Young and Shepard inspired a generation during tough times

July 28, 1998|By Myriam Marquez

ONE WAS my television dad -- warm and even-handed, a down-to-earth fella who always seemed to know what was best for his family, and by extension, all of America's families.

The other was a larger-than-life hero, who, from outer space taught this immigrant child very important lessons about American optimism and courage, about this great nation's "can do" spirit.

Robert Young and Alan B. Shepard Jr. -- one the actor, the other the astronaut -- shaped a whole generation of Americans, particularly my generation. And they offered us hope when it seemed the world, in the midst of the Cold War, was about to destroy itself.

Growing up during that time was difficult. There were the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., which shattered many Americans' illusions about loving one another regardless of race, creed and religion. There was Vietnam and the hippies and then Watergate, which made many people cynical about America's future.

Despite all of those downers, Young's "Father Knows Best" character always was there to take me to a kinder place of the heart.

Being a Cuban kid growing up among most things American, I fell in love with Young's Jim Anderson character, even when the show no longer was fashionable. I would rush home from high school every day to see him -- in reruns.

Later, when I nursed one son and then another, I would turn on the Family Channel and watch the travails of Princess, Bud and Kitten, the Anderson kids. It didn't matter that the 30-year-old plots were out of sync with modern America. It didn't matter that I wasn't planning to follow Margaret Anderson's (Young's television wife) example and stay home every minute of the day.

Comforting sceens

What mattered were the memories, the comfort that Young's show had given me while growing up in a new land that, particularly during the 1960s, seemed like a dangerous place, a place of rioting and assassinations and duck-and-cover nuclear bomb drills.

Yes, "Father Knows Best" was a fantasy life, and Jim Anderson was a fantasy character. But fantasy can help you get through the worst of times. Fantasy can help you deal with harsh realities.

On the TV screen at least, Young was all the things that a child could want in a dad. Now, after Young's death at age 91, I find out that his real life may have been as crippled with the same addictions and anxieties that my own father faced. That, too, is comforting.

My connection with Shepard is less personal. I always knew Shepard was a hero, all right. He risked his life to show the world that the commie pig dogs (the Soviet Union) weren't so special just because they flew a manned rocket into space first. Being a kid whose family fled communism, I really cared about Shepard's first flight. I was particularly in awe of his spunk in going out into that darkness.

I remember my dad telling me shortly after Shepard's first adventure in space that if the astronaut could fly miles above Earth without a hitch, then I should be able to cross that bridge over the Miami River. I had these irrational worries that the bridge would collapse and I would drown in the water below.

Young and Shepard helped a young kid in a new land cope.

They have left a very different world from the one they knew when they were in their prime. In some ways it is a better world.

A changing world

The Soviet Union has collapsed, and communism from China to Cuba is, slowly but surely, being extinguished. Women and people of color have followed Shepard's footsteps into space and to other new frontiers -- in the sciences, business and politics. And fathers and mothers don't have to fit into narrow roles to be good parents and to know what's best.

Myriam Marquez is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her E-mail address is OSOmarqueol.com.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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