Sidekicks, and other heroes: Notes on a Spiritual Autobiography (part 2)

Yet another silly exercise, an anonymous fill-in-the-blank, for the pre- part of this “Spiritual Autobiography” course. The first fill-in-the-blank is: “When I was a child, I dreamed about / hoped to become a _______ (e.g., ‘secret agent,’ ‘violinist’).” The old, pre-seminary me would have filled the blank with something snarky without giving it a second thought. The new me: I had to at least think about it first. 

I remember taking one of those questionnaires in, like, sixth grade that they fed through a “scantron” machine and it told you what professions you’d be best suited for. Mine came back: international super-spy, or something. Maybe this was some kind of early recruiting program like in HANNA on Prime. I did end up working for NATO twenty or so years later, so…

No, I think those scantron tests was rigged. When I really sat down and thought about it, what I really always — from as far back as I could remember — wanted to be, if I’m being 1000% honest, was a sidekick/tag-along/Plus-One/wingman. Being a superhero seemed like such a drag, and so much work. Being a #2, or — even better — #3. That, I could get into. Keep your bat signal, your blinking red phone. I’m no super hero.

In fact, when I was a kid, all of my favorite characters on TV were bitchy betas. I’m not talking about Robin, the Boy Wonder, or Jimmy Olsen, with all that “golly, gosh!” and “holy smokes!” nonsense. I’m talking Artemis Gordon, hunky Jim West’s wingman, on Wild Wild West, or, better yet: Star Trek’s Leonard H. “Bones” McCoy (“Dammit, Jim!”). The Crankier and more cantankerous the better. These betas weren’t in charge, but they never backed down. They were competent, loyal, and, above all: indispensable in the clutch. That’s where that trademark sass — “Look, I’m a doctor, not an escalator!” — came from.

I had two older brothers, both bigger and stronger, and very competitive, and I realized early on that I couldn’t compete with them physically. I was hardy (we were all German/Irish/Italian peasant stock), and could roughhouse my way out of a playground scuffle, but was neither particularly good at nor interested in organized sports. My brothers both had the classic heroic aspirations that the culture of high school sports, especially in the American Midwest, has always been a repository for. I watched from the bleachers, secretly rooting for the rival team, whose wide receiver I had an impossible crush on.

By the time I was 15 or so, I’d say, I’d pretty much decided it was all bullshit, as you do. But as is the case for most 15 year-olds who come to that conclusion, there was, for me, at the time, no way out but through. While other boys were reveling in their get-out-of-jail-free “boys will be boys” phase, I was increasingly aware that the expression wasn’t meant for me, but to rationalize and excuse what would happen to me if I questioned it. As much as “boys will be boys” was a license for certain boys, it was a warning to people like me, who didn’t know how to boy, who didn’t even really know what a boy was or was supposed to be.

Even in my fantasy life I skipped ahead, out of childhood, past adolescence and adulthood, with their violence and bravado that I so longed to escape, and headed straight to dotage. I could see myself better as the old stylite, or the cave-dwelling ascetic in tattered sackcloth with a great bushy beard who lived off locusts and honey and was brother to the bees and hummingbirds, foxes and garter snakes of the forest. Someone with a great and wonderful secret I would never tell a human soul. In my childhood dreams I had been silent so long I had forgotten how to speak, but even if I could, no one would hear. The hero on a quest would take it for a riddle. They always do. The quest is always about them. The secret never is.

I was never the hero on the quest for the ring or the cup or the maiden in distress. I’m not mad about it. I didn’t want to be.

This was all reflected in my fascination with the betas and side-kicks of my childhood TV universe. My “antiheroes” were never men in their prime who always got the girl. My guys didn’t seem to be interested in girls at all. This was clearly true of Kitt, the car in Knight Rider, whom I would much rather have a drink with than David Hasselhoff’s boring Michael Knight. Hasselhoff without the talking car was just a slab of meat with a mullet. And that was part of it, too: my guys were usually the brains of the operation, rather than the brawn, and that was a role I could see myself being valued in in the homosocial settings of childhood and adolescence. 

So, part of all of this, when I look back on it, was my queer kid survival instincts kicking in. 

I had always been more comfortable around women than men. Mostly because I felt safer around them. Until I was in second grade, we lived in working class Speedway, Indiana, in a subdivision abutting the race track. This was the mid-’70s, and the economy wasn’t awesome. My dad was pretty typical of the neighborhood dads: ex-military, factory job. Life was simple: bowling, beer, one of those little above-ground pools in the tiny back yard of a tiny ranch-style house. We had little league on the weekends, and the women would all sit around drinking rum and cokes out of dixie cups and smoking Kools, making arch cracks as their husbands took the ballgame waaaaay too seriously. 

The women I grew up around always seemed to me to know something the rest of us didn’t. Something of the truth about heroism. They would circle their lawn chairs, overseeing the cooler, chatting and laughing, looking for all the world like they hadn’t a care, when we all knew this one’s son had just knocked a girl up, and that one’s was busted selling weed, and that one’s husband had just gotten his fifth DUI. It was “boys will be boys,” but they knew it was bullshit. I was always hovering around the women. I knew intuitively they were the ones who had something to teach me: about survival, resilience, the comedy of life. 

They would shoo me away, of course. I didn’t belong with them any more than I belonged with the men. But, you get a little older, and you realize how these glimpses of that binary world you felt left out of were all bullshit, too. Each one of those beautiful “wives” and “mothers” moved through their own liminal spaces; each one of those beautiful “dads” and “husbands” walked through worlds where they didn’t belong. You were never alone. You were never the only one.

You always have a sidekick.

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