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On Halloween night this week, millions of children tumbled into their neighborhoods dressed as Captain America, Spiderman, Batman, Bat Girl and Wonder Woman. But that night, true superheroes were at work in uniforms, not costumes.
They were firefighters, police officers, emergency workers and ordinary citizens in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and elsewhere who gave brave and extraordinary efforts to protect and rescue their families and neighbors. They risked their lives for strangers.
Superstorm Sandy struck during the last days of what's been a long, loud, costly and contentious political campaign that may not have done much to inspire many people. When you talk to voters around the country, you can sense a rare note of bipartisan accord when people tell you that they're just relieved to see it coming to an end.
But the outpouring of human courage that's risen out of Sandy has given us glimpses of the grace and nobility of people, too.
A few times over the years, I've interviewed some of the families of police, firefighters or emergency workers who have lost their lives while saving lives. They can help you understand that a life in a uniform is tough and demanding for families, too.
Each day, they send a loved one off to work with the unspoken understanding that before their shift is over, they may quite suddenly be asked to risk their lives. Sometimes, their loved one will be celebrated — too often, unfortunately, if they die in the line of duty — for daring to save lives in the public glare of some overwhelming event. But their families will often point out: It wasn't their first time. Many have often already saved a life or two, from a house fire, a crane collapse, or a car stuck in a rushing flood or a frozen snowbank, just with far less attention and acclaim.
Sandy has staggered the country with its death and destruction. Bridges, buildings, roads and beaches can usually be repaired over time. The lives lost, of course, are irreplaceable.
But in a way, a great and terrible storm has reminded us that though politics can sometimes seem mean, dreary and dispiriting, there are people across the country who still give their lives to public service. They are jobs in which the pay is modest and the risk great — but the need is irreplaceable, too.
Sometimes, it just takes a catastrophe to make us notice and be grateful.