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Roses, Roses all the Way  

by Vardis Fisher

The Idaho Statesman, January 4, 1943


      The press the other day carried a brief announcement of the death of Thomas Neibaur and the name perhaps meant nothing to most of those who read it.  Neibaur, from Sugar City, Idaho, was one of the 87 who won the Congressional Medal in the last war.  He was the only Idahoan who received the highest honor his country could award.  

      When I read of Tom's death my mind went back first to the last time I saw him.  It was early in 1938 and he came into my office in Boise, a dirty and starved and ragged man, and asked for a job.  Because he had had little formal education I could not give him a job on that project but I hiked over to lay his case before Barzilla Clark.  The Governor said he would give Neibaur a job in the statehouse or the highway department -- and so far as I know, he did.  God knows Neibaur needed it; he had a family and he was starving.  

      And then memory went back across a quarter of a century to that day of pomp and glory when Tom Neibaur came back from the war.  Of all names in Idaho, his was on most tongues that day.  His was the hand that everybody wanted to shake; he was the man to whom everybody wanted to give a job.  I've no notion how many hands and flags and orators turned out; but I believe the Governor and other state dignitaries were here, as well as all the windjammers from eastern Idaho.  It was roses, roses all the day under the feet of Tom Neibaur; it was rhetoric with a vengeance from the rostrum; it was sweet flattery and handshaking and a banquet and more speeches.  

Soon Forgotten

      Robert Browning has a bitter poem to such a hero.  "It was roses, roses all the way, and myrtle mixed in my path like mad" -- but a year later it was oblivion.  A year later nobody remembered the hero whose name had been on every tongue that day.  He was as forgotten as the last year's flowers and nobody cared.  But for the Browning hero and for Neibaur life had only begun and it was to be a bitter and empty life.  

      Flattery turns the heads of the best of us.  Of Neibaur's life after that day of roses, the less said the better; but whatever his life was, the fault was not his.  When he went to war he was only a simple lad from a village -- a lad, as it turned out, of most uncommon physical courage.  He did his job well.  He fought for his country and he fought so well that he won its highest honor and the loud and empty acclaim of his own state.  Then, as if he had been only a fad, he was dismissed and forgotten and the other day he died while still young.  

      Neibaur's life from the day he came back until the day he died is a parable of ironic and blistering commentary on human nature.  Here was a man who fought bravely and was sacrificed for it.  He was sacrificed to the insincere and vulgar egoism of his fellows -- to the blatant rhetoricians who shouted his name on that long-ago day.  Because, don't you see, they were not really interested in Neibaur; they were interested in the pretext he gave them to get up and shout windy nothingness, and strut their little part on a day of glory that was not their own.  Perhaps they did not realize that all the fuss they were making would almost wreck a hero's life.  If they had realized it, perhaps they would not have cared.  

Victim of Egotists

      It has been this way with heroes since the first one, and it is so still.  It is especially this way in this land of romantic and sentimental people.  A hero is little more than an excuse for a lot of extroverted vulgarians to exhibit themselves -- including, to be sure, all the politicians who make of it a field day.  When Lindbergh came back from Paris, hundreds of thousands fought not to do him homage but to be seen at his side.  A careful study of photographs of those mad throngs is enough to turn your stomach.  Lindbergh was there, a shy and bewildered and unhappy person; but it is not Lindbergh who captures and holds your attention.  It is the triumphant and grinning faces of egoists who jumped into the limelight and fancied themselves as the heroes of the parade.

      Of such shallow and vicarious exhibitionism this nation has made a major industry with the Hollywood crowd as its chief stooges.  Fetch one of those mediocrities to an American city and those with neither taste nor dignity nor perspective on themselves stampede to the stage of action and fight for the emptiness of a vicarious thrill.  If you can't achieve in your own right, then try to shine in the light of somebody else -- and the more artificial the light, the better a lot of Americans like it.

      Forgotten heroes of the last war seem to have taught us nothing.  We seem, indeed, to have descended to a more vulgar level.  It is true, of course, in time of war that we need vivid consciousness of those things that sustain morale; but it does not follow that we need to seize heroes from the firing line and rush them back here and parade them like monkeys up and down the country.  Yet that is what we have been doing, and it has reached such excesses of vulgarity that some of the heroes have rebelled in disgust.  They have asked to get out of the cheap parade and go back to the front.  

      In any vulgarity there is worth.  There is vitality and zest behind the histrionic empty gestures; there is childlike naivete that may be good.  But it would seem that in this country we have rather too much of it -- too much that is unconsciously brutal and that sometimes destroys the very persons it applauds.  Lindbergh did not flee to England for vain and idle reasons.  He fled from a nationwide epidemic of bad taste.  Genuine heroes are nearly always shy persons who don't like the spotlight and all the infernal hullabaloo.  If we admire them and are proud of them, then we ought to try to be decent to them.  We can show our gratitude in better ways than with bands and flags and rhetorical windbags.  

Hero Overlooked

      When Idaho's school kids were asked to suggest a name for a new battleship, perhaps not one of them thought of Neibaur.  Very possibly not a one of them had ever heard of him.  The only honor, so far as I know, that this state has ever awarded to Neibaur is that frenzied orgy of bands and ranting when he returned.  On that day he could have had practically anything in the power of Idaho to give; but when we sought the name for a new cruiser, the state's great hero of World War I lay forgotten and dying, and his children were far away from him in a pauper's home.

                Well, Tom, rest in peace.  It is our shame and not yours.  It is our shame that your native state turned the head of a boy with empty flattery and then completely forgot him.  You once fought heroically to save the world for democracy; the lights will go on again but for you.  Your light will shine brightly sometime in the future when a history of this state is written that will sift the worthy from the worthless and place the headstones where they belong.

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