Conan the Barbarian by Robert Howard was on my bedside table when I first met my wife 31 years ago. My wife will tell you this with a small shake of her head as if still puzzling out whether she should return to her stylish-and-fun single life or stay with this obviously deluded, mildly insufferable man. Ignoring that she is still debating that issue, I do love a hero.
What am I talking about here? Remember Santiago from “Old Man and the Sea”? Hero. Tarzan? Hero. Anne Frank? Hero. The Firemen at 9/11. Heroes. My recent favorite hero is construction-worker Jason Oglesbee, caught in this Pulitzer Prize photo by Mary Chind for the Des Moines Register, as he and his partner rigged up a rescue of this woman from a sure death by undertow. Hero.
But most heroes are unnamed and unnoticed — tucked away under the brilliant disguise of ordinary life. They are so plain, in the Quaker sense, that we not only fail to notice them, but may even find them a bit lacking. Here’s the typical recipe for one hero-to-go: an ordinary person (usually portrayed as an orphan or step-sister or silent stranger), who faces a tremendous challenge (a dragon is a helpful image), and reluctantly accepts the challenge, not for fame or glory, but because it is required by his or her idea of being a good person. Winning is optional, and losing is even better. That’s it.
I spotted a hero early Saturday morning. He could be found between the Breakfast Burritos stand and the Breakfast Pizza stand at the Downtown Farmer’s Market in Des Moines. That’s him in the Johnny-Cash black:
I’ve known B. John since the mid-80’s. He was one of those young appellate lawyers arguing for clients already convicted of some horrible crime. B. John would claim that the conviction was wrong — generally, a hopeless task. He then moved to trial work in Polk County, where he again represented people accused of crimes — again, winning was rarely in the cards. Finally, he ended up at the Federal Public Defender’s Office, where he faced the same impossible task of arguing that the guilty were not guilty. You get the picture: these are not careers measured by success. During his spare time, he became a writer of legal manuals and a popular speaker on criminal law and procedure to judges, lawyers, and private citizens. Quite a career by any measure. A career marked by a strong belief in the Bill of Rights and fairness. A mother would be proud.
That is not why he’s a hero.
B. John writes and performs music. Alone these days. He has a long musical past that included belonging to several groups — my favorite is a stint with Baby Lester and the Buggybumpers. Before dawn every morning, B. John gets up and writes and practices his music until he has to go to his day job. Every morning. Then, once a week or so he packs his car full of equipment and hits the road. Last Saturday, I stumbled across him at the Des Moines Farmer’s Market.
This is how he looked as I surprisingly discovered him:
People marched past snacking on a pizza or a burrito — and the amazing music B. John sang was lost in the raucous noise of the early morning market crowd. With his large Tupperware container and weighted carny tent, it is possible that the whole shtick is a parody. It’s not.
B. John has songs that will rip at your heart. B. John will beguile you with love, and loss, and the beauty of life. And his raspy vocals will cause you to sip a drink in relief. B. John sings and writes because that’s what he does. Sure, he’s a lawyer; sure, he’s a writer; and sure, he’s a public speaker; but what does he really do? Music. But the public dragon he faces every week is the fiery breath of rejection. Few of us would have the gumption.
He performs at the Greenwood Lounge this Wednesday. When I asked him how that will go, he said: “It is an amazing experience. At one point the crowd will hate me. A few moments later a new crowd will really like my songs.” Really? That’s an amazing experience? This man is a nut . . . and courageous. And, notice the twinkle in his eyes? Most heroes have that.
[B. John Burns performs this Wednesday from 7:30 to 10 at the Greenwood Lounge]. www.bjohnburns.com/