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Of Bill Gates, Casey Jones, and the Search for Heroes

by Theodore Kornweibel on Apr 29, 2000


            One hundred years ago, early in the morning on April 30, 1900, an
   American hero emerged from the wreckage of a passenger train in Vaughan,
   Miss. A newspaper account the next day declared: "A Heroic Engineer Sticks
       to his Post at Cost of Life. Terrible Fatality Prevented by Engineer's
       Loyalty to Duty." In fact, the tragedy was of the engineer's making, caused
       by his own arrogant risk-taking. But the legend of Casey Jones, soon to be
       immortalized in a Tin Pan Alley ballad, neglected such facts, just as our
       contemporary heroes are reconstructed out of appealing bits and pieces, but
       not the whole cloth.

            A hundred years later, letters to the editor commenting on the
       anti-trust suit against Microsoft suggest that Bill Gates is the hero of
       the hour. Just as Casey Jones' contemporaries would rather lionize than
       vilify him, even had they known of his penchant for recklessness, so is
       Gates admired as a bold individualist who brought benefit to millions by
       helping make the Internet accessible to the masses. Maybe he cut corners in
       cutting out the competition. That can be forgiven or forgotten, just as was
       Casey's appetite for speed.

            Americans have never required that their heroes be saints, only
       that their deeds represent collective values. In the case of both Gates and
       Jones, that trait is daring individualism. The Brave Engineer was a bold
       and, at times, heedless engine driver. Both his and the Illinois Central
       Railroad's reputation rode on keeping their passenger trains on time.
       The New Orleans Special was 95 minutes late when it left Memphis
       that fateful day, but if anyone could make up that time it was Casey, known
       for bending rules and gunning trains faster than they should go. But he
       pushed his luck too far. Rounding a blind curve at 70 miles per hour just
       north of a siding where he knew several other trains were waiting for him
       to pass, Casey plowed into a standing freight train. Seconds before the
       impact Sim Webb, his black fireman, shouted a warning: "Mr. Casey! We're
       gonna hit something!" "You jump, Sim; I'll stay!" Webb: "You jump, too!"
       Casey: "No. I'll stay at my post!"

            Such a stalwart soul begged for canonization at a time when young
       boys aspired to be engineers and the public thirsted for heroic train-wreck
       songs. Could a Casey become a hero today? Heroes have a harder time being
       recognized today when we distrust personal motives and show more
       fascination for those with feet of clay. We hunger instead for celebrities,
       whose private lives can be dissected in minute detail. Scandal titillates
       us and elevates scandalous lives to public celebration.

            Casey's culpability in his mortal train wreck was obscured not just
       because there were no tabloids to pursue him into the grave, but because
       his contemporaries prized daring and courage, not self-aggrandizement or
       hedonism. For us, though, it is the lifestyles of the rich that make them
       famous. Americans of middle age still believe in valiant heroes from the
       Casey Jones mold, figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks,
       Edmund Hillary or the first astronauts. The World War II generation honored
       the Audie Murphys and George Pattons because of their courage and sacrifice
       during a perilous conflict.

            Today's teenagers either have no heroes, or those they name are
       sports or entertainment celebrities manufactured for them by the media –
       stars who are admired for instant wealth or instant recognition, slam dunks
       or gangsta raps, Oscar or Grammy winners, none of whom is heroic.
       Few university students have heard of Casey Jones, but just as
       young men a century ago aspired to follow his hazardous yet noble
       profession, students today hope to emulate Bill Gates in the high risk,
       high tech world (and, unlike Casey, pull in a 60K salary fresh out of
       college). There was also a bit of the outlaw in Casey, who was determined
       to make up lost time, regulations be damned. While a court has ruled that
       Microsoft restrained competition, those who distrust government see Gates
       as Robin Hood and the Justice Department as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
       Who else, if not Bill Gates, might become our age's Casey Jones?

            Politicians are out; even the most upright emerge with their dignity barely
       intact. Sports fans are disgusted (read letters to the editor) with
       over-paid, under-performing prima donnas in every sport, including what
       some columnists have labeled the National Felons League. Some we rank as
       celebrities are merely famous for being famous. We probably do have some
       home-grown Mother Teresas, but if they don't have publicity agents and
       press packages, they just aren't that interesting. MTV rules!

Theodore Kornweibel is a professor of African American history at San Diego State University. His most recent book is "Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925."