One of the ways I would try to get kids to like me in fifth grade was to draw them ninja turtles. It didn’t work all that well. Rather than simply moving twenty miles south that summer, it seems as if I had also entered a time warp that matured children at astonishing speeds, and rather than bending those poorly articulated turtle figures, my new classmates preferred listening to bands like Great White, and Young MC on their Walkman cassette players. Songs about hanging with chicks. The only chick I wanted to hang with was April O’Neil, which wasn’t saying much. That yellow jumpsuit? That hair? Not to mention the fact that those early stories did little to round out her character, and besides, she liked Casey Jones. Judging by his long hair and sleeveless shirts, he was probably listening to Great White too.
The turtles were my solace during that transitional year. They represented everything I wanted to be: tough, resilient, and despite the fact that they were total outsiders, they had a great sense of humor. Everything just bounced off their shells. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and I wanted to be a teenage mutant ninja turtle. They all hand jived, man, and said things like “Awesome!” and “Bodacious!” in their identical surfer-dude voices. In those iterations the turtles were still relatively one-dimensional, but they seemed, to me, the epitome of cool. Besides, the only dimension I was familiar with was Dimension X: home of Krang, the malevolent master brain.
The only folks that shared my opinion about the turtles seemed to be my next-door neighbors, Robert and Ryan. Robert was a grade behind me and drew turtles too. Even then he was an entrepreneur, keeping his originals and tracing copies for a dollar each. He is now partner in a graphic design company in Sacramento, California. Ryan seemed to appreciate the toughness of the turtles the way I did. He was a Mikey kind of guy, so we made nun-chucks from the cardboard tubes on wire clothes hangers and practiced our ninja moves at dawn and dusk. At the time I couldn’t understand how such “Awesome!” behavior could add to my status as the weird new kid, but it did, and if playing with the Cheapskate during class didn’t seal the deal, constantly drawing turtles and turtle related pictures certainly did. I found myself in a new grade with no friends.
My teacher seemed to understand this all somehow and began wearing a brightly colored ninja turtle wristwatch. Don’t get me wrong, she was still capable of acts of great cruelty. I thought it was a smart idea to carve my name into my desk. She made me walk down to the janitor’s closet, borrow a piece of sandpaper, and rub it out in front of the whole class. Yet, she did her part to try to make me feel a little less like a sewer dweller that year by wearing a Michelangelo watch, a gesture which simple as it was, stands as one of the nicest things any teacher has ever done for me. And when the contest to see who could decorate the class door came around, I was chosen to draw the design. I chose ninja turtles, of course.
I drew a large turtle themed mural complete with all four heroes and the Party Wagon, which said, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles want to be your friend.” It should have said, “I want to be your friend,” since that was the desperate message I was trying to convey.
It turns out the mural would help win me my first real friend in a new school, but not before we nearly fought one another at the coat closet where we stowed our lunches and other personables. I had accidentally knocked a boy’s glasses off as I was reaching for my lunch. He responded by whipping his own lunch around over his head like a flail and challenging me to a duel. I suppose a ninja turtle would have accepted and then kicked some serious butt. I chose to apologize. Paul was the kid that could speed read faster than the teacher, spoke Elvish and got A’s on everything. This boy was Krang, the master brain. We became friends after I bought him some pencils and a sketchpad for his birthday and told him I’d help him learn to draw ninja turtles. In exchange he taught me how to play Dungeons and Dragons. We bonded through our socially doomed passions and became great allies. It seemed that the people I bonded with most deeply during childhood were those with whom I was able to share a passion. Perhaps not such a brilliant insight, but one that still defines the terms of my friendships, as I’ve found it is only through this kind of interaction that you glimpse the real amateur with whom you share a bond. To borrow from Michael Chabon’s essay “The Amateur Family” being an amateur is all about not being afraid to disclose that which holds you in a vulnerable state of wonderment. It is only those that express a willingness to understand that wonderment, or to share their own variety, that I am ever able to truly call friend.
Twenty-five years passed since I first learned and then forgot how to be an amateur. One day on the ride home from his after-school program, my son Wyatt told me about his friend in Kindergarten with whom he played ninja turtles at recess. “Do you play with anyone else?” I asked. “No one else believes in them,” was his response, and in an instant I remembered what it was like to chase and capture ghosts in a plastic glow-in-the-dark ring at recess backed up only by other true believers. “We saw them in the sewer at recess. They’re real, aren’t they dad?” I answered the way I do all of my son’s questions that deal with wonder and imagination and awe. “Of course they are.”
Raphael should have been my favorite turtle in those days when I was grappling with the relentless bully known as puberty alongside the shame of being an outsider, playing bloody knuckles and arm wrestling at lunch to fit in, but Leonardo and Donatello were the turtles I looked up to. Leo was the one trying to make things better by coming up with a plan, or obsessively training to be the best. Deep down I wanted to be a leader, like Leo. And Donny was the smartest. Together they represented my ideal.
Most of my turtle lore came from the cartoon, the toy line, and the original movie. As a kid I got around to reading the original graphic novels, had checked them out from the library in fact, but got caught up in petty grievances like, “but their bandanas are all red!” and “why are there so many Krang?” I absorbed the origin story, dodgy as it was, and came to hunger for the full page explosions of action. The turtles were grittier, which had to do with the style of Kevin Eastman’s illustrations: thick, black lines and heavy, crosshatching. Lately I have revisited the original storyline, have truly enjoyed watching the Nickelodeon series with my sons, and have begun obsessing over the excellent IDW comic line which contains a totally re-imagined turtle universe in which Hamato Yoshi and his four sons become reincarnated as Splinter and the turtles after they are executed by Oroko Saki in feudal Japan. Rad, I know.
I spend a lot of time and money buying turtle toys and comics. Some are for my kids, but let’s be clear, most of them are for me. In the novel Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon writes that nostalgia is just a way to try and reclaim some part of your youth. Tragically, my neighbor Ryan died in his early twenties. I know that part of my affection for the turtles has to do with the fact that we can no longer swing nun-chucks, and every time I buy an old toy we shared, I remind myself it won’t bring him back. Despite this, most of my Ebay watch consists of retro ninja turtle gear. So it goes...
Now that I am an amateur father with two sons, the message of the turtles that speaks to me most clearly is that of the importance of family. I am in awe of the love, respect and obedience the turtles have for their “dad,” and how loyal they are to one another. Confession: I even kind of tear up at Raph’s painfully overly-sentimental rant at the end of the Michael Bay movie. It is all I hope for my own sons: for them to see their father as a person worth obeying, to have the courage to stand up against evil, and to look out for one another, no matter what dangers may threaten them. Some say cartoons and comics are trash that rots your brain. Today Wyatt wore a policeman’s hat and a ninja turtle shirt out to dinner with the family. On the way home I overheard him telling Jonas that he would run down any bad guys that ever tried to hurt him, and that he would always be there for him. Always. He emphasized the word “always.” It makes my heart swell with pride to hear my little turtles profess such loyalty to one another, and if that’s trash, then I guess this amateur belongs in the sewer.