Every Sunday morning of my childhood my otherwise reserved father guffawed in the den over Mort Walker’s long-running comic strip, “Beetle Bailey.” Walker died last month at the age of 94. He and my father were contemporaries who seemed to me very much men of the 20th century. Like Walker, my father served in the Second World War. For both men, the experience defined who they became. Walker, however, had a bizarre war experience in which he guarded a POW camp where the Germans escaped at night and returned by daybreak. It was a topsy-turvy version of the 60s sitcom, “Hogan’s Heroes,” another favorite of my father’s. My father went on to serve in the CIA. “Beetle Bailey” debuted in 1950 when he was probably on his way to Guatemala.
It’s curious that my seemingly disciplined father was a steadfast fan of Beetle the slacker soldier whose eyes were always obscured by the lid of his cap or his helmet. He also frustrated his immediate superior Sargent Snorkel who often beat up Beetle until he collapsed into a set of squiggly lines on the page. Then there was the dimwitted elderly General Halftrack who leered at his buxom secretary not accidentally named Miss Buxley, Cookie the gruff cook whose food was inedible and Private Zero the clueless country bumpkin.
My father volunteered for the Navy in 1940, the day after he graduated from Yale. Three months later, he enrolled in Officer Candidate School in the Brooklyn Naval Yard. In the course of writing a memoir about my father, I sent away for his naval records and I discovered that he too had his Greek chorus of characters on a supply ship in the South Pacific theatre.
My father’s records surprisingly show that he was a willful officer. He had an aversion to acquiring new skills like learning to use a sextant and sometimes ignored orders. In many ways, he epitomized the stereotype of the Ninety-Day-Wonder. As the country ramped up to go to war, the government recruited college graduates, giving them three months to absorb what midshipmen in Annapolis or West Point had four years to learn. These untrained newcomers were derisively nicknamed Ninety-Day wonders for skipping ahead of the line to become officers.
My father also knew a man named “Cookie” on his supply ship. His cook, however, was an African-American named Ernie. My father was accused of disobeying a direct order when he stepped out of class and hierarchy, away from racism and inhumanity, to put his arm around Ernie. Ernie had just received news that his brother had been killed in action in Europe. My father, a 24-year-old lieutenant, called Cookie by his given name and removed his hat in a show of mourning. Technically out of uniform, my father wept with Ernie on the deck of their ship. Dad was disciplined and remanded to his quarters for 24 hours.
While the antics of Beetle Bailey, Sargent Snorkel and General Halftrack in Camp Swampy made my father laugh, I suspect he was also happy to meet Lieutenant Flap the African-American officer Walker introduced in 1970. I remember Lieutenant Flap well with his Afro and goatee. Though I was too young to articulate what a breath of fresh air he was, Flap’s opening line would not have been lost on my father: “How come there’s no blacks in this honkie outfit?!” My father might have wondered the same thing since he thought segregation was a terrible affliction on our country. “Stars and Stripes” promptly banned the comic strip, worried that it would ignite racial tensions. The result, however, was more readers.
At one point, the strip reached 200 million people and was featured in 1,800 newspapers. Beetle was known in more than 50 countries. He and his pals were merchandised in comic books, television cartoons and games and toys. In 2010 Beetle was featured on a United States Postal Service stamp.
Despite its wild popularity, in the 1980s readers protested Walker’s sexist depiction of Miss Buxley. In response, Walker briefly introduced a sexy tennis pro named Rolf who was equally lusted after by the women in the strip. But that did little to quell the controversy. And then something happened in the late 1990s. Walker read about rape in the military and told the media he was “sickened. I decided these jokes didn’t belong in the strip anymore.”
Walker’s epiphany happened at the same time my dad’s Parkinson’s disease had taken over his body. By then I read to him regularly and among his favorites was the volume of “Beetle Bailey” comic strips. I sat alongside him, turning pages and trying to gauge his reaction particularly when the army sent General Halftrack for sensitivity training. He was quiet for a bit and then teared up as if to say, “It’s about time things changed.”