Two of my heroes are in the spotlight these days. Dylan is there because Amnesty International is celebrating 50 years of doing some damned good in this world with a fund-raising CD featuring covers of 77 Dylan songs, including about 70% artists I never heard of before. Band of Skulls? Airborne Toxic Event? Am I getting so old or is the world just turning too fast for anyone of any age to keep up? There’s an appearance by someone whose name is Miley Cyrus, who I only know as this cute face Huffington Post feels compelled to put on their front page nearly every frickin‘ day. But now I know her as someone who pulls off a fairly commendable version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” and I don’t mind at all being an old dog being taught a new trick. So go, Miley, and may you stay “forever young” (the cover of which is done by the venerable Pete Seeger on this CD, but Miley does Dylan better than Pete, so there’s a “changing of the guard” for you, which, btw, is nicely covered by Gaslight Anthem…and on and on it goes.)
My other hero strutting over the main stage is Mr. Bill Belichick, who’s about to lead his New England Patriots to their fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 years, which for non sports fans is the equivalent of killing FIVE bin Ladens, saving THREE auto companies, and singing an entire Al Green album before a joint session of Congress. As with the Dylan album, this particular feat of Belichick’s is all about the coverage. Patriots defensive backs Sterling Moore and Anquan Molden are the Band of Skulls and Airborne Toxic Event of football…by which I mean, Who are these guys?
Now one important thing that Dylan and Belichick have in common other than their busts on proud display in the Capriccio's Pantheon is that they’ve both been publicly busted for bad behavior. In fact, in circles where they are not held in as high esteem as they are at the Nobby Works, they are known, respectively, as The Plagiarist and The Cheat. Dylan has not only been accused of lifting the work of others through much of his career, but has actually been caught red-handed in the act. And Belichick has not only been rumored to illegally tape the defensive play calls of his opponents, but has been caught dead-to-rights and been severely punished for it. This is where hero-worshippers like me get to avail themselves of the Biblical metaphor of “the feet of clay” –coincidently from the Book of Daniel (2:31—33):
Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay…And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters' clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken.
I would gladly share and elaborate on the rationalizations that allow me to continue to honor Dylan and Belichick despite their wrongs—that Dylan is continuing a long and honored folk tradition of “borrowing” from those who came before him and that Belichick’s crime was not out of the mainstream of NFL coaching, though his arrogance in committing it may have been. But the devil in this case is not in these details. The greater, more compelling truth is that most heroes have feet of clay—are flawed in some way, because ultimately they are human beings, and imperfection is part of our essential nature. I learned this valuable, albeit disturbing, lesson with the first hero of my life. Check that—second hero—Jesus was the first. Ted Williams was the second, and pictures of Ted adorned my bedroom, flanking a crucifix on either side, like those two thieves on Calvary. The winters of my youth were spent in waiting for Ted to come down from his mountaintop and announce the rebirth of spring with the first swings of his bat. Ted Williams was as close to a living god as there was in my youth. So it was beyond desecration when I learned that Teddy Ballgame, my Splendid Splinter, was not a Catholic, and as consequence—as I had learned in Catechism class—could not go to Heaven when he died, even if he was the last of the .400 hitters.
That was when I first realized that heroes sometimes have feet of clay. If Ted’s absence from the “one true church” was an issue for me, I could trade my allegiance to him for Stan Musial, who was almost as good a hitter and a Catholic to boot, though he played in St Louis (or closer to home, DiMaggio, the damned Yankee). Or I could accept Ted’s grievous fault and go on cheering for him. Which is what I did, even as the faults started mounting up—the F.U. finger he gave the press, the bat he tossed in disgust that hit his boss’s housekeeper in the head, the multiple times he spit at the fans—and then, worst of all, his active role in Richard Milhous Nixon’s campaign for the Presidency. I processed and assimilated all that negative stuff and continued to cheer for Ted right up until the day I met him face to face. It was September of 1978, and the Sox had been gagging up a 14-game lead over the Yankees in one of the most infamous collapses in sports history. I was making the most of it, living a childhood fantasy by roaming at will through Fenway Park with a press pass. I was by myself strolling toward the infield after touching the Green Monster when what to my wondering eyes should appear but the unmistakable physique of the man who had occupied my boyhood dreams. Ted Williams, also alone, was heading toward me.
My mind was suddenly seized by the same thought that surely took hold of Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Rip Sewall, Pete Ramos, Connie Johnson, Whitey Ford, and a few hundred other guys: What do you do when you come face-to-face with Ted Williams?
In writing about Ted’s famous last at bat, John Updike had already clearly defined what you don’t do. “Gods don’t answer letters,” he wrote.
I wasn’t about to write a letter. I wouldn’t beg for an autograph either. And I wouldn’t introduce myself in the vain hope that he would ever remember my name.
As we came eyeball-to-eyeball, I said, without a quiver, “I thought you weren’t coming back here until the Sox started winning again.”
He pointed right at me and said with a laugh. “They are going to start winning again. Tonight.”
I had just shared all of 30 seconds with this cursing, spitting, “Nixon’s The One” giant of a bastard, and on the day I die, those will still be the greatest 30 seconds of my life. Guaranteed.
But I do sometimes wonder what, if anything, could’ve ever pulled Ted down from my pantheon. Made me burn all my Dylan CDs. Condemn Belichick to hell. Is there a line any of them might’ve crossed that would have turned them from heroes with mere feet of clay into absolute villains? What if Bob had slit Nicole Brown Simpson’s throat? What if Bill had been exposed as a pedophile at Penn State? What if Ted, like Lindbergh, had revealed a soft spot for Nazis? Would any of that been a tipping point for me?
In Love’s Body, Norman O. Brown suggests that the discussion is all but a matter of degree. The Plagiarist and the Cheat may be easier to rationalize, but ultimately “their crimes” are of a kind with the pedophile and the murderer, in that their behaviors show what we are capable of as a species and test our understanding of and tolerance for our darker impulses. They define the full contours of this love’s body of ours. Nobby writes:
The chorus is really the author. Their act is to repudiate responsibility: this is part of the net of lies in which they entangle the hero, their bull, their victim. This is what Freud calls their ‘refined hypocrisy’…The chorus identifies with the hero: he is their vicar; in whose actions they take vicarious pleasure. The hero is created to perform deeds which the community would like to perform, but which are forbidden to it. Their vicar also in vicarious punishment; their victim, the scapegoat, the lamb which takes away their sins, through whom they obtain vicarious redemption. Vicarious satisfaction: the deed is both theirs and not theirs.
And thus we have the spectacles of a large segment of the population wildly cheering the acquittal of a brutal wife-murderer and another equally large segment fiercely dedicated to avenge the conviction of a cold-blooded doctor killer. Every villain has a champion.
And every hero has a Toto barking at his pant legs and threatening to pull the curtain back. Which brings me back to my own pantheon. One thing they all have in common, especially the three mentioned here, Dylan, Belichick, and Williams, is that they’re all on to the game…and insist on pulling back the curtain for themselves, thank you very much. Dylan said it most succinctly: “Don’t follow leaders; watch the parking meters.” Belichick says it every time he stands up in public and refuses to explain, defend, or ingratiate himself to a chorus he knows eagerly awaits his downfall. And Ted said it over and over again in his greatly underappreciated autobiography, My Turn at Bat. He is unsparing in assessing his military exploits, writing, ”Everybody tries to make a hero out of me over the Korean thing. I was no hero. There were maybe seventy-five pilots in our two squadrons and 99 percent of them did a better job than I did.” Later in the book he tells why he never tried to deflect his bad on-field behavior with his work fighting children’s cancer: “I love kids, that’s all. It’s no virtue, and I don’t see any reason to cash in on it.” And finally when they tried to explain away his boorishly skipping the team’s pennant-clinching party in 1946 by claiming that he was at the bedside of a dying kid, he would have none of it. It was a “lot of crap” he said. “I was off tying flies for my fishing.”
Ted’s headless body now hangs upside down in a cryonics facility at an Arizona strip mall, consigned there under dubious circumstances by two of his children, whom I could easily regard as villains if I gave in to my bias. If I were still the ninny I was as a kid, I’d say that’s what Ted gets for not being Catholic. But now I know better. I know that every hero has a little bit of villainy in them, and every villain has a little bit of the hero in them, and the challenge for those of us in “the chorus” is to recognize that’s pretty much true of ourselves. And to further recognize that we can’t advance as a species as long as we are determined to divide the world up into heroes and villains.