I don't have a lot of real-world heroes as an adult. There are people whose work I admire, and whose accomplishments I find impressive, but for me a hero is about being as much as doing. The late Steve Irwin and Charlton Heston were heroes; among the living, Bruce Springsteen and George A. Romero currently qualify.
But no one is a hero the way they are when you're a kid. I grew up before the new wave of historical revisionism that provided much needed context for the allegedly "heroic" deeds of our forefathers. Back then, Columbus was a great explorer and Andrew Jackson was a brilliant leader; their genocidal crimes against native populations were considered the cost of doing business and never mentioned. But one of my childhood heroes survived this sea change in how explorers and leaders were judged, and remains one of my heroes both for his accomplishments, and for the kind of man he was: Roy Chapman Andrews. And a recent (2001) book does a great job explaining why.
In Dragon Hunter : Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions, Charles Gallenkamp tells of Andrews' trips into the Gobi Desert of China in 1922-1930, leading expeditions in search of fossils and other scientific information. Among the many significant discoveries were the first confirmed fossilized dinosaur eggs. At the time, it was the equivalent of the moon landing in popular culture, and everyone knew of Andrews and his work:
Half a century later, his desert-traipsing bravado, encyclopedic knowledge and snappy headwear helped inspire one of the great movie heroes, Indiana Jones.
What Dragon Hunter explains, though, is how much real courage and resourcefulness Andrews demonstrated behind the scenes, negotiating with the Chinese government both before and after the encrouchment of Communism. Andrews, a native of Beloit, WI, adored Asia, learned its languages and customs, and had nothing but contempt for both the desert warlords and the later Communist bureaucrats. He saw both as exploiters of China's people and resources. He also compiled one of the first comprehensive studies of the world's whales, functioned as a spy for the U.S. during World War I, was president of the famous Explorers' Club, and found time to write books both for adults and children.
I owned All About Dinosaurs, written in 1953, when I was a child in the early Seventies. Chapman described his Mongolian expeditions in simple, exciting terms, concentrating on the battles with the elements and the discovery of huge numbers of fossils. There were no politics, only the hands-on wonders of exploration. It crystallized my love of dinosaurs, even though at the time its science was already fifteen years out of date. Under its spell, I wrote to Andrews at the Museum of Natural History, and experienced the kind of disappointment only a child can feel when the letter was returned marked DECEASED (Andrews died in 1960).
Andrews was not without flaws; he was, after all, a real person. But he stayed true to his principals until the end of his life, by all accounts tried to always do the right thing, and enjoyed both the respect and envy that only true pioneers can inspire. More importantly, he inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Now that I'm facing middle age in a world where heroes are in shockingly short supply, it's nice to be reminded of someone like Andrews. He did his job, remained a decent human being and, in his own way, changed the world.