Batman, Henry, and Papa
Copyright 2008, Jim Penny
Word count: 1105
A version of this essay was published in Assessing Writing as an example of a high school student writing in response to a question regarding the fictional character who has had “the greatest influence on your life.”
Of the fictional characters who’ve made an impression on me, I’d have to pick Batman, not because of any one thing that he ever did, but because of what he could have done, or more precisely, what I could do were I Batman. What is it I would do were I Batman, you ask? Well, were I Batman with wealth untold, with physical resources unimaginable even to the United States military, and with what appears to be nearly Jedi-like training, I would banish from this realm the malevolent newspaper editor who removed “Henry” from the Raleigh News and Observer.
Now why would I do such a thing? Why would I fight for a newspaper cartoon that never used a single word, that was more often printed in black-and-white than in color, and that described the odd world of a bald-headed boy with a round nose, a silent boy who thought mostly in punctuation marks, who always wore shorts, a tucked-in t-shirt, black lace-up shoes with rolled down socks, and little more except for maybe a scarf in the snow?
Why would I blast that editor from the face of this planet, and let Martian Moon Maggots gnaw the fetid remains that somehow survived the searing ionic blast of the polyphasic batpistol from my goody-packed Batman utility belt? Because he, she, or it saw fit to end the one cartoon that my grandfather read to me while I sat on his knee every Sunday for as many Sundays as I remember being small enough to fit on his knee and for a good many Sundays after that. He could even read the weekday Henry cartoons, and make them seem every bit as good as the Sunday color cartoons though they were black and white on the weekdays.
You want to know what else? No jury of my peers would find me guilty of anything more than justifiable homicide for doing so.
My parents would visit my grandparents nearly every Sunday, either for dinner or just after dinner. (Dinner is what we called what the rest of the world called lunch.) Papa, that’s what I called him, would lift me up on his lap, and proceed to find a 30-minute story in the maybe 10 colored panels of Henry in the Sunday paper. I know now he was keeping me out of the kitchen while my mother and grandmother finished putting our meal on the table, but then I thought he knew secrets untold as he spread the paper across my lap atop his.
You know what? Now that I think about it, he probably did know some secrets.
This man taught me to how to select ripe watermelons so Grandmother could make preserves from the rinds, a process that proves enough sugar can make about anything good. Gathering watermelons from a sandy field in late July or early August isn’t really the kind of work you would expect a young boy to remember fondly, so you might be wondering a little here, and often, a snake or spider will make a home under the larger melons, presenting quite the start when you reach to break the stem and take the melon up in your arms.
Well, the thing about it was that he and I ate the cool sweet heart from each melon, and fed the rest, full of seeds, to the chickens. We only took the rinds, still wet and sparkly where he’d scrapped the red melon meat away with his pocketknife, back to the house for my Grandmother.
Papa was a bee charmer with a dozen or more hives along the edge of the small field near his house. When he gathered honey in the summer, I’d appear as though summoned to help. Of course, my kind of help was to scoop honey from the large washtub with my fingers, and to chew errant chunks of comb as fast as his gnarled fingers could set them aside for me. The gentled bees swarmed all around the tub, the trays holding combs waiting, the jars filling under the corncob-stoppered spout at the base of the tub, and the sweetened boy-fingers racing from dripping rack to smacking lips, all golden laden with fresh late spring honey.
Papa taught me to shave a scalded pig with a wet blade, not dry, the blade being a straight-edged razor. The water protected the edge, and prevented Papa’s early return to the sharpening strop. He taught me to fish for bream and bass with dead crickets gleaned freely from the wooden box in which the chirping living crickets awaited the paying customer, a sharp hook, and sure watery death in a gaping fish maw.
He taught me to water and feed the earthworms he farmed, to select only the largest, and to be sure I counted to 100 and a little more as I filled the rusting soup can for sale to our neighbors and other gentlemen from the church. In the parking lot of Wimpy William’s Emporium, he explained that I needed to wait outside in the car, a green Nash Rambler, rather than go in with him to deliver fresh worms for sale; Wimpy sold beer in there.
In the summer of 1968, Papa carried my limp grandmother up the trembling flight of wooden back steps that he built some decades before, laid her dead by massive stroke on the squeaking bed, and called his sons, one my father, to ask them to come. “Mammie’s dead,” he said. That’s what he called her, and that’s what they called her.
The brothers then sold the homestead, and Papa moved from home to home for the next several years, an eternity I’m sure it was to him, intruding on the patterns of life, long ago established in the absence of extended family, until he settled alone in the white frame house across the now-paved road from where we lived. A few years later, the brothers, my uncles and daddy, settled Papa’s estate and shared the resulting $75.
So there, you have it. In my opinion, the Henry cartoon should appear in the front page of every newspaper in the land, and when I’m king of this realm, I’ll make it required reading. Maybe I’ll even create some Henry classes, which would be a definite improvement over those about Homer Simpson. That’s why I would like to be Batman, if for only a moment.