When I was in fifth grade, back when the earth was cooling, I had my first taste of what I might do for a career. Our class put out a newspaper. When I say "a newspaper," I mean just that. We wrote, assembled, and edited exactly one issue of the Room Two Gazette. When the project was first suggested to us, I immediately imagined going to my strengths: writing and drawing. I envisioned myself as the staff cartoonist, with a weekly strip that paid homage in the careful way I borrowed from Charles Schulz. I could see pages of my fictional ramblings, collected neatly within the news of our class.
My teacher, Mister Conklin, wasn't going to have any of that. He expected us to stretch ourselves. He wanted me to write news. He wanted me to report. Just the facts. Short sentences. Who, what, when, where, why. So I set out to do just that. And I failed miserably. Where was the fun in that? Mister Conklin took pity on me. He assigned me to the editorial cartooning staff. That staff consisted of one other person: David Murrow. He was the other "smart kid" in the class. He was probably even smarter, because his parents had skipped him to the fifth grade right from the third. Not that I felt any competition there.
When I sat down with David, I saw that he already had a vision. He was already hard at work depicting the landslide victory of Richard Nixon over George McGovern. It was mostly a sketch, but I remember how terrifying and dark he had drawn the head of Tricky Dick. The ski slope nose, great flopping jowls, and the most intense, beady little eyes possible. As I looked at this caricature, I tried to gauge my next move. What else could I add?
"Why don't we just show the arms and a leg of McGovern sticking out from under the rubble, down here?" David liked that idea. I began to draw. "And we could have Nixon flashing peace signs with both hands, like this." I kept drawing. Soon, there was a fully realized scene surrounding the demon-head supplied by my collaborator. Mister Conklin was pleased, and we were given a shared credit on the masthead.
In the coming year, that landslide victory became unraveled as Watergate became a fascination for me and the rest of the nation. I began to draw my own Nixons, always careful to extract some measure of the evil I saw in David's original. David had moved on at this point. His attention fell to chess and math, but I had found my calling. It seemed like each day brought a new revelation or affront from the White House. I filled notebooks with my pointed jabs at this would-be-king. Adults were always duly impressed by my cleverness. My parents introduced me to the work of Pat Oliphant, whose work informed and consumed me. So much so that, in fit of hubris, I sent a few samples of my work to his syndicate. A few weeks later, I received an autographed copy of one of his cartoons. It was inscribed, "David, Keep up the good work! Pat Oliphant."
This was all the encouragement I needed. I worked daily to refine my style and technique, but always haunted by that beady-eyed monster I had seen first in Mister Conklin's room. Then, all of a sudden, Gerald Ford was president. He fell down a lot, but the vast expanse of his face didn't allow me the same fun that Nixon gave me. All those wrinkles and furrowed brow, and that nose. And those eyes.
By the time seventh grade rolled around, the business of political satire was being taken care of by the gifted folks over at Saturday Night Live. Gerald Ford fell down a lot. Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead. So was my political cartooning career. But every so often, when I remember the squint of President Pinhead, or the machinations of "Dick" Cheney, I wonder if I didn't give up the game too early. We shall see.