Saturday, December 25, 1999

He's a good hero, Charlie Brown

Peanuts character offers life lesson in a nutshell

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Charlie Brown is my hero. He is bloodied, but unbowed. He is humiliated, yet hopeful. He knows Lucy will pull the football away before he gets the chance to kick it, and still he persists.

        “How long, O Lord?” he laments, flat on his back.

        “How long?” Ms. Van Pelt replies. “All your life, Charlie Brown. All your life.”

        To view sport through the prism of the Peanuts protagonist is to understand the nobility of striving and the vagaries of fate. For almost half a century, Charlie Brown has been a beacon of belief in a world of jaded cynics and protean beagles. He has been our most consistent moral compass — a round-faced child with an innate decency and an unwavering faith that things are bound to get better if you keep grinding long enough. He is Don Quixote in a zig-zag sweater.

        How long, O Lord, before the comics provide us another character so compelling?

        Charles Schulz' battle with colon cancer means the formal end of Charlie Brown's adventures. There will be no new daily strips after Jan. 3, and the last Sunday Peanuts is scheduled to appear on Feb. 13. (Today's Christmas wish is that Schulz recovers and returns to his drawing board.) Still, these cartoons are so timeless, and Schulz' stockpile is so large, that they could be recycled for another millennium without much risk that a reader would stumble upon the same strip twice or find the attitudes antiquated.

        The problems Charlie Brown confronts are the same problems that have perplexed man for centuries: Why are we here? Where are we headed? What must I do to make the little red-haired girl notice me?

        His struggle is our struggle. His pain is our pain. His dog may double as a World War I flying ace, but the rest of Charlie Brown's life rings agonizingly true. Most of us do not succeed on a grand scale. Most of us experience more disappointment than elation. Most of us wonder, from time to time, “How can we lose when we're so sincere?”

        When Schulz allowed Charlie Brown to smash a game-winning home run in 1993, his brief moment of bliss made national news. No other figure in our culture has been so closely associated with competitive futility. No other athlete has endured so many indignities and continued to persevere. No cartoon could possibly have pleased us more than Schulz' depiction of CB's unbounded joy at knocking the ball over the fence.

        Typically, though, sports has been a source of frustration. Charlie Brown is the guy whose favorite ballplayer, Joe Shlabotnik, gets sent down to the minors. He's the pitcher who can't seem to get anyone out. (“There goes our shutout,” Linus says, with the team trailing 63-0 in the first inning.) He's the manager whose constant challenge is to bring order out of anarchy. He's a good man all right, but he's always overmatched.

        “Don't hassle me with your signs, Chuck,” Peppermint Patty tells him. Then, adding insult to insult, she takes his position on the pitcher's mound and bumps him to left field.

        The lessons here are about humility and the dogged pursuit of dreams. Charlie Brown defines failure, but he still despises losing. He faces preordained defeat with the heart of a champion, convinced that this time, things can be different.

        He has been trying to kick the football without success since Nov. 14, 1951, when Violet (Lucy would come later) pulled the ball away at the last moment, saying, “I can't go through with this.” Almost every year since, Charlie Brown has summoned the courage to try again, only to be thwarted by his sadistic holder and sometime psychiatrist. He despairs, he distrusts, but he inevitably returns for another attempt.

        “I've discovered,” said Sally, observing the 1992 ritual, “that love makes us do strange things.”

        “So does stupidity,” Charlie Brown replied, ruefully.

        Linus is more profound. Snoopy is much funnier. Lucy is Lady Macbeth, only louder. But Charlie Brown is everyman — an earnest example of human frailty. In announcing his retirement last week, Schulz lamented that the kid never did get to kick the football. (Here's hoping for a last-minute reprieve among the final panels.)

        “I have a new positive attitude,” Charlie Brown told Lucy last year.

        “I can't believe it,” she said. “You talk the talk and walk the walk.”

        It was a tease, of course. Lucy pulled the ball back again, and then taunted her victim: “But you don't kick the kick.”

        Charlie Brown's triumph is that he never stops trying. In his grief, there is good.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at


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