USS Constitution and the Sea Nymph
(laminated foamcore game pieces from Pirates of the Spanish Main — Crimson Coast and Revolution expansions)
Acquired: Dragon’s Lair Comics & Fantasy (Austin, TX)
Note: When Pirates of the Spanish Main was released in 2004, I was super-excited by it. Not only was it centered on pirate ships and other sailing vessels , it scratched that model-making itch by giving players cards to punch out so you could build the ships yourself. The game mechanics made for fast-paced, table-top play with easy movement, but more importantly provided what players really wanted — an easy way to pretend to blow the hell out of each other with booming cannons. Sadly, the model boat version was discontinued after a few years, and then later relaunched as a card-only game.
And hey, kids! Did you know the USS Constitution is a real ship? And a pretty famous one, at that. I got to see her during a trip to Boston, and I’d recommend it if you ever have the chance to take a look at Old Ironsides yourself. (If you just can’t wait, there’s a virtual tour available, too.)
Getting radiation treatment is a lonely sort of thing.
It’s not for a lack of people being around. At any given session there were at least two to four (and, once, five) radiologists, technicians and nurses hanging around while I became more and more comfortable with essentially being naked from the waist down in front of strangers*. But that was the flurry of activity before and after. In between, during the actual treatment, I was alone.
Just me and a radio.
This is what happened every weekday for three weeks. I would show up at the oncology center, sign in and wait a few minutes. Then I would be escorted to one of the rooms where a radiation machine was waiting for me, filling a large, darkened room with its bulk. Attached to it is a narrow rack to lay on, while the rest of the machine hunches over you and lasers in the walls and ceiling help line up the machine’s radiating eye. The room is dark and cool, and directly above where you lay a couple of the flourescent lighting panels have been replaced with a translucent image of a pretty stream running through a well-manicured park. Something to relax you.
I think that’s what the radio is for, too. Without it the only sound in the room would be the air running through vents, the clunk-whirr of the machine as it rotates into place, and then the cheap-microwave buzz as it cooks away any stray cancer cells that might be lurking in your body. The total time for treatment was only 10 to 15 minutes, and most of that was prep; minutes are used aligning the machine, and only a few seconds at a time are spent getting irradiated. But during the few minutes alone, I was glad to have music.
Quiet time is empty time, and whenever that happens my mind tries to fill it. Usually that’s good since that’s often when I’m most creative. But when I’m worried or anticipating something stressfully beyond my direct control, my imagination runs wild. Without that radio – tuned to an 80s station mostly, sometimes to country – I wouldn’t have had anything to distract me from the machine driving radiation into me. Nothing to help me ignore the awkwardness of laying there, vulnerable. Everything a reminder of the cancer that had pushed its way into my life and the bodily soil I was salting to make sure it doesn’t come back.
The first song I heard on the first day of treatment was so cheerful, so peppy, that it took me aback. So much so that the treatment was over before I realized it, and now “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s is my own Fry-like “Walking on Sunshine.”
After that I decided to keep track of the music playing while I got my radiation treatments, and now I’m sharing it with you. This list was formed completely by chance; I didn’t have any say in what music to listen to, and I didn’t necessarily like everything that was played or even know the artist playing. But this is the way it happened. And now this is music that will always, in some way, be part of my personal soundtrack.
“We Got the Beat” – The Go-Go’s
“Gone Country” – Alan Travis
(I stopped listening to new country music sometime in the mid-90s, which is why I was still able to recognize this one.)
“Promises, Promises” – Naked Eyes
(A lot of 80s songs remind me of my wife Sandy, which makes me like them more; this is one of them.)
“Two Princes” – Spin Doctors
(A song from early in our relationship; Sandy and I had just started dating a few months after this was released.)
“Stayin’ Alive” – Bee Gees
(Nice one, Bee Gees.)
“I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” – Joan Jett & The Blackhearts
(Kick-ass song from a kick-ass lady; I probably sang along to this one.)
“Only Prettier” – Miranda Lambert
(I had to ask who this was, though I got the idea she’s a Big Deal.)
“Paper in Fire” – John Cougar Mellencamp
(I’ve always liked this song.)
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” – Thelma Houston
(Great song; don’t worry, you know it even if you think you don’t.)
“Some Like It Hot” – Power Station
(Pure, 80s supergroup; this one makes me think of Sandy – the biggest Duran Duran fan I know – too.)
“Footloose” – Kenny Loggins
(Confession: When “Footloose” hit the dollar theater, I must’ve seen it seven or eight times.)
“Sledgehammer” – Peter Gabriel
(This was played into the ground when it was released; all these years later, I still like it.)
“Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)” – Train
(Sandy and I have dozens of “our songs,” and this is one of them.)
“Small Town U.S.A.” – Justin Moore
(I’m sure Justin Moore is a very nice guy.)
“Holy Diver” – Dio
(I’m cheating a little bit here, because this was actually playing in the car when we left after my last treatment. But I have a history with this song – one shared with Sandy and some close friends – and its pure, undistilled, classic heavy-metalness has always been a source of head-banging joy. I couldn’t have picked a better song to end on. Except maybe “Rainbow in the Dark.”)
If you’d like to listen along, here’s a playlist I put together on Spotify. Weirdly, neither “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” or “Sledgehammer” were available, so here are the original videos (along with “Holy Diver,” because it’s Dio).
* I should point out that the staff at the oncology center were fantastic, and very literally lifted my faith in human beings. Every single person was kind and friendly, taking time to talk to me not just about treatment but about my day and my life. They took something that could have been scary and stressful and smoothed it down into something easy to handle. They are amazing people. If this was a mixtape, I’d dedicate it to them.
75 years ago a strange visitor from another planet came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and since then has become one of the most enduring, recognizable and popular superhero characters in the world – which is why today we celebrate Superman’s first appearance ever, way back in Action Comics #1.
I could go on and on about Superman’s legacy – as a cultural icon, as an ideal, as well as my personal attachment to the Big Blue Boy Scout – but this time I think I’ll just point you in the direction of what I’ve said before. I will say, though, that a character doesn’t last for 75 years – and come out as strong and relevant as ever – without resonating with people in some deep and signifcant way. The term “modern mythology” could have been invented just to encompass Jerry Siegel‘s and Joe Shuster‘s creation.
There is a very simple reason for this. Superman isn’t the greatest hero – not just in the DC Universe, not just to comic fans, but even to the average person on the street – because he’s perfect. He’s not. But he tries to be as good as he can, and inspires the same in others. He aspires to greatness without thought of ambition or personal gain or ego; he does it because that is our duty as human beings. A super-powered alien rocketed to Earth as an infant from the doomed planet Krypton, Superman is the most human of us all.
Everyone thinks Batman is cool, but deep down we all want to be Superman.
Happy anniversary, big guy (and you, too, Lois!). Up, up and away.
To be honest, it was my own fault. I’d been blowing off a couple of classes, thanks to a combination of laziness and a growing sense of futility where me and math were concerned. Most of my other grades were fine, and in a couple of cases even better than average, and maybe that’s why I thought I might be getting away with something. But my parents had warned me that another failing grade at the end of six weeks — and the possibility of summer school if I wanted to get out of junior high — would bring down wrath the likes of which I had not yet seen. My folks were good, kind and encouraging people, and I was scared to death.
I turned a five-block walk into an hour-and-a-half long trek as I meandered up and down side streets, trying to form some sort of plan, some way to survive what was sure to be a nuclear winter that mild Spring day. This was harder than it sounds. Only a few years earlier, my neighborhood had been long acres of cotton fields in what was known as El Paso’s Lower Valley. A quick bike ride east would put me in the middle of what agriculture was left around there, but still within sight of a McDonald’s and the gang-controlled territory of Los Kennedy’s projects. It was that kind of neighborhood. But to the west, between my school and home, were just more suburban homes, a few ditches with concrete drainage pipes to hide in, and the parents of everyone I went to school with. I wasn’t the only one bringing home a stinker of a report card, and the psychic humidity of disappointment was thick in the streets.
Walk, walk, walk. Think, think, think. Only one of these things was getting me anywhere and it wasn’t anywhere I wanted to be. Between my frustration at the growing realization that I was in an inescapable trap of my own design and the arm-aching weight of the over-sized bass trombone case I dragged home every day, I was ready to give up. The surrender of the condemned washed over me just as I found myself in front of the neighborhood convenience store.
The C&L (actually a Good Time store at that point, but it used to be a C&L and that’s what everyone called it) was only a block and a half from the school, but my dedication to avoidance had put me on a six-block path to get there. Like someone facing the end of their time on death row, I decided to treat myself to a final morsel, something to savor when the ax fell.
The store gave me more aisles to shuffle up and down, another way to try to hold off the inevitable. I started in the back, where the preheated snacks and bottled sodas were and thought I’d yak. I was way too nervous to eat anything. The glass case at the counter had real metal ninja throwing stars and elaborately decorated pocket knives (it was the early 80s, and it was that kind of neighborhood), but I had less than two dollars on me. I was lucky to even have that much.
Desperate and running out of options, I decided to check the spinner rack, where the shrinking number of battered and only occasionally restocked comics floundered. I had already picked up an issue of Flash (my favorite) a couple of weeks before, and was ready to have another thin hope crushed.
At 13 years old, I was already taller than average, and maybe that’s why I got lucky. At the very top of the spinner rack, hidden by some ragged comics that would never find a home, I saw a big, gold banner peeking out. Taking it down, the comic was heavier than usual and had a cover obviously meant to impress. It definitely made an impression on me.
Detective Comics #526 was published in 1983 and is the 500th anniversary of Batman’s appearance in the title (as that brassy banner at the top trumpets), and at $1.50 it was more than twice the cost of an average comic. But the cover by Don Newton and Dick Giordano — Batman, Robin and Batgirl running toward the reader, surrounded by the white-on-red profiles of almost everyone in their rogue’s gallery — already had me hooked. Flipping through it and seeing more of Newton and Alfredo Alcala’s muscular but naturalistic work put me in the boat. This was something I could savor for a while, an Everlasting Gobstopper of a comic.
It was a good choice. In addition to the dynamic, gritty artwork by Newton and Alcala — all shadows and wonderfully expressive close-ups, punches that have enough force to make the reader’s teeth rattle —the script for “All My Enemies Against Me!” by Gerry Conway is nearly flawless. Conway takes what could have been a mess of a story, something that ties up loose ends, branches off in new directions and juggles a huge cast of diverse characters, and makes producing a solid and relentlessly paced script seem easy. On top of that, the story has at it’s heart Batman being both a crime fighter and a detective; a full embrace of circus-version Jason Todd into the Bat-family; and a classic, albeit doomed, Joker triple-cross. It is, without doubt, one of my favorite comics ever and definitely my favorite Batman story.
Before I knew any of that, though, I had to use the last of my money to buy it. I might have even used change from the take-a-penny dish. I gently placed Detective Comics #526 in a notebook, sandwiched that in between school books, and trudged the rest of the way home. My sister had arrived long before and helpfully stuck her report card to the fridge.
I went to my room and waited. My dad, who worked graveyard as a switchman with the Southern Pacific, was getting ready for the start of his day and Mom was probably already on her way home from the county clinic where she was an OB/GYN nurse. Pointedly, I left the issue of Detective in my book bag — like a salve kept in anticipation of the third-degree reaming I was sure to get, I was saving it.
I didn’t have to wait long, and as predicted, I was bawled out for what seemed like forever. Excuses, threats, disappointment, tears — it was all there, until my parents declared they were tired of looking at me and sent me to my room.
Sent me to Detective Comics #526.
Gerry Conway helped take me out of my self-inflicted misery, and Newton and Alcala put me in the heart of Gotham. Batman told me there was always a solution. Robin and Batgirl showed me that failing doesn’t mean you stop trying. The rogues gallery reminded me that crime — even a small, personal one — doesn’t pay.
I must have read that comic two or three times that night. I’ve read it dozens, maybe of hundreds of times since then.
I read it before I started writing this.
I’ll probably read it again when I’m done.
And Batman, in a celebration gilded in celebratory gold, will save the day one more time. The bad guys will be defeated once again. A young boy will learn a painful lesson, and start on a new path. And trouble will seem far, far away.