The real world is a complicated place, starkly different than the world I grew up with, a world of black and white. If something was bad, I was taught, it was from the devil. If it was good, it was from God. “How do I know if something is bad or good?” I would ask. And then I would be told it was simple - all my answers were in the bible. Of course, that also required me to believe that the harmful thoughts that ran through my mind from an early age were not from OCD, but were instead the voices of demons and the reason they remained was because I wasn’t praying hard enough, wasn’t being a good enough person. Still, the choice of what to believe was mine to make. Unfortunately, to believe the story about the demons was to believe also that I was a terrible person, not wanting to become whole, not wanting to do what was required to make the monsters go away. As an adult, more educated by the experience of living and understanding, that isn’t as tough as a choice to make. As a child, I didn’t know any better, instead following the beliefs of my parents and becoming more miserable the more I thought about the afflictions my black and white reasoning told me I was bringing onto myself. Black and white thinking was more than wrong for me, it was unhealthy and even dangerous.
As adults, we still see things in black and white much more than we should. We need that closure, that knowing that gives us comfort and peace of mind. To horribly paraphrase the Joker in The Dark Knight, we need things to go according to plan. It’s in our nature, our DNA. Terrorists are supposed to commit acts of terrorism. Suburban white kids aren’t. At least, they weren’t. Now they are. The plan has changed. I remember Columbine, the endless coverage, the shock of how something like that could happen in a place like this. I can’t even count how many times we’ve seen it happen since. Things like that, happening in places like this.
Which brings me to heroes. The first time you realize your parents are human can shake you to your core. They are often our first heroes, and the understanding that they are fallible and have the same insecurities we do can leave a lasting mark on the psyche. Sometimes that revelation happens from a minor situation, sometimes not. But it’s always a turning point in the journey to adulthood.
I grew up in southwest Florida, which was the spring training home for both the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins. Stuck hours away from any professional sports team in a state that has many, spring training baseball was as good as it got for some of us. The stadiums were small, holding just a few thousand each, but for the month of practice in February and the month of preseason games in March, it was a glorious event for my brother and I.
Being homeschooled, we’d be finished with our work by the 1pm start time of many of the games, and even though we were poor, we could often afford the few bucks that the spring training tickets cost. The smell of the fresh cut grass, the feeling of the warm spring sun, and the sounds and sights of baseball were so magnetic that even someone (me) that didn’t initially care much for the game got drawn in.
All the pros would be there, and many of them would sign autographs, especially for kids. My brother and I learned, over the years, the sweet spots around each stadium that were most likely to earn us a signature - outside the player parking lot gate, above the tunnel to the clubhouse, next to the dugout, or near the throughway between the batting cages and the practice field. We learned what to yell to the players to get them to come over, and we memorized the times and schedules that each outfield position took the grass during practice or before games. All those tips came in handy, because as a general rule of thumb, the bigger the star, the less they signed, and the more you had to be prepared. Rookie Brett Moss might sign twenty, Tim Salmon might sign a dozen, but Frank Thomas after a forty-plus home run season or Greg Maddox after a Cy Young year? They might sign two. And only for kids. The big stars were jaded and knew the adults would likely sell the signed bats or balls, but children were more likely to have pure intentions. Of course, the adults knew that too, which is why they’d sometimes pay us to go get an autograph of a big star we weren’t necessarily fans of or that we already had.
Everyone would try to get up-and-coming rookie’s autographs because the rookies would always sign. They liked signing. They wanted people to like them, and they got a kick out of being wanted. It was still new and exciting to them. “Get em’ before they get big” was a motto of autograph hounds. But almost none of the stars signed for more than a few seconds, if at all. None, except for one man.
Kirby Puckett, beloved star of the Twins, was known to us for three things. Being a superstar slugger, being the nicest guy in baseball, and not leaving until every single autograph was signed. Every season, Kirby would stay for hours after every practice. Someone, uninformed of his legendary signing status, might yell out “Hey Puck, can I get an autograph for my kid?” Kirby would respond, “Sure man, after the game. I’ll sign as many as you want. You got my word!” And he would. Every time. He laughed, smiled, signed two, three, four balls for you and your kids, and kept to his promise of not leaving until every person was happy. Year after year he would tirelessly cater to his fans, never getting mad, never complaining, always being a great guy. His selflessness made him a great choice for a mom-and-dad-approved role model for me, and outside of my parents, he did indeed become my first hero.
When word broke that Kirby had been diagnosed with glaucoma and was going blind, we couldn’t believe it. My father had a hard time comprehending how the nicest guy in baseball was going to not only have to give up on the game he loved, but get used to life without sight. Yet, his early retirement only solidified his character. He became a legend. He was good man. He was an honest man. He was a great man.
He put a gun to his wife’s head while she held their child. He strangled her with an electrical wire. He cut through a door with a power saw when she locked herself in to hide from him.
Kirby Puckett was a goddamn monster.
His wife wasn’t the only person Puck traumatized. He especially enjoyed women with low self-esteem that wouldn’t rat him out due to their “desperation”; single mothers on welfare and overweight women were his favorite to abuse. He also tried to rape a random woman in a restaurant public restroom. Those are just the stories that got out.
In a way, Puck got lucky. He was already out of baseball when the accusations started to fly, and he was dead by a stroke only a few years later. He didn’t have to see his world crumble down nearly as long as he got to take advantage of it.
I was in my early teens when the real world news punctured my black and white bubble, and I couldn’t fathom it. I had never had an experience of such contrast before, such a challenge to my good or evil way of thinking. How could a man be so good to so many people and so inexcusably terrible to so many others? I cried in my room for hours, trying to make sense of it all. I grew up a lot that day.
I went on to have a few more heroes in my life. Enough to know that I shouldn’t be upset anymore when one turns out to not be what he seemed, which is why I find myself surprised today that I am. He was my last real hero, and was my acting teacher in Los Angeles. He was a giver of insight and wisdom. A man of compassion that could reach the deepest levels of my soul and understand my pain and help me turn it into something positive. He was tough, yet gentle, and his students loved him. Many looked to him as the father they never had, and that was no coincidence. His own father was an alcoholic, nasty man, and Cam taught class like a man wanting to be the strong provider and emotional backbone he never had a chance to lean on.
I learned more about people from Cam in the year I trained with him than all my previous years put together. He taught me what it was to be real, in an environment designed to learn how to pretend. It broke my heart when I ran out of money and had to quit his school, yet his parting words, though brief, were powerful enough to keep me pursuing acting for years after.
When word came out last summer that he was being accused of sexual assault of a minor, and that it had happened during that same time I studied with him years ago, I knew. I could probably pinpoint the days it happened by how he was in class. I’ll bet many of his former students could tell you they felt the same way. He had developed a bond between himself and the rest of us much like the one between a father and his children. We may not have known what was happening at the time, but we knew something was. His emotions betrayed him, and we could sense it.
In the mid 2000s, he befriended a woman at AA and groomed her thirteen year old daughter into becoming an object of sexual gratification for himself. The young lady, after years of therapy and suggestions to come forward, finally did, and I’m proud of her. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure and stress she was under while dealing with her own trauma at the same time. The guy was a teaching legend in Hollywood with some very powerful, connected friends, and I don’t envy the process she had to go through from the beginning, to her wearing a wire to get him on tape, to the trial itself. Even now, I read new comments trashing the poor woman, calling her names, and questioning her intentions and character. Even after all the recorded evidence was presented.
Cameron Thor’s trial ended last week, and he was found guilty of committing a lewd act on a minor. He’ll be sentenced in October.
Though my experience with him was almost a decade ago, the skills and philosophies I learned from him weave through my daily life, and thinking about him, my last hero, makes me sad.
I know now that heroes exist because we want them, not because they are. People are just people, and we should never forget that when it comes to the choices we make. I can’t help but think that if, as individuals, we simply believe we are “good”, then it becomes too easy to justify or smooth over bad behavior. It can’t be that bad, I’m a good person! It might behoove us to take away the black and white, to get rid of the concept of good and evil as a whole and judge our decisions as they come, each on its own. No more “good people making bad decisions.” Just people, taking life as it comes, thinking outside of ourselves, and making as many good choices as possible.