Schulz showed us that life is full of yanked footballs Schulz showed us that life is full of yanked footballs

February 15, 2000|By Michael Olesker

ONE DAY Charlie Brown lay on the side of a grassy hill with Lucy and Linus, making the vast, overwhelming world slow down a little by gazing lazily at the sky, when one of the kids says, "If you stare at clouds long enough, you can see different scenes."

"Yes," says Lucy, "like that cloud over there. It looks like ..."

And she describes, against all expectations, some classic 16th-century painting.

Linus spots another cloud. He says it reminds him of a scene from the New Testament involving the apostle Paul and an important theological message.

"And what do you see in the clouds?" they ask Charlie Brown.

"Well, I was gonna say, 'A duckie and a horsey,'" he says, "but I changed my mind."

That particular strip goes back nearly 40 years, so I'm quoting from memory, but the message clings. Inside the Charlie Brown in each of us, there's an overwhelmed little kid feeling out of step, anxious, isolated and utterly insignificant.

And trying to make it come out funny instead of forlorn.

When Charles Schulz died Saturday night, at age 77, hours before his final "Peanuts" strip appeared in newspapers read by 355 million people around the world, many of us who had read him over the years remembered a letdown here (the little red-haired girl with Valentine's Day cards for everybody but Charlie Brown), an act of futility there (he still thinks Lucy won't yank the football away), or a running theme that we loved because we identified a piece of ourselves.

For instance, Snoopy gets a letter from a publisher to whom he has submitted a manuscript. "Dear Contributor," it reads. "We are returning your stupid story. You are a terrible writer. Why do you bother us? We wouldn't buy one of your stories if you paid us. Leave us alone. Drop dead. Get lost."

In the last panel, Snoopy's in the familiar position, on his back atop his doghouse, musing, "Probably a form rejection slip."

That's the voice in each of us that tells ourselves lies instead of jumping off a cliff. Snoopy's insouciance comes from knowledge of certain eternal truths: His dinner bowl will be filled at the right time; his doghouse, with the pool table and the Rembrandt in the basement, awaits him; and he is adored by all the kids in the neighborhood. Who could ask for anything more?

But Charlie Brown's angst comes from a more familiar piece of the psyche: Things are not going to get any better. The universe is stacked against him, for reasons he will never be able to fathom. Schulz was a religious man, and religious references run through the half-century history of his cartoon, and the books that followed, and all the familiar gospel according to Peanuts.

But he also knew that fate has a whimsical mind of its own, and takes action while God seems to be looking the other way. And the Peanuts characters expressed this in ways that little elementary school kids are just beginning to figure out, and adolescents learn to inscribe upon their self-pitying souls.

It was part of Schulz's early genius that he put funny lines into the mouths of children and a dog. But he also had the good fortune of timing. He started the strip in 1950, when the baby boomer kids were beginning to read, beginning to develop a sense of humor, and then beginning to have a sense of themselves that was not particularly finding a voice elsewhere.

We were too impatient for the literature of our parents. We needed quicker punch lines. On the radio, the silly little love stories changed every time the record ended. In school, we hid Mad magazine inside our copies of "Ivanhoe." On television, the networks learned to pander to us by offering teen-agers -- but they were the blandest, shallowest offerings, so white-bread that Ricky Nelson was considered dangerous.

"Peanuts" was a gentle daily reminder that life was unfair, life was painful -- but made us laugh at the familiarity, and didn't lecture us about it the way parents did.

In one strip, Charlie Brown bumps into Lucy and Patty. "Well, what are you doing here?" Patty asks. "Go on home," Lucy yells. Then the two of them holler, "We don't want you around here. Who asked you to come by in the first place? Nobody! Go on home!"

Charlie Brown slumps off, quite forlorn, a lump of despair and rejection. "You know," Lucy says, quite oblivious to her role in this circumstance, "it's a strange thing about Charlie Brown. You almost never see him laugh."

It must have been tough to keep "Peanuts" going: seven days a week, nearly half a century, a grown man having to express himself through the mouths of little kids, having to draw on that well of memory and insight and instinct from a childhood grown more distant with each passing year.

But, of course, "Peanuts" only looked like child's play. It was really about the child in every reader who walked around in the disguise of an adult, still remembering that first twinge of anxiety when we gazed at the clouds, and imagined we had a fix on things, and discovered how out-of-step we felt with the rest of our playmates.

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