by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Despite living in a relatively urban area, my parents were determined to raise chickens when I was a kid. As such, my daily chores included feeding and caring for the laying hens each morning. What my parents didn’t realize is that as a small child I could get close to the hens without scaring them very much. Of the 20 or so chickens we had, there was one that had colored feathers, so I could easily identify it.

Each morning I carefully approached this one chicken – my chicken – until it became somewhat tame, allowing me to pet and play with it. Of course, I knew the eventual fate of these chickens. When their laying life was over and it came time to dress them, I brought them out of the coop one at a time.

When it came to my chicken, I handed her over just like the others. However, my parents’ expressions turned from concentration to horror as seconds after my chicken had met its end, I explained soberly, “I think I loved that chicken.”

This, of course, has been a family story that continues today despite the fact we no longer raise chickens nor do I tend to love things that aren’t human or specifically classified as pets.

So I find it surprising to feel a real loss at the ending of a fictional character in the funny pages. Twenty-eight years ago, I was introduced to Opus as the mild-mannered penguin wildly out of place in a boarding home in the Midwest in the comic strip “Bloom County.” Struggling with work, love and just getting through the day, I could easily identify with this creature.

As a teenager, I had about as much success with women as Opus did with Lola Granola, the hippy-dippy girlfriend that seemed to bring out Opus’ every insecurity in much the same way the young women in my high school brought out mine.

When Bill the Cat ran for president in 1984 on the American Meadow Ticket, his stump speeches consisted mainly of the refrain: “Ack” and “PPHPPT!” – a statement that still sums up most people’s feelings about politics today. And as the vice presidential candidate, Opus did his best to support the ticket without much help from Bill – who was more interested in free-basing kibbles than making stump speeches.

VP-candidate Opus’ position on the economy: “Fibulate the Interest Rates. Renooberate the Money Markets. And Print More Dough.” Perhaps Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is also an Opus devotee.

Of course, there were some things about the strip that I only learned to appreciate later in life. Opus’ sincere desire for just a few peaceful moments on the potty often mirrors my feelings today – some days it seems like the only time during the work day that you can get a little break from the phone and e-mail. If you’re under 30, just wait. You’ll understand soon enough.

His anxiety closet was chock full of the same anxieties we all have – Dick Cheney, nuclear war, terrorists and CEOs – as well those unique to Opus: Elvis, murderous librarians, bloodthirsty nuns and other monsters. No encounter with his anxieties seemed to end in victory – at best Opus’ battles with his anxieties ended in a stalemate just like they do for the rest of us.

While troubles seemed to follow him relentlessly, Opus kept his moral compass through every trial and tribulation. Like all heroes, he was far from perfect, but he tried his best, often failing badly. Most of my heroes are like Opus; you have to respect someone who is willing to try when failing is a real possibility. Trying when success is certain takes no character whatsoever.

And up to the very end, Opus always did what was right, giving up a life of luxury in paradise so that a poor pound pup could take his place – a gesture of self-sacrifice that can bring a tear to even the most jaded of readers.

Opus is gone and will spend eternity snuggled in the last panel of the classic children’s book Goodnight Moon, a fitting end for this most gallant hero of the funnies.

I think I loved that penguin.