At four years old, I was a pretty well-rounded kid. I loved food, especially carrots, Diego (Dora’s way cooler cousin), and my stuffed animal, Lolly. I was also obsessed with Horatio Nelson.
If you are unfamiliar with this British naval admiral, he lived from 1758 to 1805. Nelson proved the Royal Navy’s supremacy over the French, most famously saving his country from the threat of invasion by Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Trafalgar. To this day, my family and I have no idea where my obsession started, only that I loved this obscure naval hero. I referred to him as “Lord Nelson Boat Sailor” or “LNBS” for short. My family’s best guess is that my dad told me about this man, and something about him spoke to me. I looked up to him in childlike wonderment and curiosity, intrigued by his exciting lifestyle and heroics.
The tales of Horatio Nelson’s daring and heroic deeds and many near-death experiences ignited my curiosity. From the beginning, I was fixated by his skill at overcoming obstacles – most notably the time he lost an arm during battle – but somehow returned to fight a half hour later. Not only did he continue to fight bravely in the naval battle, he survived. Not letting the loss of his right arm put him off his game, he learned to write with his left hand – no small feat. Believe me, I tried to become ambidextrous once, and after a few wobbly scribbles, gave up. While I have never experienced a setback as large (or as painful) as some of the ones Nelson faced, he inspired me to challenge myself and keep trying.
A few weeks into my obsession, my parents bought me a book titled Nelson. It was blue, about six inches tall, smelled like old paper, and had a portrait of Horatio Nelson on the front. This book motivated me to start reading better. Nelson was not the most detailed or scholarly of books; it was basically a highlight reel of his greatest moments and didn’t mention his defeats or shortcomings as a person. In my four-year-old mind this “greatest hits” style of writing contributed to his God-like standing in my eyes.
I was so obsessed, I didn’t just read the book, I wrote my own. This early “fan-fiction” was complete with both illustrations and words. With an arsenal of washable markers, brightly colored construction paper, and crayons, I got to work. With the help of my mom, I was able to “publish” this book by binding it together with ribbon. I poured my heart and soul into it, as though my whole short life had been leading up to this. In a sense, it prepared me for writing assignments to come, like my essays for school, or this personal essay.
A few months later, my family and I were in England visiting relatives, when my mom found out about a museum dedicated to Horatio Nelson. I insisted we go. Even at four years old, I managed to be very assertive when it came to my passions. When we arrived, I ran from one exhibit to the next, gazing up at them in wonder. I was captivated by the wide array of artifacts concerning his life and legacy. I couldn’t believe I was that close to something he had touched! The museum was like the chance to actually talk to him. Visiting the museum only deepened my interest. Before, all I knew about my hero came from books, but now my mind had been opened to a wider view of his history. This museum was created by a group of Nelson enthusiasts, like me. I felt understood and at home.
Almost 10 years later, I was reading the January 2017 issue of History Revealed. I was engrossed the minute I saw the cover, as it featured a massive picture of Nelson, and below it the headline: “Commander, Rebel, Lover.” In addition to being a hero, I learned he was an unfaithful and bad husband, leaving his wife for months at a time and having long-lasting affairs. I was disappointed and shocked. For the first time in my life, I began to think about whether there was more to Nelson than his accomplishments in battle. While impressive, his victories aren’t what made him a brilliant admiral and role model, but rather his defeats and ability to bounce back from them.
As a child, I may not have been able to wrap my mind around the fact that Nelson was human, not the superhero he was portrayed as in my book. This is similar to the way kids look up to their parents and older siblings, not realizing that they are just as human as anyone else. Humans fail and disappoint themselves and others, but also have the ability to love. The History Revealed article said, “The desire for an unblemished hero led later generations to blame Emma [Hamilton] for the affair, but the reality was more complicated.” It turned out that my hero had been involved in an affair with a married woman, who he claimed was his soul mate. We will never know whether his heart was with Hamilton, or if he really was a snake.
As an innocent four-year-old, I assumed the best in people; it didn’t occur to me that there may be more to people than their victories. While I am not a sage today, I have seen enough of the world to know that everyone is human and there is no such thing as a real superhero. Coming to terms with that has made me realize that one’s humanity is not only okay, it is something that should be treasured. We could all benefit from a touch of child-like naivety before judging or hurting others. Nelson’s personal mistakes don’t make him any less of a military genius or a key figure in the British victory over the French. Perfect humans may not exist, but people are still capable of greatness.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.