What Does It Take to Make a Hero?

By JIM NICHOLS

It seems that every year there is a new block-buster superhero movie available. Each one promises, and usually delivers, expanded technologic graphics, noise, and excitement. It is hard to avoid the understanding that being a hero (or heroine—why did we lose that word?) requires events or individuals that are far from ordinary. Do not each of us know regular people who fit the description?

All he had to do was finish the race in his current position; he would get second place, but his university team would, regardless, win the meet. It was not long ago that track and field was an athletic area followed and participated in by many, including me. As a high school runner in the early 1960s, our models for running were those on the nearby University of Kansas track team. Their clear leader was Cliff Cushman, a superior middle-distance and hurdle runner.

Cushman was running the final leg of the mile relay in the conference indoor meet I attended. Meet totals to that point indicated that Kansas would win the meet even if the relay finished second. If you have been to a track meet, you perhaps envision a large quarter mile oval. However, this was an indoor meet with four laps for a quarter mile. The footsteps of the runners on the wooden track echoed as they passed by and little splinters of the track flew up. There were two short straightaways, and the curves were steeply banked so the runners could run quickly continuously.

As the pack ran past me heading into the last curve, Cushman moved to overtake the leader. As he did this, a competitor’s leg struck Cushman’s baton, knocked it to the track, and another runner kicked it rapidly up the banked curve, arcing into the air, and several rows into the audience. Cushman lost the race and Kansas lost the meet. He had won an earlier race that night, but his bold move in this race had been ill-conceived. Or maybe he was just a hero.

Later that year he qualified for the 1960 American Olympic team and won a silver medal (second place) in Rome in the 400-meter hurdles, a race I consider the most difficult of all track events. The next school year he visited our high school and brought the medal; I remember it well. Subsequently, he began training for the 1964 Olympics; he was apparently not satisfied with a silver medal. In the finals of those Olympic trials however, he caught a spike on top of a hurdle and fell to the track; hopes of a gold medal disappeared.

He was not a friend of mine; I simply watched him from a distance and admired his strength, skills, and drive. He graduated from college, and I continued with my life.

Apparently, his father had owned a small private plane and often took his son flying, thus planting a seed in the boy. In ROTC, Cushman had an opportunity to go to flight school and jumped at it. Eventually he arrived at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita to train in the F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber. It was the middle 1960s by now.

Researchers have identified 59 University of Kansas students who died in Vietnam. The average age was 25. The bodies of eight were never recovered, including that of Cliff Cushman. In September 1966 his plane was shot down during a bridge bombing mission. He was initially listed as MIA and in 1975 changed to KIA. In 1992 the Joint Casualty Resolution Center interviewed witnesses there who reported he died of a bullet wound on the ground. His body was buried, and the site was subsequently washed away.

The F-105 was used for precise bombing missions on tight targets. Used heavily during the first years of the war, it was eventually the only American aircraft retired because of high combat loss rates.

It seems to me that Cliff Cushman was a hero.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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