Like millions of other people, I lost a dozen of my best friends over the weekend. I had known they were going, of course; long years of declining health showed on their features. They were tired and had been with me a long time and I’d begun to feel that maybe it was time to let them go. Yet the ending came as a shock all the same.
A scant few months after announcing he would no longer write and draw “Peanuts,” Charles Schulz died of a heart attack Saturday, just as his final comic strip was rolling of the presses of the more than 2,000 newspapers that carried it. We’d been prepared to see the characters leave, but there was always hope — Schulz was confident that the cancer that had forced his retirement would subside, allowing him to work on the screenplays he’d been planning, and by which he hoped to bring Charlie Brown and the rest back to the screen.
Now that last hope is gone. We’re left with what we began with: the dozens of “Peanuts” books that have remained in print for nearly five decades, and the best way to introduce any reader to Charlie Brown’s sad yet optimistic world. These were among the first books I remember reading, certainly the first books I ever came to love. The boys’ fiction I grew up with was giddy, preposterous fun, adventure tales of children in space or traveling through time or saving their towns from bank robbers. “Peanuts” was the first time I and many others of my generation recognized ourselves in print. I was the bespectacled Linus, naive and insecure and tormented by an older sister, and I was Snoopy, a backyard adventurer with an imagination powerful enough to make reality an irrelevant detail. I was bossy, arrogant Lucy — to be that confident, even for a day! — and simple, sedate Marcy, as loyal and steadfast a friend as you could hope for.
And I was Charlie Brown, but then, we all were Charlie Brown. Anyone who doesn’t know exactly how Charlie Brown feels when, walking home after another walloping on the baseball field, he wonders “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?” has been living a coddled, spoiled life. Bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them in the slightest, and most of us have felt like we’ve received far more than our share of bad luck from time to time. Too bad. Though Charlie Brown’s team suffered the most humiliating defeats in baseball history, he kept going; he never forfeited a game. You can either complain about it and give up, or get back on the mound and keep pitching.
If there’s a heaven for cartoon characters, I hope Schroeder loosens up and gives Lucy a big wet kiss; I hope Linus gets to enjoy a quiet moment with his blanket, without fear of reprisal by older sisters, hyperactive beagles, or vengeful blanket-hating grandmothers; I hope Peppermint Patty gets an A on a term paper she spent fifteen minutes writing. And like everyone else, I hope Charlie Brown finally gets to kick the football.
We’ll never see it happen now, but maybe that’s OK. Deep down, Charlie Brown knows winning isn’t everything. When he asked Linus why he bothered playing day after day, dragging himself and his frail hopes to the mound despite the full certainty of getting his ass kicked, he replied, “Probably because it makes you happy.” It’s a theme that applied to all of these terminally frustrated characters, whether it was Lucy and her unrequited crush on Schroeder or Snoopy’s unending failure to shoot down the Red Baron. Maybe that’s why the strip, despite its sadness, always made us smile; maybe that’s why I always thought of the “Peanuts” gang as kids I would want to know. And maybe that’s why saying goodbye to them is so sad.
February 14, 2000