At the age of four, my son Sam informed me that when he grew up, he wanted to be Robin Hood. And while I thoroughly approved of his notions concerning the re-distribution of wealth—I mean, let’s talk flat tax—I didn’t have the heart to tell him that forest outlaw was not exactly projected to be a big growth career in the twenty-first century. I figured he’d find out soon enough.
In the meantime, he spent long hours at the dining room table producing Robin Hood art, some solemn still-life studies of The Hat, green with a jaunty red feather, but mostly full-length portraits of the man himself, with long bird-like legs, bow and arrow in hand, dressed in green, of course, always a sly grin on his face.
When Sam played Robin Hood, resplendent in his green cape and hat, his own feather angled just so, armed with a wooden-spoon-and-twine bow, his mother got to be the lovely Maid Marian, and I was Little John, modeled on the dopey bear in the Disney version of the story, huge and harmless, a perfectly unthreatening hypotenuse in our little oedipal triangle. Sometimes Sam’s younger brother Henry got included too, in the role of Skippy Bunny, another Disney add-on whose primary function was to admire Robin Hood.
Robin Hood, Batman and Robin, Superman—none of Sam’s heroes was a real person and all wore capes. His dress-up box was full of capes, every color, every style. He had an ingenious cape-and-cowl combination his mother fashioned for him, adorned with little stand-up bat ears. He even had a couple of obscenely overpriced store-bought numbers, decorated with sequins, complete with Velcro fasteners for quick changes. A cape for every occasion, every mood.
Unlike the adults I knew, worn down by unimaginable grown-up problems, Zorro exuded savvy and elegant goodness
I can still remember tying a bath towel around my neck when I was a little boy in order to play Superman. Somebody drew an “S” on a T-shirt for me, and I was in business. When I wore that cape, I was faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Later, inspired by the black-and white television series, I became Zorro. Unlike the adults I knew, all inexplicably exhausted, hurried and harried, worn down by unimaginable grown-up problems, Zorro was a cheerful, smiling hero, who exuded savvy and elegant goodness. He didn’t mind that his father believed he was a scholarly dud; he always triumphed: appeared in the nick of time, freed the unjustly imprisoned, thwarted the evil commandante, and got the last laugh at the expense of fat, unshaven Sergeant Garcia. Of course, Zorro wore a cape. Capes are about power and magic, I’ve come to realize, about freedom, like our delicious and too infrequent adult dreams of flying. They’re about doing good, with style.
I was pleased when Sam discovered the joys of Zorro for himself. He got his own black hat and felt mask and black snow boots and a black cape too. As a special treat, I sometimes gave Sam a pencil-thin mascara mustache. In those days, his kitchen chalkboard was full of Z’s. Turns out, the Guy Williams series was available on video, three action-packed episodes on one tape. We sang the idiotic theme song together, Sam and I, off-key but enthusiastic:
Out of the night,
When the full moon is bright,
Comes the horseman known as Zorro.
He is polite,
But the wicked take flight,
When they catch the sight
In the television show there was some fancy sword-play, but even better was when Don Diego headed into his secret chambers to suit up, to transform himself. “What’s your secret identity?” Sam asked me once, and I had to admit that I didn’t have one. I was forced to confess to being just plain old Daddy, always and everywhere. But when Zorro would rear back on Tornado, his cape unfurled and blowing in the midnight California wind, Sam sometimes gave me a grinning thumbs-up. It was so cool.
So, okay, I admit it. When I came home after a long day at work and Sam invited me, as he did from time to time, to don one of his capes, I almost always obliged him. Sometimes I wondered what the neighbors in our close-set houses might think if they caught a glimpse of me in the kitchen making dinner in a child’s costume. But so what? I told myself. They’ve seen worse. Most nights, it was just Kraft dinner—we favored the Bugs Bunny macaroni shapes—but caped, however absurdly, with Sam and Henry in the next room putting the run on some bad guys, I felt different somehow, almost heroic, like I might be somebody special after all.