The Babe


Society touts Heroes but is engaged in microfication. It works to keep everybody enmeshed in insignificance. Should one escape the net by some desperate maneuver, he is then worshipped as Great, while the net is carefully repaired to prevent similar occurrence in the future.

The world works especially hard to suppress the young and impressionable. There the job of microfication can be done expeditiously and economically. A small boy knows what a hero is, even if he cannot define the term, certainly the Babe did. A hero deliberately takes high risks to achieve socially valuable goals, and either succeeds, or meets with tragic defeat after almost reaching them. The Babe was duped by Society, that monster of Hypocrisy, into believing that Greatness was frankly to be sought and would be duly rewarded. Ergo, it was all up to him to become a hero or to fail. Ad astra per aspera: to the stars through hardship, the Franklin School motto.

Now the Mom was also engaged in microfication. Harken at a pot-pourri of the Mom's laments about her boys at a certain age, when she was in a critical mood:

Yes, they are good boys

That's what they say

They fight too much

They eat too fast

They play too hard

They ruin their eyes reading

They don't practice their music enough

They won't do their job without reminding

They take too long on errands

They aren't nice to visitors

They don't change their socks

They go out without their caps and sweaters

They make too much noise

They outgrow their clothes too soon

They talk back to their Mother

They lick the cream off the top of the milk

Such plaints hardly point to the stuff of which heroes are made - - or of which villains are made against whom heroes can proudly fight. What do these peccadillos have to do with his strange and wonderful fantasies? Where does she address their future greatness, their splendid achievements to come? Never does she say, "One day they will be Great Men!"

His Mother did not know what she was housing, actually Robinson Crusoe, the Geese of Rome, the Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dam, William Tell's unflinching son and William Tell himself the dead-shot with his bow and arrow, the runner from Marathon dying after reciting the news of victory over the Persians but not so dead that he couldn't hear his own dying breaths and note the admiration of the Athenians of the dying runner. She did not know; nor did she understand how his mind worked, apart from a few rules of thumb. He left her, semper fidelis, behind.

To use the kind of images that the Babe sometimes employed in his moments of self-pity, were he to die he would be widely mourned, and wasn't mourning a measure for a worthwhile life? "Those who knew him regret his passing... Many a tear was shed over his bier..." He had not served his time, of course; he had not spent years slamming motors into chassis, no years of pig-sticking, no toting up of interminable accounts, no typesetting, no killing of enemies of his country, perhaps a little of teaching others, a little of domestic servitude.

But he was cute; they paid Hollywood stars millions to be cute: "to a good-looking boy," a girl wrote in his graduation book. He paid his teachers in docility, the librarians by liberal borrowing of their books; he kept the newspapers alive by reading them. What would they all do without the likes of him? He was too young ever to borrow more than a dime, so he could never, like Panurge, discourse magnificently on the indulgences that a debtor bestows upon his creditors. The human race, if it will not reconstitute itself as philosopher, finds little to justify itself except by raising the next generation of children.

If we grant that he paid his over-advertised way by small coin, as most children did, where did his way lead? Lazy Society served up heroes. Pick a hero and do as he did.

The trouble was that he was finicky. He had no big all-purpose hero who served him for all times. Not even the Dad, although the Dad loomed large enough to prevent the Babe from implanting himself under the skin of a single other Big Hero. There would be no Big Hero for modelling himself permanently, for a large range of ideas, for inspiration, for consolation, and for authority in his actions.

Chicago was new and unproductive of heroes. Granting that a hero must have fame, for how else could one know him, Chicagoans could rarely call up a local hero. (Disqualified for lacking fame were tens of thousands of true Chicago heroes who were unheralded and unrecognized even by themselves). The actual leaders of the City (and the country, alas) were so thoroughly excoriated and spoofed by the press and public opinion that not until the end of his boyhood and the appearance upon the national scene of Franklin Roosevelt did a live public figure appear to him in heroic proportions, and he did feel better for having such a man around, and F.D.R. was apparently a man interested in a number of spheres, a fine speaker, a master of men, a humanitarian and respecter of human rights, whatever the Chicago Tribune said about him.

He admitted several cheapside heroes in baseball, heroes of a season; the headlines were saying: Is the Great Babe finished?" meaning Babe Ruth who was aging and dour, who tided him over only sporadically, for he didn't say much and like the others was uni- dimensional.

The boy turned on brightly for Gene Tunney, who was a great boxer and also reputed to be a gentleman. Jack Dempsey he regarded as a roughneck, perhaps even a bully, for that was how the press pictured him, "the Manassa Mauler." Joe Louis was a marvelous fighter but developed only very slowly to be a decent character of some intelligence, and finally the Babe was to enjoy his culminating knockout of Max Schmeling, the broadcast favorite of Adolf Hitler.

He paid little attention to the boxers of other weight-classes, though these were often better all-around than the heavyweights, partly because he labored under the impression that he would grow up a heavyweight (and actually didn't make it), but also because he was too variously occupied to be a spectating and statistical aficionado of any sport except baseball, which was common currency of boy-talk until adolescence.

He was elated over the solo flight across the Atlantic of Charles Lindbergh, who aroused in him chauvinism via the hysterical media (that Lindbergh himself came to hate); the Babe was convinced now that heavier-than-air flight was practically an American monopoly.

Composers were lifeless heroes. He didn't think of them as people in motion. Still, not George Washington, but Richard Wagner could shiver his timbres in the course of a concert that they had rehearsed to perfection.

The great moment approached. The trumpeters sat alert, eyes switching between the conductor's baton and the sheet music before them, rolling side-wise at the tensing boys next to them, as the restless chords climbed in pitch and swelled in volume and the timbre of the horns began to sound in premonition, nervous horses of Poseidon, and then they charged in wave upon wave of storming sea, breaking over the ship of the Flying Dutchman and over the Hall and Crowd with the climactic full-flaring blast of their trumpets.

He refused flatly to take opera singers as heroes. The Great Caruso was inadequate. He knew full well of the King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman, but as soon as he got into jazz was bored with Big Bands. Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington were lively despite their large aggregations. Another dozen bands attracted him, not with sweet jazz or slow fox-trots, rather the hard jazz and the blues, of the circles of Louis Armstrong. (It took him years, though, to catch onto Louie's raspy singing.) With jazz, as with sports and warfare, and with greater reason, he was sure that America was supreme. In other fields, he supposed there was this same earned superiority and I shall come to them shortly.

What of historical heroes? Moses with his Ten Commandments was little more than a name attached to a strange figure trapped in a Wilderness. Julius Caesar, yes, for being a great military leader, for becoming a ruler of what was described to him as a disorganized republic, for writing Latin well, and for taking the bewitching Cleopatra in hand. (A barber shop he often passed held a colorful lithograph of Cleopatra scantily clad on her barge; she was Anthony's lover at the time, but the Babe's as well.) Columbus was undoubtedly meritorious and deserved his fame, though unaware of lands that blocked his passage to the Orient; his determination to sail on was engrossed in the texts and the Babe found him unpleasantly obsessive; still, in the schoolbook picture, that little boy sitting dockside in Genoa listening to sailors spin yarns: he was appealing.

The heroes of fable followed endlessly: Jason, Sindbad, Robin Hood, Horatio, Roland, Jeanne d'Arc, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, even Paul Bunyan and his Great Ox Babe, and D'Artagnan, perhaps the best of these, and many more. So, too, the heroes of the silver screen. He did become excited upon hearing of the next Douglas Fairbanks film, and regarded Mary Pickford as insipid. He awaited Tarzan and Charley Chaplin, and even Pop-eye would bring a cheer to his lips after he cleared his throat of pop-corn.

The Fathers of the Nation played a substantial role, but Washington and Lincoln crossed his mind only rarely, granted their substantial achievements. Washington's endurance of hardship in the winter of Valley Forge was commendable, yet the Babe noted that the general seemed to be warmly dressed and clean-shaven and felt more sorry for the freezing soldiers in their rags. (Incidentally, the textbook seemed to feel the same way, perhaps because Washington actually was pleading with the Continental Congress on their behalf.) Lincoln worked his way up from poverty and ignorance to achieve a respectable level of culture and enlightenment; too, he managed, though rather badly, a bungling lot of generals at war, and he freed the slaves; but then he let himself be killed when he was still sorely needed, an unpardonable offense by the canons of the silver screen and the novels of adventure and thus the Babe.

That was a major problem with Jesus Christ, too; he submitted to crucifixion: none of that for the Babe, no matter how involved and painstaking the explanation; it was Un-american: a hero should be on the "giving" not the "taking" side; no masochist he. Otherwise most of what Jesus did appeared good, if rather miraculous, therefore unbelievable and probably untrue. So too the Saints, whose reputations, on the infrequent occasions when their names popped up -- usually in the recall of the Mom of some celebration -- were promptly labelled by the Dad as spurious and designed to rally superstitious ignoramuses.

The Babe then wondered why Bro Bus had been called Sebastian, an unusual name that stood out embarrassingly from Thomas, Richard, Anthony and John when the roll was called. As he learned more, he was unimpressed by the naming of children for grandparents and relatives, while St. Sebastian seemed to have accommodated an astonishing number of arrows in his flesh, but this could not atone for his having let himself be killed.

Bro Bus himself was a better hero; he was certainly multi- dimensional, strong in the circles of the Babe, but he was also without noticeably large ideals and was often an anti-hero as well, a satanic fellow. That left several friendly older boys of whom I have already spoken, all suffering from obvious unheroic failings, and Uncle Charley for having been a good fighter but now battered and usually broke, and, to repeat, the Dad and the Mom, who were truly about as close to heroes as one could find but had the fatal flaw of their ordinary presence in everyday life, where their petty sins were evident and the pains they visited upon him worked against them.

But was there not God himself as Hero? He who could unite all superlatives and made all other heroes supernumerary? Possibly, if God had been attainable, but there was only one God, even for the most megalomanic boy. (Strange, he never postulated and considered plural gods; polytheism, much less pantheism or animism, seemed an absurd idea on its face. Monotheism, a unanimous Society taught him, was Progress.) Furthermore the life-style of God, as pictured in many books and leaflets, was not to the Babe's tastes; it was too inactive; God was too much of an impresario.

Besides, he had four arguments to offer against the very existence of God: there was no direct evidence of him; God never spoke to the Babe; in fact, the Babe never heard any voice besides ordinary words and music. Also there was the bad of the world, so much of it even to an optimist and believer in Progress; no decent sort would permit it, and God had both the Power and the Will presumably to stop it right now this instant, so why didn't He Do It?

Then he also knew good people who did not believe in God or gave all indication that they got along well without Him. Worse, there were bad people all over the place who professed to be followers of God, and it was all very well to pass judgement against them on behalf of God but this seemed monstrously presumptuous even to the Babe, whom we have otherwise known to be critical of people.

Still the Babe, though a generally assertive character, was not aggressively against the concept of God, whence we must conclude that he would have liked God to exist but couldn't handle the evidence against Him. As for the threats of Hell for not believing this or that, the Babe found Hell a dishonorable reason for being "good." When he didn't do "good" in his own eyes, it was because he had reasons to do "bad" that were in themselves "good." When he had no such reasons for not doing good or for doing bad, he felt "bad," disenchanted with himself, incompetent, undisciplined, and unjust, worse, unfair.

He rather preferred the Protestants to the Catholics because they did not give promise of enchaining him. They also had a simpler and highly visible approach to their God. He would best be summed up as a radical Protestant, almost indistinguishable from an unclamorous atheist, rather a Quaker, Humanist, Unitarian, Ethical Culturalist, Bahai, all-around back-slider and universalist.

Thus the Babe grew up without the solace conferred by a divine hero and the solidity fostered by a single superb versatile model. This may have contributed to an instability of character and a wide- ranging exploration of interests, a retarded settling of mind and soul and will, what, in a less willful and hard-hitting person -- and in a personnel officer's lexicon -- would be termed an "inability to apply himself," but was really an ability to apply himself to the matter at hand while a subtle vein of discontent throbbed for something better to do.

In all of these reflections and wonderings and choices over the years among hundreds of models, children were given little real help in finding their appropriate heroes: only sketchy and unreliable facts, together with misplaced exhortations about those traditionally deemed to be heroes (never a new one except for a single feat, such as winning an auto-race), with much nonsense, balderdash, exaggeration, hype, promotion, and kowtowing. Instruction on the lives of the great and ordinary men and women, which would have one of the most important and impacting courses of childhood, was quite neglected. Children received no better information about heroes than they did about sex.

But now, having said all this, I would retract to point out two heroes to whom he felt close, with whom he felt comfortable, both Americans, and, if you will observe, they are modern types of men, whose activities could make sense to a child of Chicago. So our Babe was not so bereft.

The first was Benjamin Franklin. He heard about Franklin when he went to the Franklin School. He read of his life as a poor immigrant boy. Franklin shared his religious ideas, his wide range of interests in the sciences and the humanities; he was a printer and writer; he had a healthy ego indeed. He was a revolutionary and a constitutional republican. He was involved in the large politics of the age; he travelled widely; he was highly effective; he prospered. And he made a hit with women.

The second hero was Theodore Roosevelt, who was a great lover of the Golden West and wrote about it. (Owen Wister, whose novel, The Virginian (1902), shaped romantic conceptions of the West, was read religiously by the Babe; he was a close friend of T.R., though the Babe didn't know this.) Making up for Franklin's pacifism (which the Babe could not appreciate nor did anyone explain its genius to him) Teddy led the "Rough-Riders" in the Liberation of Cuba (we will not cavil over T.R.'s logistical and tactical errors).

He was a scholar; he led the fight to rescue the Great Outdoors from their wicked exploiters; he defeated the "Malefactors of Great Wealth;" he was warm and humane; he became Commander-in-Chief and President. (I should have said, in my essay about his fantasies, that the Babe had often thought that if nominated for the Presidency he would run, and, if elected, he would serve.)

His acceptance of a galaxy of heroes let the Babe become a republican, in principle and of principle, a constitutionalist, a precocious believer in "government by law, not by men." Far earlier than any of his peers, he grasped that a form of conduct could be devised rather than always inherited dumbly through tradition and authority, that in a human group behavior can be deliberately structured by discussion and voting, and that the rules should be written down and followed constitutionally until amended by a formal process.

In some sense this quality gave him a slight charisma, for it would baffle, mystify and awe other children. They were moved by impulse and charisma, rather than rules and logic. For most games, compelling rules arose mysteriously "out of nowhere" or so felt the children, and new rules were not often framed. Active group conduct without rules was determined largely by quarreling, fighting, or menacing, also the "pecking order," the possession of property, whether parental or personal, or inspiration resembling a breeze that picks up some leaves and sends them flying to another place. There was no place for a legislative process here either. Nevertheless, he was an innovator of rules and inventor of games whenever the opportunity was afforded, and maybe this would point a way to some type of heroics.