Monumental Courage

What is it that defines courage, who possesses it, and how should it be memorialized? In recent years we have seen a spate of secular iconoclasm as various monuments to historical figures across the country have been defaced, torn down and demolished. Initially the excuse given by and for the vandals was that the monuments in question had been raised to men who engaged in rebellion against the United States and supported slavery, and thus they should never have been memorialized to begin with. As the destruction was allowed to proceed unchecked by legal authorities, however, soon monuments to the founding fathers of the U.S. were targeted, ostensibly due to owning slaves. Still finding no opposition to their destruction, the mob moved on like unruly young children seeking their parents’ boundaries. Monuments to Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, which had been commissioned and paid for by freed slaves were targeted, with little coherent justification. Finally the destructive mass defaced the monument to the Massachusetts 54th, a unit comprised of black men who fought for the Union cause and against slavery in the Civil War. At this point the mob no longer offered any justification; nihilism was its own reward.

Yet as we have, as a nation, allowed this reckless and wretched refuse to abuse the memorials to our forefathers, we see few if any new monuments being erected. Oh, there are a few, and they are beyond odious, and we will speak of them shortly. But now I would ask you to consider with me what should be memorialized, and how, and why.

Some of you may know of a vaunted Marine who served in the Viet Nam war by the name of Carlos Hathcock. Insofar as I know, there is no public monument to Gunnery Sgt. Hathcock, even in his home state. But even this is not exactly what I want to talk about. For some men, even if their country does not honor them, pass on honor in unexpected ways.

Gunnery Sgt. Hathcock passed away in 1999, yet his legacy helped save the life of a three year old little boy 15 years later. It’s a story that needs to be told, for it helps focus the mind on what makes a man, and what he can pass on to others.

While many of you probably know of Carlos Hathcock, probably few if any know of Billy Jack Hathcock, his younger brother. From a young age Billy Jack looked up in admiration to his older brother, who in turn doted on his younger sibling.

Carlos and Billy Jack Hathcock, 9 January 1962
Carlos Hathcock in Marine Uniform with younger brother Billy Jack

Billy Jack is not famous like his older brother, he has spent most of his life in relative obscurity. He worked for years on the maintenance crew for the Little Rock (Arkansas) Zoo where the Hathcock’s family home was. If you came to the zoo, and happened to come across Billy Jack, and knew who he was and who his brother was, you could always ask him to tell stories about his famous older brother, and he was always delighted to oblige with tales from their childhood. He would tell how Carlos practiced his marksmanship by having him place a pebble in a matchbox and then flinging it into the air, at which point Carlos would plug it dead center with one shot from an open sight .22 rifle. Billy Jack would vow and declare Carlos would never miss, and it would probably have been unwise to question his memory on the matter. Likewise he would tell how when the family was short of food Carlos would hunt quail, shooting them on the wing, still with a .22 rife with iron sights, and without fail every shot brought in meat for the family. There were other stories as well, too numerous for these pages, and it was obvious that Billy Jack felt something like reverence for his older brother.

On October 9, 2014 a family was visiting the zoo with children in tow, including a three-year old boy. The family made their way around the zoo to the big cat display, which includes a raised platform where visitors can look down on three separate enclosures: One for lions, one for tigers, and one for jaguars. If you were to visit the Little Rock Zoo today you would find raised fencing preventing unwary or careless patrons from leaning over the enclosure, but on this day that fencing had not yet been installed. The official story from Zoo officials is that the grandfather of the family was holding the young boy up and out to see the jaguars, while the family insists the boy must have climbed up and slipped on his own. Either way the family outing took a turn towards horror as a three year old little boy fell sixteen feet into the enclosure with two full grown jaguars.

The father, who was a Maumelle police officer, proved every bit as useful in the situation as would be expected from a Uvalde cop. The family screamed and yelled, threw a garden hose and a camera case into the pen, and generally did nothing whatsoever useful. The closest keeper, a lady of the initial K., ran to see what was happening. K. was a veteran keeper of over twenty years experience; she had spent virtually her entire adult life working in the zoo, and was known for her calm and cool demeanor even in a dangerous situation. That morning across the zoo staff members heard something they had never heard before; K.’s voice came over the radio tinged with panic. “There is a human child in the jaguar pit!” she screamed, and then “He’s being bitten!”

The female jaguar had indeed bitten the child with what zoologists would call an “exploratory” bite, and though he was injured the wound was not fatal. Yet after being initially scared back by debris thrown by the family, she grew bolder and returned to finish her attack on the child. Across the zoo the radios were blaring for the rifle team, who were already rushing to get into action; unfortunately the rifles were stored on the opposite side of the zoo and there was simply no way they were going to get there in time.

At that point a somewhat grizzled looking older maintenance man walked up, threw a ladder over the side of the enclosure, and with an agility that belied his years scaled down into the pit with the jaguars and the boy. The big cats were startled by his appearance, and against all odds backed away. A pair of keepers then ran out as well, spraying fire hydrants to distract and frighten the big cats, while the old man, cradling the boy in one arm, mounted the ladder and climbed to safety. The child was badly injured, but survived, eventually to make a full recovery.

Billy Jack Hathcock had in many ways lived a life in the shadow of his older brother, but in the day he was called on, his courage was not found wanting. In his love and admiration for his brother’s courage he learned a profound lesson, and when no one else could or would step up, he did so. No one expected a grey-bearded old man working maintenance for low wages to be a hero. Everyone expected a man who wore a badge and a gun and saw his own child being attacked to act as a hero. I have no idea how that Maumelle cop was raised, or what went wrong between his ears, but I know he will never come close to measuring up to that grizzled old man riding around on a cart full of hand tools.

Carlos Hathcock has no public memorial in our country today, and that is to our shame, not his. But his brother carried in his heart a memorial to his courage by emulating it, and this is fitting, for there is no greater memorial we can build to a courageous man than to strive to be like him. And while we see monuments torn down in our country by evil forces, it is good that we have men not only like Carlos Hathcock, but also like Billy Jack.

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4 responses to “Monumental Courage

  1. professorGBFMtm

    ‘In recent years we have seen a spate of secular iconoclasm as various monuments to historical figures across the country have been defaced, torn down and demolished. ‘
    I much perfer religious&eccentric iconoclasm myself.
    You have seen things like this also I hope?
    ”Statues and busts of historical figures who OPPOSED slavery now face being removed in England and Scotland because such men “might now be called racist” anyway.

    Yes, really.”
    I hav’nt asked our old friend SPAWNY about that before.

  2. Great story.

    Way better than any modern Marvel or Star Trek crap

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