There was a time when Tarzan was one of the ruling heroes of my boyhood fantasies of power and self-fulfillment. And, while Tarzan was a cartoon show on Saturday morning, comics by Burne Hogarth, movies in the theater in color with Mike Henry, or a weekly series on TV with Ron Ely, he was always Johnny Weissmuller to me. Weissmuller who played both Tarzan and Jungle Jim in the Saturday afternoon black-and-white movies.
I have to admit, I didn’t identify with the character of Tarzan as much as I thought of myself like the character “Boy”, played by Johnny Sheffield in movies like “Tarzan Finds a Son”. It was a significant part of my boyhood to imagine myself being like Boy, free from practically all restraints, able to gad about the dangerous jungle nearly naked with monkey pals and no fear. If I got into trouble by believing my skills were greater than they really were, I would save myself with ingenuity, and, barring that, Tarzan would rescue me. And, believe it or not, sometimes there were fixes that Tarzan got into that he needed me and Cheetah to be creative and get him out of. I knew in my heart that one day real life would be like that, especially once I grew into Tarzan and stopped being just Boy. That idea was in my head so loudly that several times I went to Bingham Park Woods, stripped down, and played Boy in the Jungle.
As in the previous essay about Heroes of Yesteryear, I learned important things from Johnny Weissmuller on Saturday TV. He taught me that all you really needed, even in the darkest jungles of Africa, was confidence and courage. You could stand up to any deadly danger without the protection of any armor, practically naked, in fact, if only you had that heroic goodness of heart. The little boy I was then still believes that whole-heartedly even in the aging body of an old man.
So, Tarzan continues to live in my memory, a part of me, an essential part of my education. He is me and I am he. But only in my mind. Me in a loincloth, swinging on a vine now… and probably going splat like an overripe melon on the jungle floor… well, that is too ridiculous to even imagine being real anymore. Yet he lives on in me. And he battles the metaphorical leopard-people of modern life through me. Unarmored. Confident. And unafraid.
My boyhood in the 1960’s was complicated. There was fear and depression and growing awareness of violence and unfairness and evil in the world, starting in 1963 with the death of John F Kennedy.
There was magic and wonder in my childhood. I found comic-book heroes like Spiderman, fantasy movies like Captain Sinbad starring Guy Williams, and Science fiction movies like 2001; A Space Odyssey.
A sense of adventure and the wonders of the past came through reading. I read and loved Treasure Island and Kidnapped, both by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Of course boyhood is also the time in which we have to come to terms with sexuality and sexual identity. My battle was complicated by being sexually assaulted by an older boy. It took me a long time to sort out the fact that I was not a homosexual and being a victim does not make a boy into one. I was an untouchable child, but that didn’t stop me from obsessing about love and affection constantly.
What you learn to be in boyhood is what you end up being in adulthood.
Nurture is more important to development than nature.
Education is what makes a boy into a man. Your genetic makeup has its effects, but is only the blueprint, not the building.
Boyhood behavior might not go exactly as parents plan, but it has to happen anyway.
There is no such thing as a perfect boy.
Boyhood always was and still is an adventure. I should know. I’ve been a boy for 64 years.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor, one of the good ones, not like Caligula, Nero, or even Commodus, his son who was emperor after him.
But what made him good? Obviously the fact that he was beloved by the Roman people, even the senators and the very people who would’ve benefitted personally by his failure and demise.
He was a good administrator that benefitted the people with public works. He was a good military leader who maintained the Pax Romana until his death in 180 A.D.
Of course, his son, Commodus, blew that all up by being such an incompetent dictator that his own Praetorian Guard assassinated him (as portrayed in the movie Gladiator, though that movie also made him out to be his father’s murderer, of which there is no real evidence.)
But my friend Emperor Marcus was so much more than just a good ruler. He was a good man. And this is due almost entirely to the fact that he was a well-known Stoic Philosopher.
He embraced the philosophy of Greek philosopher and Roman slave Epictetus. Stoicism is the belief that you, as an individual do not control anything in the outside world to the degree you can control yourself. It is not the things, people, and events around you that matter, since you can’t control those. It is your own set of principles that you have to put in place and adhere to that affect the outcomes in life. In fact, you should view the setbacks and roadblocks to your accomplishments not as a negative thing, but as a learning opportunity. Learn all you can while you may, and at every opportunity. The Stoic welcomes hardship, because the overcoming of hardships shapes the man or woman you will become.
I found this philosophy to be the only way forward some days during the course of my teaching career. I was always more successful in meeting challenges head-on as they arose in front of me. Delaying, making excuses, or running away are all easier to do than that. But those other wimpy tactics never yield the success you can have by defeating your opposition and hardships face-to-face. Of course, you have to remember too that overcoming opposition does not have a selfish quality if you are a Stoic. In fact, you must respect all men, even your enemies. Marcus Aurelius, in response to victory in battle won by having thirsty troops offer a Christian prayer and then have their problem solved by a fortuitous rain storm, told the Senate they must no longer persecute Christians. They started to be considered good Roman citizens no matter what their religion.
Marcus Aurelius made it clear in his writings, the Meditations written in Greek, that, “In order to win the day, you must first win the morning.” To him this meant you had to be an early riser, tackling each problem of the day as it came up in the order they happened, morning to night.
So, the Philosopher King’s Quest, by this Stoic philosophy, is managed by first putting yourself right. You must examine your beliefs, test your hypotheses, and prove yourself to yourself before trying to tackle the world.
We descendants of Germans all understand something you all probably don’t know, and might have a hard time actually accepting. Germans and German Americans like to simply call things what they are… but we do it with remarkably silly words so you don’t take things as seriously as you probably should.
Seriously… Pumpernickel bread looks an awful lot like a cow pie. Don’t know what a cow pie is? That’s because you don’t speak Iowegian. Remember that post? A cow eats grass, digests it for a while, bakes it in the secret methane chambers embedded secretly within every living cow, and then the old garbage shoot plops out the cow pie. Flies love to eat it. The grass grows fiercely after absorbing what the flies and maggots leave behind. Yeah, that.
The bread originated in Germany where, as I have so graciously pointed out to you, they call things simply what it is. Pumpern in German means to break wind. Nickel is a variant of Nicholas or Nick, which is the name der Teufel, err…the Devil often goes by. So the bread is called, in its simplest translation, “Devil’s fart bread”. Isn’t that rich? And it tastes good too.
But what’s the point of praising pumpernickel? Well, it brings to mind in Mickey’s mangled mish-mash of a mind an old Daffy Duck cartoon.
Yes, the tale of the Scarlet Pumpernickel has been playing out in Monkey Town where the Great Orange Buffoon in charge of it all is busy making Nixon noises.
“Yes, my lord, there is an investigation into the Russian connection between your henchmen and Vladimir Putin,” said Director Comey.
“Hmmm… Fake News! Very Sad!” moaned the Buffoon. “Comey, I appreciate you smearing Clinton and all you did to help the greatest most historic election ever… but you’re fired!”
“Aha!” says Comey, revealing himself to be the infamous hero, the Scarlet Pumpernickel “…now I have you, my lord! But, wait! Fired, you say? Um, you do have the authority to fire me, don’t you.”
“Now, clear out your desk, loser!”
“Ah, but this action makes you look guilty, my lord. Perhaps the sting of my sword of justice will prick you in the behind yet!”
“Sessions! Defeat this loser for me! Very sad, sick man!”
“Me thinks you have not heard the last of the Scarlet Pumpernickel!” cried Comey as he leaped out the tower window into the chasm with a river at the bottom far below.
What happens in the next episode of the saga of the hero named after devil fart bread? Only time will tell.
Interesting way to introduce my latest Monkey President cartoon attempt to depict Trump… no? You do realize he’s a German American too?
I am stupidly planning to do it again. A book of essays like I did before, but now with fewer of my best essays to choose from. So, essays with fewer calories, but also less nutrition. Laughing Blue was a success from the point of view of what I wrote it for. I know people generally don’t read essays for fun.
But I write them for fun. And for better health. Healthy thinking is as necessary as a proper diet.
You see, I am definitely not in good health. I retired from my job as a school teacher six years ago because of poor health. It was a job I truly loved and defined me as a human bean (by which I mean a human being, but with a careful balance of protein and carbohydrates.) Being retired is more restful. But you reach a point where doing nothing leads to sitting and rotting. I find I need the extra vitamin C you get from cooking essays with a lot of berries in them. Specifically rememberries.
Okay, I know that is a rather dumb food pun. But the vitamin C is still there to boost my immune system and make me feel better. Vitamin C for Comedy… Clarity… Creativity… and Cartoons.
So, let’s start with a berry from the 1960s. Let’s start with Moonberries.
I was twelve years old when the Apollo Program landed Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and the LEM Eagle on the Moon at Tranquility Base. I was very much a child of the Space Age. I had a model kit of the Apollo 11 from Revell, all the pieces in white plastic. The tiny struts on the Lunar Expeditionary Module were maddeningly breakable, and even would warp under the dissolving power of Testor’s airplane glue. I spent hours with sticky fingers putting that together in December of 1968 and January of 1969. I was twelve, in the middle of my wonder years, and totally obsessed with the flavor of the whole Moonberry experience.
For several years through Gemini and then Apollo we watched the story unfold on our old black-and-white Motorola television set. All of it narrated by Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra. All of it… space walks, docking maneuvers, orbit reports, a special Christmas message from Apollo 8, splashdowns bringing home heroes like Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders… the man who had spoken the words;
“For all the people on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.”
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
“And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light.
“And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
And then that late, late night when we all stayed up on July 20, 1969… And we knew they could fail and never come home again… We learned that with Grissom, White, and Chaffee on Apollo 1… That horrible fire… The somber funeral parade on TV that called to mind JFK and what befell him after he started the dream…
But no, we heard those words, “The Eagle has landed.”
And then later, “One small step for man… One giant leap for mankind.”
And then I knew it. For me, real life had finally begun.
I promise, there are more rememberries to come, and some might even be nutritious.
Bernie Wrightson in 1972, when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school, created for D.C. comics the character known as The Swamp Thing.
being a stupid kid at the time, I totally ignored his genius with pen and ink, ink and brush, and fascinatingly dense forests of intricate detail.
I didn’t really get it until he joined The Studio with Jeffery C. Jones, Michael Kaluta, and Barry Windsor-Smith (whom I idolized for his work on Conan.)
And while in college, consuming everything available by The Studio that I could find and afford, I fell in love with his deeply dark and brooding illustration work for a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Frankenstein had 50 illustrations by Wrightson that firmly established the fact that by drawing with black ink you could show in startlingly real ways the qualities of white light. That appealed to me both literally as a way to make beautiful art and metaphorically, as that last thing was what I was doing with my own life, drawing the darkness to get to the beautiful light.
Most of his work
was drawing monsters; werewolves, zombies, the creatures of H.P. Lovecraft, and numerous things from nightmares.
But it has a definite beauty of its own. Darkness, evil, and corruption brings out the quality of what is light, righteous, and pure. There is truth in approaching reality from the dark side of the equation.
Of course, he would also do work on heroes like Batman, because the darkness breeds its own defenders of justice.
I am not so much a fan of monsters as I am a believer of taming the monsters who beset us as we try to make a worthy life for ourselves. But I can definitely see where Bernie Wrightson has been doing exactly that with his brilliant pen-and-ink artwork. Sadly, he will be doing no more of it since we lost him in 2017. But it is a legacy he left behind that will make his light continue to shine forth from dark places for a long time to come.
When he walked through my classroom door for the first time in August 1988, the start of his seventh grade year, Jorge Navarro was a tiny little third-grader-looking thing. But one of the first things he ever told me in English was that he was a cowboy.
He had two older brothers. Sammy was an eighth grader that year, and Jose was in tenth grade. So, I already knew his brothers. Big strapping lads. They didn’t speak English really well and couldn’t read. But they were smart in a pragmatic, workman-like way. They all three came from a ranch down in Encinal, Texas. Fifteen miles closer to the Mexican border than where I was teaching in Cotulla, Texas. But they were not Mexicans. Their grandparents and parents were born in the USA, and their great grandparents, and possibly further back than that had lived on the same ranch-land all the way back to when everything South of the Nueces River was Mexico. These were Tejanos. Proud Americans from Texas. Hard-working, dedicated to the ranch owners who paid them to do what they loved, getting the most agricultural benefits possible from the dry South-Texas brush country.
Jorge was, at the start, a little man with a big voice in a small package. He was smarter and could read better than either of his brothers. He could even read and translate Spanish, which, of course, was his native language. And he had strong opinions that you could not argue with him about. He was a cowboy. That was opinion number one. He not only rode horses, he fed them daily, curried them in the morning to loosen the dirt and stimulate the production of natural oils that kept their coats shiny, and he even told me about the times he bottle-fed newborn colts when their mothers were sick.
And he strongly believed that a boss, or a teacher in my case, should never ask someone to do something that he didn’t know how to do himself. That was opinion number two. And he held me to that standard daily.
You should never use bad language in front of a lady… or a teacher, was opinion number three. He had a temper though. So, unlike most of the other boys, on those days when he lost it, he apologized as soon as he was back in control of himself. It made the girls giggle when he apologized to them, but that was an embarrassed reaction. He impressed them. They told me so in private afterwards.
He had a cowboy hat in his locker every day. You never wore a hat inside. Strong opinion number four.
And when he was an eighth-grader, he almost doubled in height. But not in width. He was what they call in Spanish, “Flaco,” skinny as a rail. He was taller than me by the time in mid-year when he started competing like his brothers in rodeos. And he was good. Something about the way his skinny, light frame could bend and twist under stress allowed him to stay on a barebacked horse longer than his brothers, or even the older men. He was pretty good at roping steers too. But it was the bareback bronc riding that won him trophies.
This is not a story about someone overcoming hardships to succeed. It always seemed like Jorge was blessed with it from the beginning. But it was the fact that he did what was needed every single day without fail. You could depend on it. He had a code that he followed.
The drawing that started this story is one that I did for him. I gave him and every member of his class that asked for one a copy made on my little copier at home.
And he taught me far more than I could ever teach him. Jorge Navarro was a cowboy. And you couldn’t argue with him about that.
Yes, I am saying the world I live in is a low-budget commercial movie made without literary or artistic pretensions. You know, the kind where movie makers learn their craft, taking big risks with smaller consequences, and making the world of their picture reflect their heart rather than the producer’s lust for money.
Mostly what I am talking about are the movies I remember from late-night Saturday TV in black and white (regardless of whether or not the movie was made in Technicolor) and the less-risky as well as more-likely-good Saturday matinees on Channel 3. Movies made in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. They were perfect, of course, for the forbidden Midnight Movie on the show called Gravesend Manor. I had to sneak downstairs to watch it on Saturday nights with the volume turned way down low. (Not that Mom and Dad didn’t know. Well, maybe they didn’t know how many of those I watched completely naked… maybe.)
I watched this one when I was twelve, late night on an October Saturday. I had a bed-sheet with me to pull over my head at the scariest parts. Frankenstein was a crashed astronaut brought back to life by the magic of space radiation. He was uglier than sin, but still the hero of the movie, saving the Earth from invading guys in gorilla suits and scary masks (none of which looked like the movie poster.)
This one, starring James Whitmore, a really good B-Movie actor, was about giant ants coming up from the sewers and the underground to eat the city.
I would end up watching it again twenty years later when I was wearing clothes and not alone in the dark house lit only by a black-and-white TV screen.
I realized on the second viewing that it was actually a pretty good movie in spite of cheesy special effects. And I realized too that I had learned from James Whitmore’s hero character that, in times of crisis, you have to run towards the trouble rather than away from it, a thing that I used several times in my teaching career with fights and tornadoes and even rattlesnakes visiting the school campus looking to eat a seventh-grader or something (though it was a bad idea for the snake even if it had been successful.)
This one, of course, taught me that monsters liked to carry off pretty girls in bikinis. And not just on the poster, either. But it was the hero that got the girl, not the monster. This movie taught me that it sucks to be the monster. Though it also taught me that it was a good movie to take your pajamas off for and watch naked when you are thirteen.
But not all B-movies had to be watched late night on Saturdays. This movie was one of the first ones that I got to go to the movie theater to see by myself. (My sisters and little brother were still too young and got nightmares too easily to see such a movie.) It came out when I was in my teens and Mom and Dad began thinking of me as an adult once… or even possibly twice in a month.
And not all B-movies were monster movies, gangster movies, and westerns. Some, like a lot of Danny Kaye’s movies, were movies my Dad and my grandparents were more than happy to watch with me. I saw this one in both black-and-white and color. And I learned from this that it was okay to take advantage of happy accidents, like a case of mistaken identity, and using your wits, your creative singing ability, and your inexplicable good luck to win the day for everybody but the bad guys armed only with your good sense of humor.
And some of the best movies I have ever seen, judging by what I learned about movies as literature from Professor Loring Silet in his Modern Film Class at Iowa State University, are by their nature B-movies.
I am using movie posters in this blog post only from movies I have personally seen. (And I admit that not all of them are strictly “good” movies according to Professor Silet, but I like them all.)
Feel free to tell me in the comments if you have seen any of these movies yourself. I am open to all opinions, comments, and confessions.
I live in a B-movie world. The production values around me are not the top-dollar ones. But the stories are entertaining. The real-life heroes still run towards the problem. And it still sucks to be the monster. But it has always been worth the price of the ticket. And during my time on Earth here, even in 2020, I plan on staying till the end of the picture. I go nowhere until I see the Best Boy’s name in the end credits. And maybe not even then.
I have been drawing these mock-Star-Wars science-fiction-heroes for thirty years. Some of these are that old. Some of them are new this year. All of them illustrate the adventures that started as a science-fiction-role-playing game and became the series of novels called AeroQuest.