nce my Franco-American private school had rid me of my French ways — I was born in Paris and spent my first five years there — I immediately and avidly turned to English, pursuing eloquence at all costs, with “Wow!” at the top of my list.
It was then that I also decided to turn to the reading of classical literature, comic books. These cost me five cents but were well worth it.
Oddly, I had no interest in the many superheroes circulating in the comic book universe. They seemed a little silly, in so many suits and with so much flying around from planet to planet, never mind the constant use of the word WHAM!, which I considered far less erudite than “Wow!” — what other short word had two such potent Ws, the first letter of my last name.
No, super men and women and dogs and cats and all men related to bats were of no interest.
My father spent hours telling me about his World War II days, so I naturally found a comic book home among U.S. soldiers fighting terrible enemies, or eccentric characters like the Comanche or Sioux fighter pilot animated by the deities of his heritage. That I did not really know what a Comanche or a Sioux might be made the pilot’s adventures all the more interesting. That, and his melancholy. He really didn’t think war was much fun. What he most liked was simply being aloft. Still, he shot down his share of Luftwaffe Messerschmitts.
I mention all this because Spain turned the tables on my literary sensibilities.
The comic books I got in Madrid were called Hazañas Bélicas, or War Stories, and came in a kind of horizontal booklet form, as if Spain seemed determined to announce itself as different. The colors were just as vivid and the stories just as compelling, all the more so when I actually learned to read Spanish.
“Wow!” was nowhere to be found, but there was much ado about “mucho” this and that.
Slowly, though, I began to notice a very strange pattern. In these war stories, most of the protagonists were not American GIs or Spanish troops (Spain was ostensibly neutral in World War II), but, gulp, Notsies, known to most as Nazis.
Without my father’s assistance I came to understand that the mostest general, Spain’s big man Franco, owed a debt to Nazi Germany for helping him win his civil war and ascend to power.
This debt was manifest in the person of ambiguous Nazi soldiers who, while loyal to Hitler, had no great hatred for their American enemies. Even more remarkably, they sometimes lost battles and skirmishes, and the moral of the comic book story was their stoicism, their endurance, their willingness to fight on, even when the odds had clearly turned against them.
This, apparently, was Franco’s middle ground for children: Nazi sergeants, yes, but sergeants with a sense of honor and decency, and therefore removed from Gestapo and SS. In fact, some of the Hazañas Bélicas soldiers entered into open confrontations with SS troops determined to slaughter all. Like my American Indian pilot, Flying Cloud, they possessed a conscience and code of honor that tried to uphold universal rules of engagement.
I was completely absorbed in these fictitious men because they were that much more complicated than their American comic book counterparts, and forced to walk an ambiguous line through modern history.
When I first began to read them, my father scoffed: “You’ll see. The Germans will always win…”
But he was wrong, and this was perhaps the first time, at nearly nine, that I recognized my father’s fallibility. I also began to better sense what generalization meant, and that one size did not, in fact, fit all. Life was much about shadings.
In one Hazañas Bélicas book I have kept to this day, a German commander takes his small unit into a Russian town where Red Army soldiers have barbarously treated women. He and his men kill the Russians, a nod to Franco’s anti-communism, but in the end are overwhelmed by superior Red Army numbers. All the Germans die.
The commander’s last line in the last scene is, “Sometimes to save people you must die, and accept this fact.”
Again I was stunned. No happy ending. Instead, machismo and fatalism, both exalted as the essence of true manhood. This, and not the uniform you wore, defined the virile spirit.
The instant after the commander makes his comments he is gunned down by a dozen Russians and the book ends with the word “Ah!”
From “Wow!” to “Ah” might not seem like a long distance if measured by pre-adolescent standards. But something was beginning to change in me in Spain, and as more months passed, my penchant for “Wow!” vanished. I learned Spanish and became, through “Ah,” the underdog, the survivor, the one who would persevere.
It was about this time I met Paco.
— This is one in a loosely linked series of autobiographical essays in which the author recollects his childhood years, spent largely in Washington, D.C., and Madrid, Spain. Some names and details have been altered for reasons of privacy.