|When did I find out Dad was human? It was when I was eight years old. No,
it didn't have anything to do with sex, or Oedipus, or anything Freudian. It had to do
I loved comic books it took a three year stint in the Army for me to lose that jones and I still collect the hard-bound copies issued during my childhood. In 1959 Superman was the best to be had. At least in my opinion. He appeared in several guises, depending on the comic. I preferred his incarnation in Action Comics. The art was the most aesthetically pleasing.
Back then I didn't know aesthetic from asepctic. Ask me to define it and I would have said it was the gas they gave you before an operation. I was the kind of kid that, when asked by the nuns in third grade to define Lent, said it was the stuff that got all over your navy-blue wool suit when you sat on a chenille bedspread.
Let's get back to discovering that Dad didn't know everything.
It was a summer afternoon. That time of day when its really too late to be afternoon, but too early for evening. I'd helped my older buddy deliver his Cleveland "Press" newspapers and he gave me fifteen cents.
Grasping the dime and nickel, I risked my life jay-walking across West 105th Street to the deli on the corner. At least two hundred and sixteen comic books of all types were displayed in the side window. Being a connoisseur, I by-passed such hack books as Blue Beetle and The Phantom both seemed kind of fey and headed straight for the guy in blue, red, and yellow tights.
DC Comics, the chroniclers of Superman, believed in diversification. They had thirty-eight titles that featured Superman, Superboy, and Supergirl. Later, some of these titles shared tales of Superdog, Superhorse, and a whole menagerie of beings that escaped Krypton before it took one for the team.
I agonized over which to buy. If only I had seven more cents I could get two. But that was impossible, so I began weighing value. I finally decided on Action Comics since it usually featured a couple of stories rather than an extended novel-length narrative. More for my money.
I grabbed the magazine and stopped by the candy display in the window and rounded out my purchase with three hunks of Double Bubble. Some kids preferred Bazooka, but Double Bubble came in a cylindrical shaped chunk about the size of my thumb and I liked their version of tutti-fruitti better
So here I was, four-thirty on an August day, sitting in the kitchen chewing a mouthful of gum and reading how Lex Luther was kicking Kal-el's butt all over the planet. Kal-el is Superman's real name.
I was buzzing along enjoying the action they named the magazine appropriately when I hit that word. I'd been reading about Superman since before I could puzzle out the word balloons. I knew only magic and Kryptonite could bother the guy. He could see through anything but lead including women's clothes, a talent which I envied melt guns by looking at them, see a million miles away, fly faster than Einstein said was possible, and had about a dozen other attributes. For me, God was Superman with white hair and a beard. Things like X-Ray Vision and Heat Vision were powers I could understand. But, when they said the guy was invulnerable, I was lost.
The word never bothered me before. I just ignored it. Now, however,I could puzzle it out. In-vul-ner-a-bal. I didn't know what it was.
It bothered me. Like when my parents spelled things out before I was old enough to catch them at it. There was something here I should know about.
Where to find it? The thought of a dictionary never entered my skull. That was the book Dad sometimes used when he worked crossword puzzles. Something too arcane for me. Hey, ask Dad!
I flipped Lex and Kal face-down on the table and went into the dining room to ask my father what invulnerable meant.
Dad was sitting at the table, the "Press" spread before him. It was a nightly tradition that when he came home from work, he would read the paper. Cover to cover. And retain it.
After he'd masticated the news, he would turn to the comics section. That's were I usually turned to first, last, and only. He wouldn't read the strips. Neither Lolli, nor Snuffy Smith held an attraction for him. He was after the crossword. He stalked the words like a hunter. I could lie and say he usually had to wrestle them to ground, but he didn't. He had grace and finesse. The dictionary sat behind him on the window seat, but was only opened perhaps once a week, and then only to verify. Dad had a crossword vocabulary like Noah Webster.
Over the years I think he was frustrated in not being able to use it. It's a rare event when factory worker can bring up a seven letter word for dwarf Nairobi tidal pool dweller in his conversation. He knew the words and how they were spelled, but he didn't know how to pronounce them. He was a musician who could read music, but played no instrument.
His physical prowess matched his phonetic might. Even today, it takes two of my forearms to match one of his. He's shorter than I am now, but by no means any smaller. Even though I loved Superman, I knew that in a fair fight my Dad could probably whip him three falls out of three.
Dad sat at the table reading the financial section for the same reason people scaled Everest, and with as much determination. Mom and Dad's only financial investment was in commodities food and clothes for three kids
I stood beside him for a minute, waiting to be noticed. Interrupting him would be like asking da Vinci for the time while he was catching Mona's smile. If I disturbed him I might spoil the surprise at the end of the story he was reading. If there can be any surprise in a story about municipal reciprocity.
As his eyes jumped to the next headline I wedged myself closer.
"Hhmm?" His eyes didn't leave the page.
"What's in-vul-ner-a-bal mean?"
He blinked. He stopped reading. He looked at me.
Oh God, now I was in deep soup. Maybe this is like the time when I brought the word "pimp" home from school and proceeded to label my brother with it. DC Comics had led me into sin.
"What's the word?"
He didn't seem angry, just puzzled. Maybe I wouldn't be killed.
His eyes glazed over for a second as he riffled his memory for the correct definition for an eight-year-old.
"It means never being wrong."
Never wrong? Come on, Superman's wrong lots of times. I've seen it myself.
"No. I mean IN-VUL-NER-A-BAL."
"I told you. It means never being wrong. Like the Pope when he talks about church matters."
Maybe I misunderstood things.
"The Pope is invulnerable? Is anyone else?" Maybe Dad meant Superman as well and was just ranking them in order of reality.
"No, no one else. Only the Pope."
I was doubting the source of all knowledge, and we both knew it. I backed off before I compounded my indiscretion.
"Okay. Thanks, Dad."
He went back to the paper and I went back to Action Comics. Only the Pope was invulnerable? Something's wrong here. I froze with my hand on the slick cover of the comic book. I realized that Dad had to be wrong. Ecclesiastical certitude had nothing to do with bullets bouncing off the chest.
Dad was wrong.
Yeah, Dad had to be wrong. He doesn't know what invulnerable means.
Do you know what you're saying? Dad knows everything!
He doesn't know what invulnerable means.
I was shaken. My father was no longer infallible. Hell, he probably wasn't even invulnerable, if I ever found out what that means. His godhood in my eyes fell away and he became human. Like me.
I picked up my book, discarded the concept of invulnerability, and finished finding out how Superman would turn the tables on Mr. Lex Luther and send him to prison for the forty-third time.
Dad still has a bigger vocabulary than I do. I've given up playing Scrabble with him out of embarrassment. He flails me with fifty-point triple-word scores while I compose things like "but" or "pig."
He's still tougher than me and even though he's passed the 80 year milestone, I'm sure he can still take Superman two falls out of three.
© 2003, Pete Nofel