Trouble. In 1968, even a clueless eight-year-old kid in the Syracuse suburbs could sense there was something not quite right going on in the world.
I didn't watch the news. I didn't read the newspapers, except maybe to catch up with The Phantom and Family Circus and Dennis The Menace on the comics page. But I was at least dimly aware that there was a war going on in Viet Nam. I'd heard that there had been riots somewhere. I knew there was racial unrest. I knew there was a drug problem. And there were hippies. What was up with hippies?
My family was relatively untouched by the war. A few years back, while away at school in Fredonia, my brother Rob had been in a terrible car accident; he was one of the lucky ones who survived the crash, but he sustained injuries that still bother him, a lot, even today. Uncle Sam did not want Rob. My oldest brother, Art, had problems with his legs that should have likewise precluded any notion of military service. But some hardass in the draft system didn't agree, so Art had to put everything in his life on hold and go through this awful process of preparing for conscription. Somewhere, farther down this New Recruit assembly line, a person with authority and brains took one look at Art's leg and said, "How did you get this far?!" Rejected. There would be no Cafarelli boys fighting in 'Nam.
I was oblivious to all of this. I don't recall hearing about any of it until years later, listening to my Dad tell stories. Dad was always proud of Art--Mom and Dad were always proud of all their kids, really, even the oddball youngest one--and Dad was pissed that Art had to go through all of that unnecessary nonsense, when there was simply no way Art was ever gonna be a soldier, no chance in hell he could pass the physical. Dad had nearly infinite patience in most situations; he had no patience for fools, and he certainly had no patience for how the draft had disrupted Art's life for no real reason.
But we were lucky. I can't speak for my siblings, but I don't remember hearing of anyone in our circle of family or friends who had to serve in Viet Nam. I was eight, and had no opinion on the war. I suppose, if someone had asked me at the time, that I would have said I supported a war to fight Communism. That would have seemed like the proper comic-book thing to say. It would have been wrong, but then again, there were a lot of people older and smarter than me who were just as wrong about the war in early '68.
I doubt that I knew who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. But when Dr. King was assassinated, that bad news traveled fast. Schools were closed on the day of King's funeral; I recall getting ready to play outside, putting on my red baseball cap, but pausing to watch the TV coverage of Dr. King's memorial service. I felt sad. I was still going to go outside and play, but I needed to stop, just for a few seconds, and pay my own silent respects to the slain civil rights leader. Later in the year, when Bobby Kennedy was shot, my friend Sharon Doyle tried to organize the neighborhood kids for a parade around our block, offering prayers for Senator Kennedy's recovery. But Kennedy had passed before we even finished making our signs. We could have used some superheroes in '68.
Nonetheless, the superhero boom was dying. The Green Hornet TV series had failed, and was long gone after its first-season cancellation in '67. Batman's third season had tried to recapture its earlier success, cutting back from a twice-a-week schedule to the standard weekly deal, and adding the character of Batgirl (played by the absolutely gorgeous Yvonne Craig) to lure viewers back to Gotham City; all efforts were for naught, as Batman was cancelled in the Spring of 1968. The Monkees was also cancelled at about the same time.
For all that, though, 1968 was almost like my annus mirabilis, sort of. It was the final act of second grade, and I was the teacher's pet. During that school year, Mrs. Paredes selected me to recite a report she'd written on Yale University for the school-wide morning announcements. She also cast me in the lead role as Robert Louis Stevenson in our class play. Let's face it: I was adorable. (Elizabeth, my co-star in the play, certainly thought I was adorable, and she made sure everyone knew it.)
Even if the general public had tired of superheroes, I still couldn't get enough of them. I was amassing a collection, and loving every page of every Marvel or DC (or other!) comic book I could lay hands on. I think my favorite was The Legion Of Super-Heroes, a huge group of teen-aged superheroes in the 30th Century. I mean, if you like superheroes, what could be better than more superheroes? The usually-serialized adventures in Marvel Comics sometimes made it to difficult to keep up with what was going on--I missed far more issues than I actually got to read--but I remember an issue of The Fantastic Four that guest-starred Daredevil, Thor, and Spider-Man. Man, that was something else! I didn't really know anything yet about the writers and artists who created comic books--I may have known who Stan Lee was--but the artwork on this issue seemed like it could break free on its own, allowing the heroes to continue their battle on the quiet streets of North Syracuse. Jack Kirby. There was a reason he was called King Kirby.
(I'd also developed a taste for Nancy Drew novels, and an interest in Greek and Roman mythology. I had been obsessed with studying snakes and other reptiles--so much so that Mrs. Paredes had ordered me to start reading up on a different subject already--but a nightmare about snakes put a sudden end to that interest.)
Looking back, it seems odd that I don't remember more about 1968's music. The Beatles had fallen completely off my radar, so I certainly didn't know The White Album, and don't recall even hearing "Hey Jude" or "Revolution" (though I must have). It's for damn sure I didn't know about The Monkees' movie Head. The only song from '68 that jumps out immediately in my memory is "Bend Me, Shape Me" by The American Breed. Jeez, did I listen to the radio in 1968? I'm sure I did. But the memory of it isn't there.
But I do remember the comic books.
For the summer of 1968, rather than just spending a few weeks in Missouri, Mom and I would spend almost the entire summer away from Syracuse. For the long trip, I was allowed to pick out eight new comic books, with the caveat that I could not read them before the trip. I remember two of them specifically:
(I honored my contract, and did not read any of these comics until after we left Syracuse. I sure did spend a lot of time admiring the covers, though.)
Unlike previous Missouri sojourns, my California kin the Stouts--Aunt Betty, Uncle Charlie, and cousins Cheryl and Mark--would not be in the Show-Me State at all that summer. I considered Mark to be my best friend in the world, even though we saw each other with such infrequence. Mark's absence meant that I had no other kids to play with in Missouri; when it came to keeping myself entertained, I was pretty much on my own.
There were frequent fishing trips, and some of my time was occupied with daily swimming lessons. I loved the public pool in Aurora, and I transitioned from being a not-terribly-good swimmer to suddenly being...well, competent. I was not a good swimming student initially, and I think my two teen-aged female swimming instructors were frustrated with my lack of progress. I very clearly remember the slightly shocked glance they exchanged with each other when I suddenly, unexpectedly, just got it, and took off, swimming proficiently for the very first time. I never had trouble with swimming again.
|My swimming instructor. No, wait--that's Yvonne Craig again. Sorry!|
Then, as now, I thought this stuff was the pinnacle of superhero excitement, and I would be hard-pressed to pick out a favorite, or even a few favorites. The annual JLA/JSA team-up was terrific, and it introduced the Silver Age incarnation of The Red Tornado. Avengers Annual # 2 pitted the then-current Avengers against the original Avengers in an alternate-world clash that implicitly linked my first exposure to The Avengers (in Missouri, in 1966) with what I was reading in 1968; it was, I think, also the first time I realized that The Hulk had once been a member of The Avengers--from that point on, I wished that The Hulk could re-join the assembled Avengers on a permanent basis. The lead story in the Superman 30th Anniversary 80-Page Giant made me weep over the tragic fate of the heroic Hyperman, while the Bizarro Giant tickled me endlessly. In the pages of The Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby were simply at the top of their game. The big Marvel Super Heroes issues mixed new lead adventures with obscure reprints from Marvel's archives. And Not Brand Echh? Hilarious! I quoted goofy lines from that constantly. I still do!
Back at my grandparents' house in Verona, I filled a notebook with drawings for my own imaginary comic books. I concocted hypothetical adventures for existing DC and Marvel characters, and also wrote and drew a story starring a group of my own superhero creations, who imaginatively called themselves "The Avengers." Yep, I was litigation just waiting to happen. (That crayon-colored creation is long gone, but I know it also featured a group of super-villains, of whom the only dastardly baddies I can recall are Agent X and The Bolshevik Bat.) I also expanded the membership of Marvel's real Avengers to include The Hulk, Spider-Man, and even Not Brand Echh's silly Forbush-Man.
(I also found a World War I helmet at the house, and used it to pretend I was the Golden Age Flash, who was featured in that summer's Justice League-Justice Society team-up. Somewhat less fun was the other thing I found and played with: what I presumed was a little toy shot gun. My grandparents saw that and took it away immediately. It was not loaded.)
What was already quite a summer would soon expand even more. I have no idea if it was planned from the get-go, or if it was an idea that generated spontaneously over the early course of that summer. But the word came down from the adults in charge: we would be seeing the Stouts, after all. In California! Get in the car, Carl.
NEXT: Westward, HO! And a starring role at Christmas time.