Saturday, October 22, 2016
Heroes of My Youth
While family and friends have enormous influence on who we become as persons, the larger culture also provides us with a potpourri of heroes and heroines who epitomize the society’s values and provide role models for behavior. Many of these figures take on an almost tangible presence in one’s life. For example, I probably knew more in childhood about Dick Tracy or Batman than I did about many neighbors and acquaintances. To get a better handle on these role models, here are some of the “heroes” that I recall as important to me between the ages of eight and twelve (mid to late 1940’s).
I did a lot of reading as a child, and many of my heroes came from books, either about historical figures, e.g., Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, or fictional creations, e.g., Robinson Crusoe, Paul Bunyan, Huckleberry Finn. My true passion, though, was comic books. My Uncle Kent’s Rexall drugstore was a half block from my grade school, and I’d eat lunch there on schooldays and stop in again after school. Kent allowed me to read all the store’s comic books as long as I took them back to his office and didn’t bend any pages. There were, of course, many heroes – Superman, Batman and Robin, the Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, the Green Lantern, etc. My favorite, though, was Captain Marvel (a.k.a, Billy Batson). Like Superman, Captain Marvel possessed superman strength, speed, and the ability to fly. Teenager Batson would transform himself into Captain Marvel by uttering the magic word, Shazam. “Shazam” stood for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. Captain Marvel, of course, battled evil-doers of all sorts. In 1944 Captain Marvel was the most popular comic book hero in the U.S. beating out Superman and all the others. More recently Wizard Magazine ranked Captain Marvel the 55th greatest comic book character of all time, but, in my mind, he will always be number one.
In grade school my friends and I went to weekend matinees at the Menominee Theater (the old opera house) and the Lloyd Theater, as well as Thursday afternoon films at the D.A.R. Boys’ Club. Most of the main features were cowboy westerns, featuring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid, and others. Roy Rogers was the king of the cowboys, but, because he and Gene Autry always included singing in their movies, my friends and I preferred Hopalong Cassidy. Hoppy had white hair, wore black clothes and a black hat, and rode a magnificent white horse named Topper. Gabby Hayes played his sidekick, Windy Halliday. Hoppy had astonishing skills with his six-shooter and lariat, and I don’t think he ever lost a fistfight, even against four or five villains at once. Like other cowboy heroes, he acted on behalf of honest citizens who were being preyed upon by criminal gangs and rogues.
TV, of course, didn’t exist in the Twin Cities during my grade school years. Instead, my siblings and I huddled around the family radio in our living room, especially on Sunday nights. My favorite shows were comedies – Jack Benny, Fred Allen, the Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee and Molly, Duffy’s Tavern, etc. – though these didn’t feature “heroes” as we normally think of them. However, the detective/mystery radio dramas all featured great heroes of the era, e.g., Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Boston Blackie, the Shadow, the Saint, the Thin Man, etc. My favorite was the Shadow, who possessed “the power to cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him.” The Shadow’s real name was Lamont Cranston, “a wealthy young man about town,” and he and his love interest, socialite Margo Lane, took on villains of all sorts. Every show began with the statement, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.” That invariably sent shudders up and down our spines.
President Harry S. Truman
World War II had an enormous impact on children in our community. I was five when the U.S. entered the war in 1942 and was about to enter third grade when the war ended in August, 1945. My dad was in the Navy in the Pacific. We learned about wartime events from family, from radio and the Movietone News, and from our teachers and the Weekly Reader at school. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, of course, was a central leader of the allies’ efforts in World War II, and consequently the nation was shocked and frightened when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. His vice-presidential successor, Harry Truman, was a relatively obscure senator from Missouri who had run a haberdashery in Kansas City before beginning his political career. Despite controversy that continues to the present day about Truman’s decision to unleash the atomic bomb, he was credited with bringing the war to an end. We children, whose fathers would soon be coming home, regarded him as a hero who had risen to the occasion. Unpopular in his day, Truman was recently ranked fifth among U.S. presidents in a C-Span poll.
Many of the heroes of my childhood, of course, were college and professional athletes. Menominee is located 45 miles north of Green Bay, and the adults and kids in our community were avid members of Packerland. The Packers had won NFL championships in 1936, 1939, and 1944, thanks in good part to their star player, split end Don Hutson. Historians of the game conclude that Hutson created many of the modern pass routes used in the NFL today. During Hutson’s eleven seasons with the Packers, he was an eight-time All-Pro selection and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player twice. By the time of his retirement in 1945, Hutson held nearly every major NFL receiving record, including career receptions, yards gained, and touchdowns. He still holds the Packers’ record for most receptions in a game. We kids playing touch football at Triangle Park all pretended to be Don Hutson when we ran out for a pass.
When I entered sixth grade at Washington Grade School, my grandfather insisted that I join the school basketball team. It scared the wits out of me, but, within a few months, I became totally devoted to learning the game. My brother Steve and I played endlessly in our driveway. The nearest professional team was the Minneapolis Lakers, and the local radio station broadcast their games. Their star was George Mikan, a six-foot ten-inch center who dominated the professional game and who was known as “Mr. Basketball.” This was long before the era of big men in basketball, very tall players being regarded as lacking athletic ability and unlikely to perform adequately at a professional level. Mikan was so dominant that he caused several major rule changes in the NBA, most notably the ban on goaltending, the widening of the foul lane from 6 to 12 feet, and the introduction of the shot clock. Mikan was regarded as a “Gentle Giant,” fierce on the court but friendly and personable in private life. I’ve watched basketball on and off over the decades, but there’s never been anybody as thrilling to me as the great George Mikan.
My friend Frank St. Peter was a boxing fanatic, and, with his encouragement, I started listening to the Friday Night Fights on the radio each week. The late 1940’s were a golden age of boxing, with the likes of Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Jake LaMotta, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Sugar Ray Robinson. The greatest of all, however, was the “Brown Bomber”, heavyweight champion Joe Louis. Born in rural Alabama in 1914, the grandchild of former slaves, Louis was the number one contender in the heavyweight division by 1935, and he won the title against James J. Braddock on June 22, 1937. He was world heavyweight champion for the next twelve years, scoring 52 knockouts in 70 professional fights. Ring Magazine rated Louis #1 on its list of the “100 Greatest Punchers of All-Time,” and he is widely regarded at the first African American to gain the status of a nationwide hero in the U.S. Frank and I were thrilled with Joe Louis’s power and invincibility, and he was near the top of my list of heroes.
I look at my list with some nostalgia and still have twinges of admiration for the various entries. I do note that all of my childhood heroes were male, though this was probably typical for a boy. Girls of my age might have included Wonder Woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, Brenda Starr, and others. The culture’s offerings of heroes and heroines for children probably has more to do with the reinforcement of stereotypic gender roles than with anything else. When I look over my list the themes cutting across the various figures seem particularly heavy on attributes that our culture has traditionally deemed “masculine”: e.g., dominance, achievement, leadership, competition, strength. Many of these “heroes” excelled in capacities for physical aggression and violence, though always channeled in socially legitimate directions. There are few that I would characterize as high in empathy, emotional expressiveness, nurturance, or interpersonal skills. That could be because I grew up in a historical era marked by rigidly defined gender roles. I don’t have any sense of who little kids’ heroes and heroines are today. I’ll have to check with our grandkids.