a cap most days, but he combed down his hair on Sunday mornings. I remember how he’d sit cross-legged for tea parties with my girls, his granddaughters.
The real superheroes aren’t afraid of being small. They aren’t too proud to wear the princess crowns that little girls put on top of their heads.
The last days, that superhero wore a hospital gown. The leukemia came on strong, and the folks at the VA confirmed that he was one of the old soldiers who — 40 years later — were getting sick from Agent Orange.
I remember how that nurse in the hospice house leaned over his bed on his last day on Earth, and said those words to him: “If I don’t see you tomorrow, Paul, I just want you to know how much I appreciate your service to our country.”
Like most soldiers, he didn’t go down with a fight. But on a January morning, they draped an American flag over his casket. We walked out of the back of the church behind the pallbearers. And some of those guys with the white button up-shirts and navy-blue hats were there, too.
Paul Lee’s tour of duty had ended. And they came to help all of us give proper thanks. They folded up the flag into a triangle and handed it to his wife.
We’ll head to his grave this morning, remembering who Paul was, and what he believed in, and Who he believed in. We’ll go as a family, with Paul’s wife, Joyce, and their two sons, Scott and Mark. (Mark and his family came down from the Twin Cities this weekend.)
All weekend long, little Chase Lee, age 3, has been zooming around the Lee farm with a silky blue cape and mask. Chase never got the chance to know his grandpa, who would have gotten a kick out of this small child who wants to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
I do wonder, now, if Chase Lee knows that he’s the grandson of a superhero.