It is the most famous cartoon of all time. It has spawned books, television shows, movies, a Broadway show, college courses, countless items of merchandise, and while it was first published in 1950, it is still read by millions everyday. It is, of course, Peanuts. The brainchild of Charles M. Shultz, it captured the imaginations of children and adults alike. It was an extraordinarily adult comic, with themes of loneliness, rejection, unrequited love, jealousy, friendship, mortality and yes pure joy. Who wouldn’t agree with the idea that “Happiness is a warm puppy”. If you don’t get that, better give in your membership card to the human race. I still read it every day (yes in real newspaper), and it still resonates. That is genius. Think about that, 67 years after it first appeared it is still better than most comics you will ever read. Its cast of characters was as varied and as real as your own life experiences: a crabby sister, a consumed musician, a boy with a blanket obsession, and of course the hero, or at least protagonist of it all, Charlie Brown. You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown – an affirmation of the value of the everyman, even one who loses more than he wins, who questions everything, and feels comfortable nowhere. No wonder it resonated in the 1960’s when I was a kid. I bought the books, cried at the Holiday TV specials (still do), and thought when all else failed, there was always Charlie Brown to put things into perspective. You think you had a bad day…read on. There have been funnier strips, but none as influential or as sure of its vision.
Oh and let us not forget the scene stealer, Snoopy, a beagle with the imagination we all wished we had (and did as children); a supremely confident happy dancer to the tunes of life, a tireless fighter of the enemy through the World War One skies, master ice-skater, hockey player, vulture imitator, blanket stealer, and proud Alum of the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm. Heck, he was even elected Head Beagle at one point (though the pressure was too much of him).
My best friend back then was Robert Moy and we would get together most days after school and talk all things Peanuts. We each had our favorite character, our favorite book, TV special; we could quote whole strips verbatim, and debated the important lessons imparted each day in the Daily News comics section. I was kind of a Schroeder fan, he was a Linus guy, but we both adored Snoopy; couldn’t get enough of him.
And then in 1966 a group called The Royal Guardsmen out of Ocala Florida, brought our hero Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel (in reality a British single seat biplane fighter but in Peanuts world, his doghouse) to life in a series of novelty songs. The first one started with a military snare drum, and then ….
“After the turn of the century
In the clear blue skies over Germany
Came a roar and a thunder men had never heard
Like the scream and a sound of a big war bird
Up in the sky, a man in a plane
Baron von Richthofen was his name
Eighty men tried, and eighty men died
Now they’re buried together on the countryside”
Needlesstosay, our hero went up into those skies over Germany and fought the Red Baron for the Allies. After vanquishing him once temporarily we learned Snoopy’s antagonist was back a few months later, with what else? The Return of the Red Baron….
“You remember that baron flying high in the sky
When Snoopy shot him down with a gleam in his eye
But that baron had leaped from his blood-red plane
Just before it burst into a ball of flame”
The Baron was back!! Robert Moy and I were aghast! Snoopy was called upon again and did battle again, and prevailed again. But you guessed it; the Baron was no average Ace; he was the Red Baron, the Von Richthoffen of fame, the best of the best. And then as the holidays approached we listened again to the news……
The news had come out in the First World War
The bloody Red Baron was flying once more
The Allied command ignored all of its men
And called on Snoopy to do it again.
Snoopy had vowed he would get his man so he asked the Great Pumpkin for a new battle plan. Love that line. And this one, with its holiday theme brought that familiar lump to the throat (even now, but especially as a young child) when…..
The Baron made Snoopy fly to the Rhine
And forced him to land behind the enemy lines
Snoopy was certain that this was the end
When the Baron cried out, “Merry Christmas, my friend”
Inspired by the real Christmas Truce of 1914 when German and Allied Troops in trenches inches from each other, came together to celebrate the holiday for one lone cold silent night. They would go back to slaughtering each other the next day but for this one night, the peace of the Lord reigned amongst men, those tired ,bloodied men who wanted nothing more than to be home for Christmas.
The Baron then offered a holiday toast
And Snoopy, our hero, saluted his host
And then with a roar they were both on their way
Each knowing they’d meet on some other day.
Alas they wouldn’t, at least in song as the group made this one the last in the Snoopy vs the Red Baron saga. So we would play and re-play the 45s over and over (I still have them), and cry like the children we were at that last one over and over again. The strip and the songs talked of courage, duty, loyalty, patriotism, respect for your adversaries, luck, loneliness, and the very finite nature of our existence….it was all there to be learned. And the best part was more often than not, the teacher was a funny looking dog with a big black nose.
And what a teacher he was. Along with the other characters in the strip, they taught us a lot about friendship and life, and enriched a childhood I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world…..well except maybe a warm puppy.
With apologies and heartfelt thanks to The Royal Guardsman, and of course Charles M. Schultz.