Being an Exercise in the Art of Writing Eloquently About Nothing at All
by Ed McClanahan

All my life, ever since Superman was a pup, the forelock has been my favorite male adornment. Li’l Abner had a forelock, and so did Vice-President Wallace; Elvis and Tony Curtis and Gene Krupa and even that stentorian old foghorn Senator Everett Dirksen all sported forelocks; Charlie Starkweather had a dandy.

Superman’s forelock—a tight pubic coil that remained miraculously unruffled even when he flew through the air faster than a speeding bullet—was the sole physical particularity that distinguished him from the bespectacled milksop Clark Kent; without it, the Man of Steel was just another mild-mannered journalism major. Li’l Abner’s was a direct descendant of the forelock of Al Capp, his creator, who got it in turn from his early-1940s political hero, FDR’s leftish v.p. Henry A. Wallace. In his dotage, Capp abandoned his old liberal politics to become a virulent reactionary, but he never shed his beloved forelock, which accompanied him to his grave, along with his wooden leg.

My own forelock and I have likewise long been intimately attached; I can’t speak for Al Capp, but I wouldn’t trade mine for a wooden leg, even if I needed one. (There’s a photo of my imposing adolescent self on roller skates outside the local rink in the summer of 1948, forelock jauntily a-dangle, in my book, O the Clear Moment, still available at fine booksellers everywhere.) To me, a forelock bespeaks, alternatively, rebellion, brooding sensitivity, cool contempt, reckless abandon, menace, and (in Superman’s case) stern defiance, all attitudes I’ve personally been incapable of sustaining in any meaningful way for the last forty years or so. Still, the dream lives on, in the ghostly form of my present-day wispy little white flag of surrender, now but a faded memory of its bobbish youth, a skimpy foxtail ornamenting a venerable jalopy.

In the antic world of popular culture, forelocks have long played a major role; whole careers have depended upon them—or, if you will, depended from them. Without his forelock, where would Russ Tamblyn be today? Whither Steve Cochran or Vic Morrow or Dan Duryea? (Whither indeed?) Sal Mineo’s forelock practically co-starred in “The Gene Krupa Story,” and Martin Sheen has pursued his through countless movies, like a mule plodding along after a dangling carrot. Absent their profusion of forelocks, ShaNaNa might’ve joined the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and Grease would be nothing but, well, a greasy spot. If Chet Baker had had a receding hairline, would “My Funny Valentine” retain its wistful off-key charm? If Kerouac and Neal Cassady hadn’t had those cute matching forelocks, mightn’t Jack’s mom have made him stay home in Lowell until a more suitable traveling companion came along?

Nowadays, it seems to me, forelocks have pretty much gone the way of Dash Riprock. (Gov. Blagojevich’s bangs don’t count; that’s not a forelock, that’s an awning.) Mitchum, alas, is no longer with us, and Travolta and Kirk Russell are getting on. The television personality Conan O’Brien affects a towering Hokusai tsunami of a pompadour, but, qua forelock, it doesn’t quite convince. Like its proprietor, it’s a bit too bouncy and perky. Real forelocks don’t do perky.

Anyhow, unless I can contrive to get myself run over by a bus, I probably won’t be taking my forelock to the grave with me (Al Capp’s sterling example notwithstanding), because at its present lamentable rate of decline, the actuarial odds are that it will precede me. But then isn’t that what forelocks are supposed to do? Male-pattern hair loss being what it is, if we live long enough they generally cross the bar before us, even as, like hood ornaments or bowsprits or unicorn horns—or, for that matter, our very noses—, they have steadfastly preceded us wherever we have gone in life. Whither thou goest (whither indeed!), I will surely follow, eventually if not sooner.

So don’t rush off, forelock o’ mine. Stick around, insignificant little gossamer puff of whimsy that you are fast becoming, hold your ground until, who knows, maybe one fine day three or four decades from now, an affectionate breeze will come along and waft whatever’s left of you right off my noggin and carry you away like thistledown, to the Land of Doo-Wah-Diddy.

Hey, I’ve got your back.

"The Forelock" will appear in March, 2009 in Open 24 Hours, a literary annual published by the Brescia Writers Group, an affiliate of the creative writing program at Brescia University, Owensboro, Kentucky.

Copyright © 2005 - 2012 Ed McClanahan. All rights reserved.