Hero

Jack Mandelbaum always managed to surprise me.

Every time I told Jack’s story, I would check online to see if we’d lost him. Every time, he’d still be there. Into his 80s, into his 90s, a living memory and a living victory.

Last week, I checked again. Not this time. A few months ago, he had quietly left at the age of 96. An accomplishment for anyone. A statement for him.

You see, Jack was 15 when he went into a Nazi concentration camp.

I met him in 2004 when a book based on his life, “Surviving Hitler,” won the William Allen White Children’s Book Award in Kansas. He appeared in front of the schoolchildren as he’d appeared in front of so many, talking about the “game” he’d played as a teenager – one where the object was to outlast his captors. Each new day claimed another victory.

He won. Again and again. In the camp and beyond it, keeping the memory alive so that the reality would stay dead.

And again and again, the victory cost him.

Every time he spoke, he told me, he would have nightmares afterward. The memories came back to life in his dreams, bringing the horror with them. But he kept on, talking to children, to adults, to anyone who would hear. He had to. Even decades later, he still would not let the evil win.

In short, he was a hero. One with no weapons but the truth, no armor but his own stubbornness. But a hero nonetheless.

Hollywood has given us some pretty wild ideas of what being a hero means – usually punctuated with fiery explosions and a billion-dollar special effects budget – but every so often, a little bit of the truth shines through. Superhero fans like me like to point to a moment in “The Avengers” where the villainous Loki demands that a German crowd kneel to him … and one elderly man refuses.

“No. Not to men like you.”

“There are no men like me,” Loki responds with a smirk.

“There are always men like you.”

No superpowers. No dazzling gadgets. And every Marvel fan will agree that he was the biggest hero in the film.

That’s the kind of hero Jack was.

That’s the kind of hero any of us can be if we’re willing to see evil clearly. Stand firm in the face of it. And keep empowering others to do the same, whatever the cost to ourselves.

No one should have to endure what Jack did. But you don’t have to survive his experience to learn his lessons. That’s why he kept teaching them.

He’s still teaching them now.

And as we in turn teach and heal and strengthen and stand, we help win yet another round of Jack’s game.  

Did I say Jack left? I should know better. The great survivor is still surviving. This time in a way that no camp can touch. The difference he made lives on.

And frankly, that’s not surprising at all.

Behind the Spotlight

Only in Hollywood can someone be set on fire, charge through a major explosion, and fall 50 feet – and be completely invisible.

It’s Oscar season again. Which means that once again, we’re starting to hear folks make the case for the great missing piece of the Academy Awards. And I don’t mean the absent Best Director award for “Little Women,” or the lack of attention to “Rocketman,” or the alarm clock to wake up the audience after five and a half hours when it’s finally time to announce Best Picture.

No, this is an area where the film industry has long been stunted. Literally.

Hollywood has a complicated relationship with its stunt men and women. In an age where action movies of all sorts rule the box office, a good stunt performer is more necessary than ever, even in these days of computer-generated effects. But at the same time, the audience also needs to forget that they’re there. A too-obvious double for the actor is like a boom mic suddenly dropping into the frame – a bit of reality that suddenly takes you out of the story.

And so, the athletes and daredevils of the film world mostly work in obscurity. The only time a studio calls attention to the stunt work is when it wants to underline that an actor or actress “did their own stunts” in order to emphasize how incredible the film is … and even then, it’s likely there was a little quiet help behind the scenes.

No worries, right? After all, the audience also isn’t supposed to think about the cinematographer, the sound editor, or a dozen other specialists and teams who helped build the magical tale before their eyes – except that each of those get called out and honored, however briefly.

Stunt actors appear everywhere. They make the story work. And if you don’t know to look for them, you’d never realize how much they mean.

We all know people like that, don’t we?

This last week, my friends and I at the Longmont Theatre Company lost one of those “vital invisibles.” Mind you, Tracy Cravens wasn’t a stunt woman. In fact, she would have laughed her head off at the mere suggestion of it, likely with a joke about catapulting out of the way of the set-building crew.

But from the background, Tracy made sure that the show would go on.

Tracy, who served on the LTC board, was frequently the producer of our shows. In Hollywood, producers are big deals with bigger headlines. In community theater, producers are usually one line in the program and the smiling person you met for 15 seconds in the lobby. They’re also the hubs that keep the wheels spinning so that there can be a show, the masters of logistics who make sure that everything turns up in the right place at the right time. And that often includes tirelessly promoting the show, so that the audience turns up as well to see the wonders that have been created.

Tracy did that. With humor. With energy. With occasional head-shakes of exasperation. And always, with success.

To its credit, LTC recognized her phenomenal efforts before she left us way too early at the age of 53. A while back, she was given the Brooks Hall Award, the annual honor given to the people who have gone above and beyond for the theatre company. She was clearly startled – and just as clearly honored.

That sort of recognition is important. For all the vital invisibles out there.

Take a moment. Remember your own. Think about the folks who get the work without the glory, and make it all happen. The ones who hold everything together. The ones who suddenly get missed when they’re gone.

Take the time to thank them. And if you ARE them, thank you. You’re the ones who make all of us better.

And that’s a pretty amazing stunt.

Double-0 My!

As the first flakes of Longmont’s snow season crept to the ground, Leroy Brown stood ready for action.

That may sound a little incongruous for Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, the ace child detective of Idaville (as opposed to Jim Croce’s ill-fated gambler). But for our new-ish brown Hyundai of the same name, its moment had clearly arrived. The heater roared. The engine hummed. And the newly-attached license plate declared its tough-guy status to the world.

Or at least, the last three digits of said license plate.

Leroy Brown was now agent 009.

As you might imagine, the prospect of our car now being part of the British Secret Service has inspired much hilarity from friends and family, especially when we all considered whether the Q Branch Option Package might be installed. (For the record, there’s no smoke screen and no oil slick, which probably wouldn’t pass emissions tests in Colorado, anyway.) But among the shared laughter, one friend introduced a note of reality – well, cinematic reality, anyway.

“As I recall, 009 suffers an unenviable fate in the Bond canon …”

Hmm.

For those who aren’t deeply familiar with the series, the James Bond movies do have an agent 009. A few, in fact, but the one who gets the most screen time appears in the opening minutes of “Octopussy,” fleeing an East Berlin circus in a clown suit while chased by a pair of knife-throwing twins. (You kind of had to be there.) Fighting back hard against his pursuers, he’s mortally wounded and knocked into a river … but still survives long enough to stagger to the British Embassy and deliver, with his dying breath, the Faberge’ egg that kicks off the rest of the plot.

So, OK, you could argue that it’s an ill-omened number.  But I liked it better than ever.

This was a double-0 agent to identify with.

Everyone knows James Bond, agent 007, the handsome expert on a dozen plot-relevant subjects, who makes the ladies swoon and always has the right gadget to get out of a tough situation. Bond walks through life with expensive clothes, expensive cars, and a plot armor that guarantees he’ll always come out on top in the end, even if many of his lovers and associates aren’t so lucky.

That’s not most of us.

Most of us, I suspect, are a little closer to 009. Struggling against situations that we’re not really prepared for. Having to constantly keep moving to keep from being overwhelmed. Fearing that one mistake or bit of bad luck will bring everything crashing down. Maybe even feeling a little ridiculous while doing it.

And yet, still doing what we need to do, with everything we’ve got in us.

That, too, is a hero. Much more of one than Commander Bond, in fact.

And it’s a heroism we see every day.

Maybe it’s holding a life together in the face of physical or mental challenges … or a family together with finances and nerves strained to the limit … or facing the world while the heart quietly screams for someone who’s been lost. It may be any of a million other situations – the details are personal, individual, private.

But the strength shown is one that speaks to us all.

So Leroy Brown, agent 009? Absolutely. In fact, it’s an honor, one that I’m happy to carry on behalf of all the 009s out there.

It’s a bond. Universal bond.

A Ring of Support

Among the usual headlines for the week – foreign trips, political accusations, football uniforms that looked like bad Nintendo graphics from the 1990s – a story slipped in that caused an earthquake in the geek world.

Christopher Tolkien has retired.

Normally, a retiring 93-year-old might not draw much attention, aside from admiration for staying on the job so long. But in Christopher’s case, “the job” involved heading up the Tolkien Estate. For over four decades, the son of J.R.R. Tolkien has been the principal guardian of his father’s literary legacy, holding the rights as closely as dragon-gold and weighing on the worthiness of those who would adapt Middle-Earth to their own purposes. Inevitably, he was also his father’s foremost literary scholar, publishing reams of information about how the world of Elves and Hobbits and Rings of Power came to be, along with works by Tolkien that had never seen the light of day.

In The Hobbit, when the dragon’s treasure becomes unguarded, armies come racing to claim it as their own. Much the same has been happening in the real world, but with less chainmail and more contracts. There are already reports that the Tolkien Estate is working with Amazon on a Middle-Earth-based television series, and a lot of speculation about whether this means a new era for the classic tales or the final downfall of the West.

But for me, the real story is both smaller and greater.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fun to play the guessing game of what a new adaptation will look like and who might be involved. (“Morgan Freeman leads an unlikely band of heroes to death and glory in … A Game of Rings.”) But lost in all of this has been Christopher Tolkien himself, and the role he has played for so long.

A role that I think many of us could empathize with.

Most of us are never going to write a bestselling novel. (Though I do hold out hope.) Nearly all of us will go through life without having won a Nobel prize, or led a nation, or opened the new smash hit of the Broadway season. That’s no judgment on anyone’s skills or talents, just a simple fact of life in a world of more than 7 billion people.

But all of us touch someone’s life. All of us have the chance to take who we are and use it for someone else. A friend. A relative. A chance-met passenger on the bus. Whether for moments or a lifetime, we join our story to theirs. And the tale is forever changed.

in The Lord of the Rings, it’s Sam Gamgee carrying Frodo on his back when his friend can’t take another step … unheralded strength that means more to the world than all the armies preparing to clash miles away.

In the real world, it’s been Christopher Tolkien putting his shoulder to his famous father’s epic for decade after decade, illuminating and enhancing it for millions with maps and histories and tales not told – tales that included The Silmarillion, his father’s lifework of Middle-Earth mythology that was never completed in his lifetime.

For all of us, it’s that someone or something that truly matters. Enough to earn our help, our sweat, our outstretched hand. Not for spotlights or applause, but because it needs to be done and we care enough to do it.

We don’t have to be epic heroes. We just have to be willing to see where we’re needed and take the step. Because enough steps, from enough stories, can scale even Mount Doom.

All it takes is a willing heart. And that’s worth more than all the dragon gold ever forged.

Even with the television rights thrown in.