The Captain and The King

Apr 07

I remember the day Elvis died: August 16, 1977. I remember, not because I was a big fan or even knew anything about him, but because of my mother. In those days, before the advent of Internet, DVD players or even VCRs, a child’s viewing pleasure was largely determined by the whatever the local television stations chose to air. While this sounds limiting by today’s standards, there were segments where this could be quite fun. A special would air, and all the kids would watch it-one of the few times when cartoons were on at night was something not to be missed. The next day, we would all talk about it, having watched the same shows.

During the late 70’s my neighborhood suffered a dearth of children to play with, and I spent long long hours in solitude (this was, in fact, how I got started writing stories). When I wasn’t writing, reading, or wandering in the woods behind my house, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching television. There was one event I looked forward to every summer: Monster Week. Turner Broadcasting-then a small, local channel-would have a week long monster movie marathon. My mother would indulge me and allow my fare of truly terrible monster movies: Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Godzilla versus King Kong, Destroy All Monsters. It was great. All boys love monsters-especially giant, mutated, radiation spewing ones. During a commercial break, I went upstairs to get something (a drink, maybe more popcorn) and saw my mother shedding a few tears. I asked her what was wrong, and Ma, in her Long Island diction, said: “Elvis died today, Petah.”

Now, I tried to be sympathetic, no child likes to see their parent upset. But my mother didn’t know Elvis personally, and perhaps I was too young to understand nostalgia. What was more, I’d seen Elvis on TV-and, to me at least, he appeared to be a slovenly, gaudy creature that played tunes I didn’t care for. How could my mother possibly be moved to tears at his passing? Death is tragic, to be sure-especially when it is early due to unnatural complications like drug overdose. Not really understanding, I soon returned to my monster movies.

Many years later, I was fortunate enough to have children of my own. Everyone says that having kids will change you-and it’s very true. Some of the changes are obvious: we feel more pressure in our jobs-we need to make sure we have enough resources to provide; we feel more anxiety in our behavior-we don’t want to somehow accidentally raise our kids the wrong way. But some changes are not so apparent. For my own part, the understanding that we were all children once-that we are the results and consequences of our youth and family-really sunk in. I started to view humanity differently-and I like to think, if anything, it made me more understanding and compassionate of others. So many of us still live out the roles we assumed at such a young age-believing things about ourselves that are deeply ingrained and difficult to objectify from. I started to see the child inside of others.

When I was a boy, in addition to monsters, I also loved super-heroes. I still do, despite any literary pretensions it may seem that I hold. Heroic narrative is very satisfying when it’s written properly-and somehow, the absurd conventions of super heroica (secret origins and identities, garish costumes, impossible powers) add the proper element of the fantastic…of the mythic.

The universe of super heroes and villains is incredibly vast-with the majority of them being unknown to the population at large, only a relative few make it big enough to earn public recognition. Captain Marvel (Shazam) is, perhaps, one of these, having at one time outsold Superman. His younger counterpart, Captain Marvel Junior, probably doesn’t make the list. However, there was a time, in the 1940’s, when the young Captain Marvel Junior also sold very well-well enough that competitor DC Comics (which eventually bought the good Captain and his attendants) created Superboy. In real life, when a young boy is good, he is really good. You could never doubt his love for his mother, his desire to do the right thing, his eagerness to help others, his joy of learning about the world around him. Captain Marvel Junior, like many fictional boy heroes of the day, was created to exemplify these traits.

Not too long ago, I read that Elvis was a big fan of Captain Marvel Junior; in fact, his collection of Captain Marvel Junior comics is on display at Graceland. I learned that his hair-cut was meant to resemble the young hero’s (and after a moment’s thought, I realized how much it really did). The small cape he wore-it evoked Captain Marvel Junior’s own. Even the lightning bolt (the emblem and mandala of the Marvel Family) insignia of Elvis’ record label hearkened back to the boy hero. The discovery of the King’s love for the Captain completely surprised me. I looked back at Elvis, doing his stage show in costume: the cape, the full black hair, and I saw, in the smile he wore, something younger. There were earlier days in that face: a young boy whose twin died at birth, close to his mother, raised in extreme poverty, berated for his love of music. The boy reads the exploits of Captain Marvel Junior: stories about empowerment, doing the right thing, tales that could help bear a young man through his own trials. I saw the boy in the man and saw the man in a completely different way.  He was somehow even more tragic in that moment, and also, somehow ennobled. And I could at last understand how my mother cried the day the King died. He was a boy king and the death of youth is always a sad thing.

5 comments

  1. Steven Swaffar /

    Really liked it Peter. You put that together brilliantly.

  2. Peter /

    thanks Steven! I appreciate your words very much.

  3. I like this piece of writing very much!

  4. Peter /

    Thanks Carl, I appreciate that!

  5. Enjoyed it. Good story teller. Strangely resonated about something I was thinking about today, reading your story must be an example of synchronicity. My thoughts? Children like spooky and fantasy stories or movies because it is an entry into their subconcious. It can be a natural urge, develops the spirit-ual dimension in them. Also my thoughts about the mythical superhero? We aim to transcend our limitations, aim to be better, fulfil our potential etc. The superhero again, in the realms of fantasy awakens the herooic in us. Great teachers always remind us about that greatness that lies latent in us and that we should tap into that.

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