I stumbled up out of sleep and away from a hazy dream with one strange, resonant phrase ringing in my head: "Just out of sheer curiosity..."
Still stuck somewhere between slumber and wakefulness, it took me a moment or two -- but no longer -- to suddenly recall, with a force like a kick to the balls, its source.
Mad Magazine, probably twenty-five years ago.
As a kid, I subscribed to any number of Marvel Comics (but never DC, no, never, because Marvel Comics and DC comics were fierce competitors, warriors waging battle for the hearts and souls of young tykes across North America, even the world, and you could like one company and love one company, but only one, not the other, for that was the way it worked, so while I had numerous copies of G.I. Joe and Spider-Man, X-Factor and West Coast Avengers sent to my house, I had to secretly, almost in shame, prowl the turnstiles at the local Avondale convenience store searching for the DC stalwarts of Superman and Aquaman, Batman and Justice League, Hawkman and Green Lantern, but it was never constant, never regular, for to admit to such a propensity for the dreaded comic book competition would be betraying the oath taken by Marvel Zombies everywhere), and I also subscribed to Mad, one of those comic magazines that parodied everything under the celebrity stars -- movies and books, tv shows and politicians. It gave me my first hint that the serious adult world outside my door was also one to be laughed at and scolded, deflated and prodded; before SCTV and SNL, it taught me that even the things that I loved were worthy of good-natured scorn.
Mad also produced paperback books featuring any number of topics sure to strike hilarity in the hearts of pre-adolescents everywhere, and one of those books consisted of nothing but questions to the editors of the magazine -- followed by their suitably rude, inappropriate and inane answers. (Were they real questions sent by real readers? Ah, but this is one of those mysteries, like the impossible construction of the Egyptian pyramids, or the real nature and composition of Dolly Parton's breasts, that are doomed to remain unsolved, I'm afraid.)
One of those questions from some long-forgotten reader asked: "Just out of sheer curiosity, how did Alfred E. Neumann lose his front tooth?"
The answer was provided in a full page picture. Neumann, if I recall correctly, was perched on a ladder outside of his neighbour's house, peering through a bedroom window, binoculars in hand, watching a very naked lady take a shower. Neumann is smiling his shit-eating grin at us, the readers; but, known to us and unbenownst to him, the naked lady's husband is rounding the corner of the house, heading towards Alfred with his fists clearly clenched, an ass-whupping ready to be unleashed.
So, how did Neumann lose that infamous front tooth?
The caption below the picture read: "Out of sheer curiosity."
I found that witty beyond belief.
(It took a moment or two, but then it clicked: "Oh, I get it!" I thought. "Because he's curious about seeing the naked lady!")
It was a play-on-words of the original question, to start with; in addition, it provided an answer to something that had always puzzled me; it created a backstory before I even knew what the word 'backstory' meant. It gave Neumann a history, a life, beyond the monthly cover of MAD magazine. He had once been a boy living in a neighbourhood not unlike my own, spying on a nude lady taking a shower, and he had been ass-beaten accordingly.
And, above and beyond all that, there was that carefully drawn, almost pristine image that looked so strangely out of place -- Alfred E.Neumann without his missing tooth. It was like seeing Rocky Balboa without his porkpie hat, or Superman without his cape (or conversely, Clark Kent without his glasses), or Captain America without his shield, or your teacher in casual clothes shopping at the supermarket. It just didn't fit. (Icons become icons for a reason, so I think the makers of the new Sherlock Holmes film featuring Robert Downey Jr. are freaking crazy not to include Holmes's pipe or hat as part of the character. "Ah, but those were never part of the original stories," they say, and that might very well be true, but Sherlock Holmes has cemented himself into our collective consciousness for a reason, and to deny the character the hat and the pipe is to deny us our own pop-culturual history.) That single sketch seemed to open up and shatter any number of boundaries -- artistically and comedically.
I always felt bad for characters in tight spots, and at times I wanted to warn poor Alfred: "Look out! Get down from that ladder! Your tooth is about to be lost!"
And yet, he was supposed to lose that tooth. It was his destiny and his karma; the tooth would be gone but his anarchic spirit of rebelliousness would fill in the gap.
All of these thoughts, all of these memories stormed through my brain as I finally awoke.
I hadn't thought of that particular panel in decades, and yet there it was, nudged into the sunlight by some spectre of my sleeping self.
"Just out sheer curiosity," I thought.
That sentence took me back.
Making me wonder: What else have I forgotten that I don't even know that I've forgot? What have you forgotten from your wonder years that is waiting to be remembered? What other random remnants of our childhoods are waiting to disovered by our ignorant, sleeping selves?
Perhaps tonight we'll find out.