I’m a Bird, I’m a Plane, I’m…

by Joe Eliseon
George Reeves as Superman
George Reeves as Superman

A few weeks ago, one of my favorite cable channels started re-running the old 1950s Superman TV show, starring the ill-fated George Reeves. Reeves, not to be confused with Christopher Reeve, who later played Superman in the Richard Donner films of the late 1970s, had an acting career that began in classic Hollywood and included small parts in the big movies Gone With The Wind and From Here to Eternity. But he never broke into major roles in A-pictures.

Superman and The Mole Men Poster
Superman and The Mole Men

Reeves ended up playing the Man of Steel in the 1951 low budget film, Superman and the Mole Men. He then carried the role forward into the ensuing syndicated TV series from 1952 until 1958. Terminally typecast, he died under mysterious circumstances, purportedly a suicide, in 1959.

Superman - Truth, Justice and the American Way
Truth, Justice and the American Way

Reeves’ career as Superman overlapped with my appearance on the world stage in 1954. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about Superman. I vividly recall my hair-raising introduction to Godzilla and my riveting discovery of Batman, but my memory of Superman, in the person of Reeves, knows no beginning. He’s just always been there, hero, inspiration, model.

Werner von Braun
Werner von Braun

I do not use those terms in the figurative sense. My pre-school contemporaries and I were quite certain that Superman was fully as real as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, perhaps more so because he was not from some Never-Never Land, but from the planet Krypton which, being a planet, was as real as real could be. His origins nicely jibed with Sputnik and the nascent U.S. space program as described to us by Walt Disney and Werner von Braun. Proof positive. There was no room for doubt.

Christopher Reeve as Superman
Just for good measure, Christopher Reeve as The Man of Tomorrow

So it was that the first generation of American boys raised by television collectively tied dishtowels around their necks and ran and jumped in an effort to make them stand out like Superman’s cape billowing in flight. Enthusiasm sometimes ran wild. My best friend, Michael Stuart, one morning donned his dishtowel, climbed up on his kitchen counter, casually informed his mother that he was going to the store and, before she could make a move, leaped out his open kitchen window. Luckily, the Stuarts lived on the first floor and a conveniently-placed rosebush broke his fall. Michael learned at one and the same time that every rose has its thorn and that he was not Superman, both at the trifling cost of a few minor scratches. I was not so lucky.

My Mother and Grandmother at the Cape House
My Mother and Grandmother at the Cape House

I spent my childhood summers at my grandfather’s cottage on Cape Cod. It was a picturesque place across the street from an inlet and just a short walk from the beach. I practically lived outside in those days. My chief interest was in tracking sand everywhere I went, so my mother’s chief concern was to see that I didn’t bring it into the house. We had a separate two-car garage that I thought especially intriguing. Not only was it loaded with broken-down junk, but it had its own shower. No bathroom, no toilet, just a shower. The incongruity of the thing made me realize that the universe was full of surprises.

Behind the garage, cut off from the view of the adults in the cottage, there was a strip of land about four feet wide in which my grandmother had planted herbs. I don’t remember what else was there, but I do remember the spearmint. When no other entertainment offered itself, I would slip behind the garage and chew some spearmint leaves. Then, not being in sight of anyone, I would see how far I could spit.

That strip of land was the limit of our property, a hinterland bordered on its nearer side by the white wall of the garage and on its further side by a white picket fence. Beyond the fence lived Someone Else. My mother had forbidden me to cross over into Someone Else’s property. Therefore, the prospect of doing so fascinated me. I was even more fascinated when I discovered that Someone Else was not alone. A little boy lived with Someone Else, a little boy who was, to all outward appearances, substantially similar to myself. He, too, had been enjoined not to cross the white picket fence. So we obediently encountered one another from our respective sides of the fence. There we would meet and discuss the burning issues of the day. It was inevitable that Superman would turn up on the agenda. He finally did.

I don’t remember how it came about but I do recall that, one day, at a critical juncture of the conversation, I fessed up to my secret identity.

“You know,” I said, “I’m Superman.”

My companion was incredulous.

“You are not.”

“I am.”

“You are not.”

“But I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

This back and forth continued for some time, he stubbornly clinging to his narrow-minded unbelief. Perhaps, I figured, he failed to be convinced because I was not wearing my dishtowel. I strove to persuade him by other means.

Superman shows The Mole Men he's invulnerable
Invulnerable!

“You could punch me in the nose and I wouldn’t even feel it.”

“You would too.”

“I would not.”

“You would too.”

I could see he needed empirical proof. It was, after all, the age of science. I upped the ante.

“Go ahead. Punch me in the nose.”

“I don’t want to punch you in the nose.”

“Punch me in the nose.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Go ahead.”

“I don’t want to.”

There was only one way to overcome his reluctance.

“What are you? Scared?”

“I’m not scared.”

“You are.”

“I’m not.”

“You are.”

“I am not.”

“You are too. You’re a scaredie cat.”

He punched me in the nose.

Blood.

Blood everywhere.

All over me. All over my shirt. All over my PF Flyers and the green spearmint leaves sprouting from the ground where I stood. Enough blood to send my reluctant assailant running for Someone Else’s house without so much as a backward glance. Enough to send me high-tailing it for the back porch of our cottage, screaming for my mother.

What had caused the lapse in my vaunted invulnerability? The sinister schemes of Lex Luthor? A hidden but deadly piece of Kryptonite?

No. Seems that I suffered from a set of exposed blood vessels in my nose. The doctor prescribed cauterization to stop the bleeding. The procedure in those days consisted of sticking a red hot needle up my nose to burn away the exposed vessels. It was not pleasant.

And I was not Superman.

© 2015 by the Author. All rights reserved.

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