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Cartoon heroes can't surpass legacy of Dad

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

Sneakers are sneakers. Or so my father thought.

"I need P.F. Flyers. ... They make you run faster and jump higher," I pleaded. "Aaaand you get a secret decoder ring."

That got his attention.

"Secret decoder ring?" he asked.

"A Jonny Quest secret decoder ring," I said.

So P.F. Flyers it was. With nine children, my father was conservative with most purchases, but he always had a soft spot for gadgets.

He reminded me a little of Dr. Benton Quest, father of my boyhood rival, the previously-mentioned Jonny. I have to admit, I was always jealous of J.Q.

Jonny got to do a lot of cool stuff, flying around the world in a jet with his scientist dad. He didn't have to attend school. Instead, he was tutored by a cool secret agent with white hair named Race Bannon.

Bannon was an expert pilot, crack shot and master of the martial arts. In addition to physics and chemistry, he taught Jonny and friend Hadji how to deliver a karate chop and judo throw, two skills that came in handy in the ongoing war I waged with my sisters.

While Dr. Quest had his face buried in a test tube, Bannon introduced the boys to different cultures and let them roam like men, instead of calling them inside as soon as the sun went down.

Whether battling Lizard Men or the evil Dr. Zin, Bannon was always there when needed. And I have to admit, there were times when Jonny and I probably wished Bannon was our dad. But then I learned my wish would never come true.

"It's just a cartoon character," my sister Meredith told me. "You're an idiot."

Jonny, it turns out, was voiced by actor Tim Matheson, who would grow up to star in one of my favorite movies, Animal House. ... "Rush chairman Eric Stratton. Damn glad to meet you."

But I never forgot about my hero, Race, and I later learned the cartoon's creators patterned the character after actor Jeff Chandler.

Chandler had a thick head of prematurely gray hairand starred in numerous films, including Broken Arrow, Red Ball Express and Merrill's Marauders. Chandler always played a man of action and integrity. He was the kind of man who would never give up, no matter the odds, a hero for all ages.

While researching this story, I read in the autobiography of swimming star and ex-Chandler girlfriend Esther Williams that the man who once played Cochise was "happy and secure only in women's clothing."

Another library search revealed Race Bannon had written a book about bondage, Learning the Ropes, and I am sure he wasn't talking about sailing knots.

But there is a lesson to be learned from this.

Looking back, I should consider myself lucky. My father taught me how to fish, pitch a tent and build a fire without buring down the woods. Many of the things I enjoy most in life, including root beer and Sears tools, I was introduced to by him.

And though he had eight other children (none of whom he liked as much as me), he still bought me the P.F. Flyers so I could get my Jonny Quest secret decoder ring, though I knew he wanted it himself.

So with Father's Day upon us, I think of my old man and my son, who is now 1 year old. Sometimes I see a little bit of my dad in my little boy and I wonder, "Maybe God lets a good dad come back as his son's son."

I know that sounds a little far-fetched, but just think of all that good karma getting passed from generation to generation.

In my action-hero world, where good guys always win, anything is possible.

I have to believe so I can be a Race Bannon for my son.

After all, he's earned it.

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