the heroes of my boyhood
YOU CAN HAVE YOUR TV HEROES I remember when cowboys shot straighter, racing-car drivers drove faster and ball players hit home runs at least a mile. They just don’t make men today like
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
SOME BIG CHANGES have taken place in this world since I was a boy. For one thing, heroes aren't what they used to be. There's nobody today like Jimmy McLarnin, Tom Longboat, Ned Hanlan, Babe Ruth. Lionel Conacher, Red Grange, Billy Bishop. Hoot Gibson, or even Bung Anderson, who was perhaps the greatest football player the world has ever known, or would have been if the teachers at my school hadn’t picked on him because he didn’t do his homework.
Heroes used to be bigger, faster and more superhuman. It was common knowledge among boys that How'ie Morcnz attained the same speed as the Montreal-Toronto Express, and he could drive a puck right through a plank, or an opponent, except that he was always warned to pull his shots to avoid manslaughter. Heroes had to be better when I was a boy because they faced greater odds. Marathon swimmers had to fight higher waves and ran into more sharks. Speed demons needed more stamina. You can talk all you like about today's racing cars averaging a hundred and seventy miles an hour, but it doesn’t affect a man the way racing did when Barney Oldfield went forty miles an hour. It was probably something about those dirt tracks, but drivers had to be lifted out of their cars after a grueling race, and their legs had to be straightened out by mechanics sitting on them. Every kid knew this. It was the kind of thing that made heroes. Often, lying in bed, I used to picture myself being lifted out of my car and somebody sitting on my legs to straighten them. “What are they doing?” people would ask. “They're straightening out Bob Allen. He’s been doing forty for fifty laps. He just won’t quit, that boy.”
I often used to do this in a car I’d built myself out of soap boxes, which operated on a magic principle that adults had been too busy to discover. It used to amaze them as I passed them like a cannon ball — goggled, leaning over the side, priming the engine with a pump, covered with dust and continued on page 33
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“McLarnin was the greatest fighter, and a Canadian
which made him the greatest everything”
headed for the horizon in a golden cloud of splendor, trying not to laugh at everyone's surprise. When 1 skidded to a stop other racing drivers would look over my car. shaking their heads in wonder.
“How old are you?" they'd ask.
"Eight,” I'd say, taking off my gauntlets.
They'd look at one another in amazement, thinking, what will he be like before he dies of old age at twenty-five?
Dreaming ourselves into heroes was part of living among us kids. I could run like Tom Longboat and frequently did. along Danforth Avenue on the way to Riverdale Library, passing people like posts, until I was down in Riverdale Flats, where I became Lionel Conacher or Red Grange or a combination of both and Bob Allen, swivel-hipping my way up the football field to the roar of fifty thousand fans. I used to turn into Tom Mix on my way to school, tie my horse Tony to the hitching rail when I parked my bike, and walk into the classroom looking for the hotel dining room where a rider could wash down the dust of the desert with a cup of coffee, and stoke up on some bacon and eggs and fried potatoes. I'd hook the high heels of my cowboy boots around the feet of my desk and look my teacher in the eye. He was a big man with a long sloping stomach and wavy black hair, named Mr. Virgin. You could tell he was nervous about me. My saddle-packed body was as tough as rawhide. Finally he’d make some remark like, “If Mr. Allen feels that he can spare us five minutes of his attention," and I’d whistle for Tony, get him to do some of the addition and subtraction on the blackboard, tapping out the answers with his hooves, to the delight of my classmates, whom I'd let touch my saddle, then I'd ride off, and a few people would see the strange sight of Tom Mix riding out of a school on his horse Tony, and looking just like me.
A lot of our heroes we found in books — The Owner of The Lazy D, Hopalong Cassidy, Riders of the Purple Sage, Tarzan of the Apes, a strange wild creature fighting for survival in a far-off jungle world, slowly bending gorillas’ heads with his hammerlock until they grunted in gorilla language “Tarzan win!”
A steady source of heroes was the Saturday matinee where we used to line up, our faces bundled in scarves and our frosty breaths rising like plumes, shouting excitedly into one another's faces about last week’s show. Maybe the last episode would have ended with a girl hanging from a runaway locomotive and a tiger that had escaped from a circus car coming toward her licking his chops and an Indian riding alongside the car getting ready to shoot her, and the hero trying to get his hands untied in a cabin fifty miles away, and the film would suddenly end with SEE NEXT WEEK'S EPISODE. Next week's episode would open at some rich man's house wdth everyone playing tennis and talking about a trip to Africa, but we didn't mind.
We used to see Uncas, the Last of the Mohicans, who walked with his toes pointed straight ahead, instead of turned out like a w'hite man's. We’d practice this on the way to school, turning back every now and then to look at our footprints in the snow to make sure they were straight. I still catch myself trying to walk like Uncas now and then.
One of our greatest heroes w'as Reginald Denny, who played Kid Roberts in a series called The Leather Pushers. Kid Roberts was the greatest fighter in the world. Jack Dempsey was also the greatest fighter in the world, and Jimmy
McLarnin was not only the greatest fighter in the world but a Canadian, which made him just about the greatest everything in the world, but this didn’t stop Kid Roberts being the greatest fighter in the world. He defended his title every
Saturday matinee and his opponents were all middle-aged, hairy, unprincipled and sneering and sat there looking across the ring and laughing, their whole bodies jiggling with mirth, which made it all the better when Kid Roberts lobbed them
out of the ring and their expressions changed in mid-air from amusement to thoughtful surprise. One of the most memorable afternoons in my life was the episode of the l eather Pushers when Kid Roberts got licked. The producers evidently decided to wrap up the series, and with it any ideas the kids had of becoming prize fighters, and they did a good job of it. Kid Roberts was flogged, pummeled, caught flush on the mouth coming in to clinches and coming out of them and knocked down about twenty-seven times. F'he kids could hardly believe it.
I still can't quite believe it after forty years.
One of the most spellbinding of our heroes was Douglas Fairbanks. 1 used to turn into him often when I got into trouble at home, and I'd disappear into the South Seas for years and come back laughing and swashbuckling, a red handkerchief over my head, a knife in my gleaming teeth, gold earrings, and enough gold from sunken treasure to buy my father out. I’d see him on the docks, standing there with his hat on. in a neat blue suit looking puzzled but not without admiration. He'd call up to me, "Where the Sam Hill have you been?"
"Around the world." I'd say. leaping to the railing and leaning out from a halyard.
"Is that so?” he'd say "How did you get enough money?"
"I just happen to have a million dollars in gold, that's all?" I d call to him.
"Look at him," my whole class, who somehow were there on the docks with my father, would say. as I slid down a rope with one hand, did a sommersault in mid air, tossed my knife in the air, caught it in my teeth, and landed neatly in front of my mother and said "Hello, Mom."
Other times I'd become Corporal Allen of the Royal Canadian Northwest Mounted Police, a scarlet speck in a white wilderness, bearded, grim, tracking some mad, red-eyed thieving trapper right into the northern lights. They didn't get away from Corporal Allen. As people used to say. "He'll follow you right to hell." and somebody else would add. "And back again!" A year later I'd be standing outside the parliament buildings, at ease, feet spread, hands gripped loosely behind my back, smiling, clean, pink, shaved, slender. polite and affable and my father would come up and ask me if l got my homework done, and I'd say, "Pretty hard to do arithmetic at seventy-five below. on a dog sled." Several tourists standing around me would chuckle with appreciation.
There were heroic possibilities in just about everything. If 1 came across a tin can on the way home from school I'd become the Champion Tin-Can Kicker of the World. There d be all these people who. for some reason had to get somebody to kick a tin can. It was a matter of life and death. But nobody could be depended on to kick it far enough. Then somebody in the crowd would say "Why don't they get Bob Allen.’ He's the Champion Tin-Can Kicker in The World." And I'd trot up to it on tip toe, poised, my arms spread like seagull's wings, while fifty thousand people held thier breaths.
If 1 picked up a stick and started to bat out stones with it, a manager would start signaling to his outfield to get back, way, way back. He'd signal frantically while I stood there composed, a slight smile on my face, and if you took careful notice, you’d see that the little finger of my right hand was locked under the index finger of my left hand, which I'd explain to Babe Ruth after the game when he came up and asked me how a
boy my size could nearly always knock a ball right out of the field.
I used to go up to Dufferin Street airfield, where an abandoned Curtiss Robin sat in a corner of the field belly-deep in grass, and I'd sit there in the cockpit amid the smell of hot leather and oil operating the controls and turning into Captain Billy Bishop, my neck like an owl's, scanning the sky for enemy fighters, notably Richthofen, who, of course, was looking for me. With an inscrutable face anil a slight smile. I'd go into an Immelmann turn, get between my foe and the sun. then coldly, relentlessly get him in my sights. After I d watched him trailing smoke to the ground. I 'cl come in and fly upside down over the hanger, hanging out of the cockpit by my safety belt, maybe waving at somebody like Mabel Normand.
My secret muscles
Sometimes when I was being the Greatest Something The World Has Ever Seen and it depended on the exact way I walked or held my arms, or looked, my older brother would notice me and say, "What's lie acting so crazy about?" and my mother would give me a quick look for spots and tell me to sit down and eat nty supper and I'd have one of my favorite dreams. I'd be grown up and at least once a day I'd grab my brother by the shoulder, sort of smiling, let him think he could lick me for a minute, then tighten my grip until he sat down on the floor and asked in confusion how I got the muscles.
Where I got them, of course, was building my body without anybody knowing it. We used to read those ads that showed puny, sparrow-chested, sadlooking weaklings who bought arm exercisers and punching bags and boxing gloves and one day. looking like somebody else, sent a surprised bully spinning into the gutter wtih some remark like "What were you saying?"
We used to box down in one another's cellars, and end up with frozen smiles and sometimes while we were waiting for supper my father would give us a lesson in scientific boxing, squeezing his fingers into our boxing gloves and saying "Now try to hit me." The thought of hitting that dignified vest with its watch chain would just about hypnotize us. "Go ahead, try to hit me," he'd say. "It's all in the footwork." It would be a relief
when he'd clout us w;ith one of his loose gloves and we wouldn't have to try to hit him in the stomach.
Our heroes all lived outdoors and used their muscles and usually wore different kind of clothes from ordinary people. They did nearly everything differently from ordinary people. The other day I heard a kid say, as if he meant it. that he intended to be a lawyer when he grew up. and it was all 1 could do not to ask him if he realized that a lawyer wore a tie. sat down at the table for supper, said "Excuse me," and washed his hands before every meal, all his life. I almost told him that lawyers probably kissed girls, but I had a feeling that after watching today's TV heroes he would have thought it was as natural as shooting rustlers.
Part of the glory of some of our heroes when I was a kid was that they looked just the way girls wouldn't want them to look, sometimes bent and bowlegged. with craggy faces that needed a shave. I remember I used to look in the bathroom mirror every night hopefully examining my face for lines, wrinkles, whiskers, pouches under my eyes or anything that would break the unheroic effect of a grape.
We felt that the only reason that our fathers worked at the jobs they did was that they just hadn't heard of men who lived in canoes or log cabins or on horses; in fact they hadn't heard of the great golden world that was full of action and triumph, where life had color and juice and nobody did things like homework. It was the world for which I was headed when I was a kid and the thoughts of it worked better than whisky does now and I sometimes wonder just where 1 lost it and wish I could get it back. Life doesn't become too tough; it just becomes dreamless.
Probably the end of the dream began for me when I found that I needed glasses. Up till then I had hooted at every kid who wore glasses and called him "four eyes." figuring that he just didn't want to be like Tom Mix. The day I looked at myself in an optometrist's mirror, sitting there in a department that smelled of spectacle cleaner and reminded me of a dress department, I felt somehow that I'd let my heroes down. I heard knowing remarks above my head. "He's a bit disappointed you know,” my mother said, and some kindly liar said that I’d probably only have to wear them for
a month. I had a picture of myself coming into the ring, taking off my robe bearing the letters KID ALLEN, handing it to one of my seconds, then handing him my glasses and telling him to be careful not to break them. I didn't just look into the mirror. 1 looked right through it to the end of everything.
I got half reconciled to the glasses, but when the day came when I had a chance to be a hero myself, nothing happened the way it was supposed to happen with heroes. It all started at a Sunday school class 1 used to go to. I had a dapper Sunday school teacher named Mr. Ghent, a trim, affable track-man type who spoke briskly and with warmth against smoking and foul language and who was always trying to get one of us hoys to give a prayer, but nobody would do it.
Then one Sunday when he asked for a volunteer I couldn't stand the silence any longer and I said I'd do it. It went off rather well and from then on I could be counted on to give a prayer and became so popular with the boys for getting them off the hook that when the class formed a hockey team they elected me captain. I didn't play hockey. I dreamed a terrific game of hockey, but I didn't play it. I told them I didn't play hockey and had never played hockey. I
told them that I could hardly skate. But the more I protested the more convinced they were that it was typical and admirable Christian modesty and that 1 was really invincible. Even Mr. Ghent became caught up in this mass hysteria. It was my first experience of telling the literal truth and not being able to get anybody to believe it.
But it didn't take long to convince everyone once the hockey game started. Kids who couldn't pray but who could play hockey circled me like terriers. By the time I'd get turned around the play would have gone to the other end and hack. I'd bend over and flail at the puck while coasting slowly backward, propelled by by own determination. Worst of all was when I'd just be standing still and suddenly fall flat on my back. Mr. Ghent finally decided to put me in goal, where I could hang onto the goal post until the game was over.
It wasn't the right ending for someone who had been a cowboy, a jungle explorer, a human tly and The Greatest Champion of Everything The World Had Ever Seen, but somehow, without actually thinking about it. I knew that it was the most common ending, and happened far more often to most people than the things that happened to the heroes of my boyhood. ★