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March 14, 2005

  • Believe It Or Not, It’s Just Me
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    Believe it or not, I'm walking on air
    I never thought I could feel so free
    - Theme song to The Greatest American Hero

    1981 was, without a doubt, one of the worst years of my life. It was certainly the worst year of my childhood. And considering that during my childhood regular beatings by the school bully was de rigeur, that is saying something.

    And yet, when I look back on that year, that depressing, miserable year, I have two really fond memories. One of them was of a TV series. The TV series was The Greatest American Hero and I loved it from the first time I saw it.

    That first viewing was the last 25 or so minutes of the two-hour season premiere (It was aired on a Wednesday night and Wednesdays I had Scouts). I was hooked with the image of schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley desperately staying aloft in his bright red super-suit, trying to prevent a helicopter with the President of the United States onboard from landing into an ambush.There was something about that that just connected with me.

    I was Ralph Hinkley.

    Well, I wasn't really. Ralph Hinkley taught Special Ed. I was in a special education class.

    I was 11. Back when I was eight, I skipped the third grade. I was a smart kid, though immature in many ways, and it was thought a more challenging setting would be good for me. And I did okay being a year younger than everyone else, academically anyway. Socially I was picked on just as much as I had been, if not more.

    As I approached Junior High, it was decided to put me in a Special Learning Disabilities, or SLD class. I didn't actually have any special learning disability. I was in fact very smart, except for staying with my “true” grade level in math. My parents were told this would be the best thing for me. It was a small class and it would help me adjust socially to the change to Junior High while giving me Grade 7 classes.

    Well, that was what they told us at any rate. What actually happened was quite different.

    What actually happened was that, to my horror, I found myself repeating the sixth grade. I was being given my grade six speller, being given the grade five math book, and given reading assignments at a grade six level. I knew there was something wrong. I complained about it to my teacher—a woman unfortunately named Ms. Golem—but she was a tough cookie who was trained to handle whiners, complainers and kids who acted out. And the fact that I was whining, complaining and acting out was apparently proof that I was in the wrong.

    My parents—distracted by several pressing concerns—took forever to twig that there was a problem, but eventually called a meeting with the Principal. The Principal, a stout, fearsome woman took Ms. Golem's side: there's something wrong with your boy. That's why he's in SLD.

    As if that was bad enough, the hostility from other students outside of SLD—the very people being in SLD was supposed to protect me from—was even worse at Junior High. I took electives and French with a regular seventh grade class and I just could not catch a break from any of them, who treated me with contempt for being in SLD. Lunch hours were the worst—one felt constantly that they were at a party they were never invited to attend and weren't wanted there.

    I remember one music class, we were asked to design an album cover. Our music teacher, Mr. Taylor, who was, looking back, a complete and total sadistic bastard, had everyone come to the centre of the classroom (there was orchestra seating) and present their offering to everyone. Then he would ask for a show of hands to demonstrate their approval, like a choir of Caears in the gladiatorial games. I made a Supertramp pastiche (I loved Breakfast In America and Crime of the Century) which featured a ticking clock in the centre. I remember I titled the album something very cool like "Out of Time".

    Not one person raised their hand to indicate they liked it.

    Go to any place where you're made to feel not welcome because you're apparently with stupid people, and where when you're with the stupid people you're made to feel like you're stupid. That's why 1981 was the worst year of my childhood and one of the worst years of my life.

    But in the middle of this was The Greatest American Hero.

    The Greatest American Hero is about what happens to Ralph Hinkley, a special ed teacher, when he is given a suit with great powers by aliens. The suit looks like a standard superhero costume, which is to say it makes any normal adult look ridiculous. To make matters worse, Ralph loses the instruction book and proceeds to blunder his way through cases with a nutbar FBI agent named Bill Maxwell.

    When I look at my life, it's amazing how much of it was influenced by this program. It's really evident in any photograph taken within five years of the series being on the air: I took to wearing knitted ties like Ralph and even had my hair permed, mostly to avoid the curse of having unmanageable hair—the irony being that my hair is naturally curly once it's long enough—but in part to look a little more like William Katt.

    The fact is I probably identified with Ralph Hinkley more than I did any character on television, ever. The premise of The Greatest American Hero is that a normal, decent guy gets a gift that is destroying his life: the suit that gives him great powers makes him look like an idiot and causes strains in his relationships and work life. And, worse, he can't even operate it properly: he can't fly without crashing, can't break down walls without stumbling, can't figure out how to turn off the stranger abilities like invisibility.

    When I was eleven years old, I thought I was Ralph Hinkley. I couldn't fly as I knew I ought to. I was a screw up and a pariah. I might as well have worn a red suit myself.

    By the time the series was airing, the principal and Ms. Golem, desperate to do damage control let me take English and Social Science with the regular seventh graders, only by that point I was behind several months and unused to the class. I did badly and acted out and they were able to say to my parents that I really wasn't destined to succeed.

    There were times when I couldn't see any way to win. Our music teacher gave us another sadistic assignment, where we to learn a song and perform it a capella. I learned the entire theme song to the Greatest American Hero, which was quite a feat as it hadn't been released as a single at that point. (The 45" was the first single I ever purchased—I got it in a store in Boston while on a family vacation on the week it made it to #1 on the charts). I played a tape I made while watching the second episode "The Hit Car" and sang along with Joey Scarbury's MOR stylings again and again. But when it came time to actually perform it before the class, I chickened out and sang "One Tin Soldier" like everyone else.

    No one applauded.

    There were times when I got as discouraged as my TV friend Ralph. In one episode, "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys", Ralph gives up the suit after nearly causing an accident. I didn't actually see it initially. CTV showed The Greatest American Hero on a different night than ABC most weeks, but there was one week when it had been pre-empted so I had my sister put my Sears tape recorder beside the speaker and tape the ABC broadcast while I was at Scouts. To this day I know all the dialogue from the first half hour of the episode "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" (before my sister went to bed and the tape ran out) from repeated re-listenings.

    Eventually I saw the rest of the episode at my Grandmother's on a repeat. Ralph meets his childhood hero, The Lone Ranger—or at least the version played for one season by John Hart—performing at a shopping mall and they have a nice talk about the need for heroes and Ralph puts on the suit and saves the day again. I knew he would. Ralph always did the right thing. The suit may be destroying his life and he may not know how to operate it, but Ralph kept trying. Ralph kept at it. And Ralph succeeded by the end of the episode.

    The rest of that year, I stumbled like Ralph, flying and then crashing. I found one outlet that gave me some satisfaction: hockey. My coach from the previous year traded me onto his team when he saw how miserable I was and at the end of the year I got a trophy for good sportsmanship. I also scored my first goal that year: that was my other fond memory.

    My parents took the advice of a child psychologist and put me in a private school for the following school year. I wound up in Canada's only military school. Strangely, everyone thinks I should resent this. In truth, it was better than what I had already endured. But I had to miss The Greatest American Hero when it came back for a second season as a result.

    Recently, I purchased the first season of The Greatest American Hero on DVD. I thought I'd hate it because watching some second season episodes led me to believe that the axiom "The memory cheats" was never truer. I was surprised to learn that wasn't the case. The first season—which is better written and sharper and smarter than subsequent seasons—is still just as fresh and funny as I remembered it being when I was eleven. And William Katt and Robert Culp's superb performances are even more appreciable as an adult.

    But when I watched it I was also reminded of a time in my life when that TV show gave me a lifeline. A show whose lead character demonstrated to me that in spite of whatever obstacles I faced I could get through them.

    Believe it or not, it's just me said the chorus of the theme song. That became my credo that year, and it still serves me in good stead today. Even if I do crash a lot, I can still fly nonetheless.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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