“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” That is, as per the King James Bible, the epistle of Saint Paul as spoken to the Corinthians, circa 53 AD. Even as a non-Christian I have learned the wisdom of those words as I’ve aged. Apart from (belatedly) realizing that I needed to grow up and stop most of my more childish crap, I also came to see that as that process took hold of me it was not just my present and future that began to look different. While I became someone else, my past changed as well. Not that I began to recall the essential facts differently so much as they reverberated in a new, and not infrequently embarrassing way. So much of what had seemed to be of epic import to me in my childhood and earlier adult years no longer had the same resonance. Setting emotional crises aside for the moment, I have lost track of how often I think of some pop culture artifact or the celebrity who was behind it and cringe in silent acknowledgement of my youthful assuredness that I was listening to, reading, or watching some incandescent example of timeless art brought to life by a contemporary Da Vinci in the full flower of their talents. It may surprise the reader to learn this but the Mel Brooks film, Silent Movie, is not actually the greatest comedy ever made, despite the fact that as a lonely thirteen year old I paid to see it four times. Turns out that Wyatt Earp was not really a legendary lawman of the old west who brought law and order to the chaotic town of Tombstone. On closer inspection he presented as more of a chronic gambler with an eye for a fast buck and a peculiar sense of what might or might not be ethical, depending entirely on his perceived level of need at any given moment. And on it goes. For me, at least, the putting away of childish things has included an unsolicited but fairly thorough scrubbing of the patina of wonder off of those memories, and literally thousands more like them. Which is fine. It’s not as if I don’t fondly recall how great it felt to have whole-heartedly believed in them, it’s just that the memory is more a factual recreation of the event or idea than a revisiting of my visceral contemporaneous state. On rare occasion I’m fortunate enough to find an exception.
Just a few weeks ago my wife and I went to see the Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. The picture itself is too soft, needlessly bowdlerizing and conflating the events it purports to cover, but Remi Malik is compelling as Mercury, and the rest of his bandmates are well cast too. For me the takeaway of the evening was to have my initial, and perpetual amazement with the title song re-established. If anything, being able to hear the song as a much more musically educated person than I was at twelve has only amplified my sense of wonder. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard when I was a kid and the time that has passed has lead me to an even greater regard for it now. With six distinct sections, four key changes and the occasional brief time signature alteration the song is remarkable to me in that its’ sophistication never ventures into pretense, allowing it to be challenging and compelling musically without ever losing it’s emotional appeal. As much as I was besotted with it then I have immense respect for it now. It’s like finding out that the prettiest girl in third grade grew up to become a major contributor to string theory. While exceedingly rare this is not a truly unique phenomenon for me; baseball, the Beatles, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe are childhood loves of mine that have not only withstood the test of time, but have deepened in their allure like a bottle of wine I could not possibly hope to be able to afford. Unfortunately the people that felt immortal to me then have not held up nearly as well. Save one.
Born January 31st, 1919, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was the first person I can recall thinking of as a hero, and remains so to this day. Even as a little boy he was more than just an object of adulation to me. Jackie provided me with a way to forgive my greatest love its most terrible of sins. As I have stated above, and in numerous other writings, the game of baseball holds a consecrated place in my world, and it has ever been so. Imagine, then, the real pain it gave me to discover that this sport which I loved so dearly had a history of institutionalized racism. When my father told me about the color line I was crushed. I realize how ludicrous it sounds but it was a source of real conflict for me, even as a child. Hearing Robinson’s story gave me the happy ending that I needed as a six year old, and allowed me to wallow in the history of the sport without the guilt that might otherwise have cast a shadow on things. I had, as children do, many heroes throughout the first two decades of my life. As I move through the end of my middle years it is his image alone that has remained undiminished for me.
Consumed as I was by sports, it should come as no surprise that athletes filled the pantheon of my youth. Growing up a Met fan, Tom Seaver was my first idol. The team was mediocre at best yet he was seldom anything but great. In 1972, I sat watching the summer Olympics for the first time and like many others was held in thrall by the unprecedented performance of Mark Spitz. I swam a bit and he was Jewish, giving him quasi-unicorn status in the world of sports. Unfortunately neither man stood up well to much inspection. Seaver has a reputation as an arrogant jerk and Spitz is famous for a self regard that borders on diagnosable illness. In my teen years some of my focus shifted to the world of rock and roll. As I stated above, the Beatles were an absolute favorite for me. In my more irritatingly angsty moments I thought of John as someone to emulate. Forty years on their music is still a source of wonder to me, but not so much Mr. Lennon. A detached and sporadically cruel husband to Cynthia he all but abandoned Julian. He also gave Yoko a platform to sing. After I started my twenties I consciously made the shift from pop culture to world figures. I held the work of Martin Luther King and Gandhi in reverence and for the most part still do, but the men themselves have to different degrees diminished in my sight as I learned more about them. King’s tendency toward a socialized view of things is simply not something I can just let go. On a more concrete level the man’s inability to honor his marriage vows do render him as less than heroic to me, although still of extraordinary importance to this nation. Gandhi’s achievements in non-violent confrontation were profound. At some point I read enough about him to find out that he’d advocated mass Jewish suicide as a response to the predations of the Third Reich. Kind of hard for me to get behind that.
And through it all there was always Jackie. No matter how much I came to read and learn about him, his stature only grew in my eyes. Initially I was awed by the fact that his athletic prowess had extended dramatically beyond the baseball diamond. While attending UCLA he’d lettered in football, basketball, and track as well as baseball. While serving as a lieutenant in the army he’d risked court martial and imprisonment rather than allow himself to be subjected to the racist whims of a bus driver. He bore up to pressure and abuse I could scarcely envision. He did not merely survive this mistreatment, he thrived in it. Winning the very first Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 he followed it up two years later with the Most Valuable Player Award. As much if not more so than anyone on those great Brooklyn Dodger teams he was a driving force behind their run of success in his years there. He was able to remain aware of the injustice heaped upon him without letting it create an incapacity in him to appreciate the good will of Branch Rickey and white teammates like Pee Wee Reese. Not one to back away from a fight, once black ballplayers had passed the threshold of “experiment” he was openly critical of segregated facilities that served the Dodger organization. Possessed of multifaceted talents his life did not end when his playing days did. At his retirement he became a Vice President with Chock full ‘o Nuts coffee and sat on the board of the NAACP and the Freedom National Bank, was truly active in party politics and founded his own construction company. And, sadly, he died far too young. At fifty three, having suffered with diabetes and related cardiovascular disease he passed on after a heart attack. I was nine when he died. I could not then, and do not now, fully understand how a man of such staggering vitality could fall victim to such a mundane thing as a common ailment. As I write this, two years older today than he would ever be, I look at him “as a child” of nine would have, and also with eyes much older than that. And he is the same to me. And he is so much more. I will always hold him in an esteem that I know no one will ever extend to me. That’s okay. That’s just the way it is with heroes. They always seem to be the largest thing in view, and forever just out of reach.