My First Hero

Way back in the 70s, my parents moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, as leaders of the Salvation Army’s training college for cadets. Because life for a 4–year–old on his own can be tough, I decided to go with them!

I don’t remember how long we lived there before I met my first sporting nemesis. He was a tall, loud man who wore a beard like a South American revolutionary and three sergeant stripes on his uniform sleeve. I believe those were either an early sign of his leadership or his showing a sense of style. His skin was darker than that of most people I had met up to this point, and he apparently loved to laugh—a lot and loudly.

After a few weeks, he challenged me to a game of soccer. Now, by the time I was 5, I was pretty good—I could dribble from my mouth and with my feet! And I was fiercely competitive.

A soccer challenge against an old man on my home field? I’m in! The rules were set; the goal he defended was the full side of a pale green prefab building while mine was two shoes spaced two feet apart. The first to 10 goals would win two rand in South African currency. To be clear, I didn’t have two rand and had never seen that much money in my life. I figured I would deal with that problem if I lost.

The game started with a flurry. I fell, got up, and chased him around, kicking the ball and his legs as hard as I could. The more he laughed, the more determined I became. With the score tied, I forced my sweaty little body in my Buck Rogers T–shirt down the sideline and along the back porch of the chapel, the site of many victories of other kinds. My final exhausted kick reached the wall and I declared myself the winner. I would have done a victory lap if I hadn’t been so tired and he hadn’t had to leave to load soup into the van for a late–night run for homeless people.

And then the moment came. After a short speech about “ambition being made of sterner stuff” or something like that, he laughed, patted me on the back, and handed me two heavy coins.

I had won! I was rich!

The 45–minute session on that field was childish fun. But it was far more than that for me. As I look back, I think of a busy young man, pulled in many directions, taking time to befriend a little boy. Heroes reach out in relationship, often down to others whom our society says are beneath them.

For those two years, he never earned a cent as he trained to be a Salvation Army officer and prepared for a life of living with very little. And while those two rand probably didn’t change his life, they impacted mine. The heavy coins in my hand told me that heroes keep their word.

He was a great athlete. He knew it was hardly fair for us to have the same size goals, so my target was 10 times wider than his was. Heroes make things fairer for those not as gifted as themselves.

Heroes make things fairer for those not as gifted as themselves.

He grew up with dark skin in a society that, at the time, denied him the basic privileges of fair education, equal opportunity, or even the choice of where to live or whom to marry. He had known deep injustice, but in those playful minutes, he leveled the playing field for me. Real heroes fight injustice at every turn, creating opportunities for success for those around them.

Life was serious for him during his two years of training, but in the midst of classes, theological studies, and endless additional duties, he found time for fun. And time to ensure that a little boy got to enjoy himself. Heroes look for opportunities to bring joy.

Today, the dark man—without his beard—is the leader, with his wife, of The Salvation Army in the United Kingdom, the Army’s birthplace. He oversees ministries and programs that positively affect millions of people. I assume he is leading from a place of relationship—caring for those around him. I’m sure he’s keeping his word, even when times are tough. I’m sure too that he’s fighting for justice for the poor, for minorities, and for the oppressed—knowing firsthand what it is to be bound, then liberated. And I’m sure even in tough times, he’s bringing joy and laughter to the Army he leads.

I have a lot of heroes—from liberation movements, sports fields, and executive offices. But I will never forget my first hero, who let me win on my home field—Commissioner Clive Adams.

by Greg Tuck

Editor’s note: Greg and his wife, Keren, are administrators of the Army’s Star Lake Camp in New Jersey. They recently adopted a little boy from South Africa.

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