I liked watching "Crocodile Hunter" videos with my kids. I would grab my son by an ankle and hoist him into the air, shouting, in my best Australian accent, "Oh, he's a beauty, he is. You're OK, mate. Crikey, what a beauty this one is," while my son screamed and hissed.
We're upset about Steve Irwin's death. But probably my kids don't feel as sad about it as I do, because they're not old enough to understand how rare the Steve Irwins of the world are.
Steve was a hero. My hero. He glorified the childhood qualities of curiosity and exuberance, always wielding them in the cause of compassion. And in an era of the spreading Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, global warming, 9/11, Katrina -- in classrooms and homes of distractible ADHD and dyslexic kids, what better message to send than this: It is normal to be squirmy and distractible and hyperactive and exuberant and curious, so long as you are also compassionate.
In all Irwin's jumping onto the backs of killer crocs and tugging on the tails of deadly snakes and plunging into black lagoons, his message was about loving the unlovable and seeing the good in all creatures. He was not simply a big kid telling us it was OK to be kidlike. He was big kid guiding our morality.
There is no shortage of preachers and politicians harping on moral imperatives: Kill your enemies; love your enemies. But the thing about Irwin is that he didn't recognize the crocs and snakes as enemies. They, these deadly animals, were just doing their jobs, just being who they were. And Irwin's job was to explain them to us, to find places for them to exist and to prevent lethal conflicts by anticipating them. And truer than any TV preacher exhorting us from the pulpit, he valued the tiniest as much as he did the mightiest.
In the video "Crocodiles of the Revolution," Irwin went to East Timor to rescue two crocs who had been imprisoned for years in tiny, fetid pools. The larger croc, a 12-footer, had been living for years curled into a pool eight feet across. East Timor, by some standards the poorest country in the world, was emerging from civil war.
Irwin found funds to build two large and relatively luxurious enclosures; of course the crocs emerged from their old squalid cages enraged, terrified, and deadly. Steve and his crew pinned the crocs to the ground and restrained them. Timorese spectators, survivors of the era of brutal cross-border military raids, cheered as the crocs were released into their humane new homes. Great showmanship! But more: Watching it now in the era of extraordinary rendition -- say torture -- and secret prisons, the metaphorical implications are hard to miss.
Irwin's magic was that he was no super-hero. His overwhelming exuberance kept you from thinking of him as anything but a big kid, and his goofy ordinariness made him easy to identify with. He was not Rambo or Terminator, or Braveheart. He didn't exist on a higher plane than the rest of us, no Gandhi-ish moral purity, no Michael Jordan-ish physical ability, no Einsteinian intellect. Rather he was an Everyman hero -- or rather an Everyboy hero. He was Harry Potter and Frodo, striving in the cause of righteousness, facing danger, being ordinary until called upon to do the extraordinary. Or most accurately, he was Elliot from E.T: the normal kid whose greatness comes not so much from himself as from the creatures he loves -- or, maybe more precisely, from the very act of loving.
Last year, in Canyonlands National Park, I saw and heard my first rattler. I gawked from a safe distance, then biked away and, for the rest of the day, tried to think how, in my middle age, I might make a living catching snakes. It was an honest thought; I've always loved animals and the wilds. But it was also the Crocodile Hunter having his effect on me. That was me in the khaki shorts, the everyday hero, the restless kid who'd rather be out in the wilds than locked in school, the daydreamer caught up in an immense fantasy where, just by being a kid, by chasing crocs and snakes and spiders, you're somehow saving the world; saving it one unlovable animal at a time.
Lee Goodman is a writer and commercial fisherman who lives in Anchorage