East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Heroes and Old Men


victor-hugo-age-quotes-forty-is-the-old-age-of-youth-fifty-the-youth-of-oldBe warned, this is going to be a bit rambling, as posts go.
Fact is, Jim Cornelius did a post, on his blog Frontier Partisans, about heroes, and our need of heroes as we grow old.

Old, mind you, not older.
George Carlin was right – we grow old, and we better learn to deal with it.

Jim’s post is a worthy read – and it got me thinking.
About heroes, about growing old, and how my heroes have changed through the years, as I grew old. If they changed at all, of course.

Now, when I was a kid, after we had spent our infancy dreaming of being cowboys or astronauts, most of my friends wanted to grow up to be James Bond. I would have rather liked to be Henry Palmer of I.P.C.R.E.S.S..
A little later, my friends decided they’d rather grow up to be Tom Cruise in Top Gun. I wanted to grow up to be Sam Shepard in The Right Stuff.
Or Indiana Jones. I would have settled happily for being Indy, thank you.


And this is interesting, because apart from different individual choices, we all had heroes that were older than us.
Oh, mind you, we all enjoyed Tom Sawyer, or The Three Investigators – we were offered characters and potential role models that were our age.
But quite simply, our most cherished heroes were older than us. We wanted to grow up and be like them.

Or be Buckaroo Banzai. That’s another one I consider a role model.


I am often surprised when some friend now tells me the kids can’t “connect” with older characters, and need stories for teenagers, by teenagers, about teenagers.
I find it weird, sad, and a little worrying.
I don’t really know if growing up with older role models really projected my generation into the future, or whether providing only adolescent role-models to adolescents will somehow hinder their intellectual and their sentimental development.
But I find it worrying.

Back to my heroes, anyway.
After all these years, I’d still have a go at becoming Sam Shepard/Chuck Yeager, or Indiana Jones, actually. Or Buckaroo Banzai. Or Henry Palmer.
And I find myself going back to old movies, and the characters played by Bogart, by Cary Grant, by Spencer Tracy.


But as I grew old, I found out I was much more inspired by real-life heroes than characters in movies or books. Maybe it’s only natural, I don’t know.
And I could still make a strong case for Sam Shepard, as a role model.
And in real life, you see, it’s different – I’m no action man, I’m a scientist and a writer (like it or not), and both categories make for the sort of hero that ages nicely.
Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan did not lose their edge with age.
John D. MacDonald and Harlan Ellison did not carry a ‘best before’ tag.
And talking of John D. MacDonald – what about Travis McGee?
He was always on the shadowed side of forties, and I find myself going back to his books again and again.
And then there’s Fritz Leiber, who is God, and whose characters Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser live, age, and die through his stories.
There’s nothing wrong with that.


I also have my small pantheon of explorers and adventurers – Jacques Cousteau and Sylvia Earle, Thor Heyerdahl, Emilie Hahn and Rosita Forbes, Peter Fleming.
None of them was really bothered by old age – they grew old and kept exploring and adventuring, with a smile on their faces.
I’ll never be like them, just as I’ll never be like Henry Palmer, or Fritz Leiber, or Sam Shepard (on- and off-screen).
But it’s good to have these people as companions on the road.


So yes, we need heroes in our old age – because the world is in love with youth, and would have us old men sit in a corner, stay out of the way, “act our age”, don’t make a fuss, leave the stage to the kids.
And yes, the kids deserve their spaces, and their freedom, because there’s no worse tyranny than a gerontocracy.
But when it comes to sit in my corner, don’t make a fuss and stay out of the way… seriously who’s gonna make me?
I never acted my age a single day in my life.

And you, out there?
Who were and are your heroes?
Did you make it at becoming the Tom Cruise of your Top Gun?

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

9 thoughts on “Heroes and Old Men

  1. Hi, Davide.

    Great post. One very flawed fictional hero is Lawrence Block’s alcoholic PI Matthew Scudder, who ages in real time. The series started in the 70s, when Scudder was in his 30 and ran well into the 00s. Block still occasionally writes about him, but they’re flashback stories now.


    • I love Block (his writing books are wonderful), and I’ve read a few Scudder stories – out of sequence.
      I missed the recent stories – but doing flashbacks does make sense.
      Thanks for reading me – and for reminding me of Scudder!


  2. I had this book when I was little, called “Adventurous life of famous women”, which was full of amazing ladies doing great things, from ancient times to present days, and everyone one of them was insiprational in her own way. I had a soft spot for Amelia Earheart, Agatha Christie, Semiramis, Theodora empress of Bysanthium, Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale and Greta Garbo. As you can see, it was quite a various cast 🙂 I don’t remember ever considering someone my age like a hero, I always looked up to older persons. But now that I’m becoming an adult – it’s a slow process, just like anything in life – I’m starting to look around. I don’t doubt my generation has its own-age heroes, too.
    Anyway, the book had wonderful illustrations by Alessandro Biffignandi, too!


    • Yes, there were books like that when I was a kid, too – famous explorers, famous historical characters…
      Things have changed.
      But I must admit a book featuring Elizabeth I and Greta Garbo sounds like my sort of thing 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Some of us become the heroes, the rest are role models, and the next generation can try to avoid our faults and surpass our success.

    Sometimes I feel the bar is too high.

    Liked by 1 person

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