Life Lessons from My Old Heroes

Boyhood heroes inspired me to find my own singular abilities. I’ve learned to dance well in my own world, while also finding joy in theirs.

When I was in Gatewood Elementary School in Seattle in the early 1950s, my parents and grandparents often praised men and women of action and accomplishment they knew and admired.

I listened carefully. Their stories and their lore was part of my upbringing.

Nearing retirement in 2006 I was pondering my own life, so I decided I’d try to look up some of those old guys and see how they’d turned out. What luck! Some were still alive.

A pleasant nostalgia began to set in. I had idealized these men throughout my boyhood: a cowboy, a race car driver, a hydroplane racer. How would it be to check in with them now? Who were they really? As an adult, what could I learn from them?

Lesson one: People are easy to find. The Internet works.

I first heard about Deb Copenhaver (born 1925 in Creston, Washington) in an argument between my dad and his father about who was the best cowboy of the day. I was in the fourth grade and Deb was World Champion Saddlebronc rider in 1955 and ’56. I met Deb in person when I was 62. “Don’t get me wrong,” he told me that first day. “I loved my time in the sun in my rodeo years, but my life is much richer now.” As my friend now for 10 years, I know he’s right.

Mira Slovak (born 1929 in Cifer, Czechoslovakia) became my dad’s hero in 1953 when he flew his Czechoslovakian Airlines DC-3 to freedom in West Germany. He became my hero when Bill Boeing Jr. hired him to drive the Miss Wahoo unlimited hydroplane in 1956. He was Mr. Boeing’s personal pilot as well. As kids in West Seattle we figured out where his apartment was on Alki Beach. Mira won a number of races in the Wahoo, and went on to win the national championship in Miss Bardahl and the Tahoe Miss. When I reconnected with him in California he was in his 80s—not driving boats in competition but still in demand as a stunt flyer at air shows.

I learned of Hershel McGriff (born 1927 in Bridal Veil, Oregon) from my grandfather Harry. Harry was a passionate sports fan of Northwest men and women, from Al Ulbrickson and the UW rowing crew to Gretchen Fraser (1948 Olympic gold medal in slalom skiing). At 22 Hershel and his co-driver Ray Elliot drove his Oldsmobile Rocket 88 racecar from Portland to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and won the inaugural 1950 Mexican Road Race, beating some of the best drivers in the world. From there he went on to a stellar career in NASCAR, and was still qualifying and racing well in 2012.

Second big lesson: Our lives can continue in fascinating and satisfying forms far beyond our youthful years.

My parents obviously aimed high, like many of our moms and dads do. “If you work hard you can be a world champion, win the big race, etc., etc.”

I bought into it totally. My little boy’s brain believed I could do anything. Slowly through my school and working years I realized that I didn’t have my heroes’ superlative talents. A disappointment? Sure. But those heroes inspired me to find my own singular abilities, and even though I didn’t accomplish what they did, I’ve learned to dance well in my own world, while also finding joy in theirs. (I do love cars, fast boats, and horses.)

Third lesson: The point is not to become someone else, but to find ourselves.

These heroes of mine had jobs where their well-being was constantly in danger. They know reaching old age takes luck and the “grace of God.” They are all glad they made it. None has ever mentioned feeling betrayed or defeated by age. They know age is real and cannot be avoided. They are slow and stiff and have lost––and gained some replacement––body parts, but age has not changed their spirit. They love their past trophies but always have known their fame was temporary and that someone better is out there. Their egos and passion made them relentless competitors, but never have they lost their humility.

All point out that youth is difficult, too, and things can go painfully sideways at any time. Just a few days before his 92nd birthday, Deb fell in the shower and broke two ribs. “At least now I have time to heal and the VA’s paying,” he said. “I broke my sternum in 1957 and it took me out of a run for another world championship.” Mira cringed remembering terrible wrecks in Miss Wahoo, Miss Exide, and Tahoe Miss. (“My best hospital memories are when I was in a coma,” he said.)  Humor helps. These people all knew they were not easy to live with while reaching toward the top, but they cite fulfilling personal relationships gained as they have grown up. They are honest and acutely self-aware.

Although Hershel can still pass the required NASCAR physicals, he says he may go back to school (though he grins and doesn’t rule out a comeback on the track). Always a competitor––his brother has a PhD––he confesses sleeping through high school to work all night and finance his racing. My heroes are still growing and learning.

They have shown me that we have choices, no matter how bleak the outlook. Mira was diagnosed with stomach cancer several years ago. We talked openly about the likelihood it would kill him. He kept working on his airplanes as long as he could while trying to settle his affairs before he died in 2014. Both Mira and Deb (who still plans to breed the best race horse on the planet) have told me “there’s nothing wrong with dying in the middle of a dream.”

My heroes have also shared things that are proven to keep us going.

Travel is one. Deb served in North Africa in WWII, and rodeo took him all over the Americas. Hershel raced in Japan, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. He still has an active fan club in France where he and Bill France took some stock cars to Le Mans in 1976. Mira grew up in free Czechoslovakia until he was 10, then lived under Nazi and Soviet rule. He’s been a multilingual international figure his whole life.

Music is another. Deb can sing with the best and still yodels when he feels good. He sang with Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers at the Madison Square Garden Rodeo Finals in 1952, and won the Saddlebronc title as well. Sometimes he harmonizes with his old friend Bonnie Guitar (Female Country Vocalist of the Year in 1966), who lives down the road in Soap Lake. Hershel is also fond of American country music. Mira loved European classical music. It was always playing in his shop, the perfect soundtrack for a pilot who loved the wide open skies.

My heroes make it a point to stay in touch with true friends.  Again, the Internet and phones work!

Pets and animals are prized. Hershel loves keeping hens who enjoy life in the designer chicken house his wife built. Mira and his wife, Ingrid, had a cute pair of small dogs (named after famous kings) that accompanied them everywhere. Deb has his barn cats, his dogs, and gets teary-eyed over great bucking horses he’s known and prize quarter horses he’s owned.

My heroes practice gratitude. None ever forgets to thank God and those who nurtured and guided them throughout their lives.

All have a strong sense of personal style. Dressing well can make us feel good. Yes, all were celebrities and needed to please their sponsors. But they continue to be aware of their public appearance in their own unique ways. Mira always looked formally dressed; he would never wear jeans, even around his shop and hangar. Deb wouldn’t think of going to the Corner Cafe in Creston without shaving, putting on a newly pressed bandana, and a nice hat. Hershel has perhaps the most “Northwest” look: He’s fond of untucked open flannel shirts over clean white Ts, with jeans and tennies—an early ancestor of “grunge” from the woods of Oregon.

Finally, my heroes taught me to keep moving. Keep walking, riding (get instruction: even Hershel, one of NASCAR’s best drivers, took lessons before riding his lovely Harley), working, thinking, reading. Hershel alternates days between a mountain bike and lifting weights at a local gym. Eat well: Deb weighs the same he did when riding broncs. Mira needed a good heart, eyes, and nerves to fly tricks in his hot-rod Junker biplane.

Take a chance. That’s how my heroes got where they got. Risk a new opportunity, a new project, a new friendship, a new place. I took a chance in looking up my heroes and it sure made my life richer.

Perry Higman was born in Seattle and traveled by car with his parents and grandparents all around the western U.S. He taught Spanish, English, and creative writing at Eastern Washington University and has also worked as a ranch hand and horseshoer. He loves motor racing, rodeo, and the mountains. See a list of his books at highpeaksbooks.com.

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