Coming of Age, Part Three: Drop Our Swords
A childhood immersed in imagination, fantasy and disengagement paved the way for a writing hobby and vocation, which has sometimes elicited the real acclaim of flesh-and-blood persons and placed food on my table.
Writing has provided a sense of vocational, almost transcendent purpose that clings to me like a shadow, and formed the basis for the public speaking that came to fruition in my 30s. It has been God’s enduring gift to me for decades, a talent I cannot fully explain but can only respond to, refine and turn loose on whomever is willing to read or listen.
The use of words, at first only written but spoken in recent years as well, has continued to bubble up to the surface from the depths of my heart and subconscious. I typed as a child, as I type now, with fury and purpose, blocking out distractions. My father’s boss once visited our home and saw me in the word zone with that far-away stare, and asked Dad, “What’s he writing in there?” My father simply replied, “I don’t know, but I think it’s good.”
I did not then, and still do not, fully understand grammar and cannot define all of its components in a technical sense. But a talent emerged that instinctively knew how to put words together in the right fashion, and only intensified as I placed it into practice and allowed it to develop into a strength. In recent years I have modified a key line from the outstanding 1981 film Chariots of Fire, telling others, “God gave me words, and when I write I feel his pleasure.”
Many others besides my Dad have at times found these words I produce bizarre, or the effort to construct them less productive than other pursuits. I have sometimes raged against my stubborn talent in strange complicity with the cynics, chasing after more immediate satisfactions.
Perhaps good films, books, comics, plays and other forms of art simply touch a natural part of us that is indigenous to being made in the image of a creative God; even when, for some, that God remains temporarily unknown.
What I do know is that as a boy I became captivated by certain stories, and ever since then have wanted to hear, read, see and write other stories. I have mostly fought against the powerful tide that seems to insist little boys and girls must grow up, and leave their stories behind to find more practical things to do. Swimming in the opposite direction of much of the culture often leads me to encounter cold currents of loneliness, and I have learned as an adult that most “artist” types can relate.
My fiction writing, in contrast to my parallel universe writing, formally began around 1979 when I stumbled across comic books while on vacation with my family at a Kentucky hotel.
Issue 227 of Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk was, ironically enough, about a psychologist’s effort to help the Hulk claim his own identity. The Hulk is the ultimate anti-hero, forever pursued by the authorities and all sorts of strange alien creatures. He is the alter ego of meek scientist Bruce Banner, who was caught in a “gamma ray” explosion that transformed his cells in a manner that makes him the Hulk whenever he gets angry or anxious. In a sense, the image of God in Banner became overtaken by the image of a beast.
For several years I read every Hulk, riding my bike with change in my pocket to a local convenience store each month to buy the new issue. I created a comic book series of my own, conveniently called The Amazing Kong and imitation in its most blatant, if flattering, form. Another comic series I authored was called Star Notes, and it is not hard to guess the source of inspiration. A few other comic series were original enough, such as “Digital Jim,” who was half-man and half-robot and, aside from that, just a nice, normal guy like me. I drew the pictures and supplied the dialogue, from cover to cover.
My drawing of comic books and characters caught the eye of teachers who decided I was a budding artist and enrolled me in a special class called “Super Art.” But I did not have the patience for fine-tuning any would-be art skills, and drew pictures only as a means to an end: to tell what I hoped would be compelling drama. For years I decorated the title pages of my stories with artwork, but only to represent the something greater I felt was in the pages to follow.
A step beyond comic books, and a further unleashing of the words that could not easily flow from my lips but found life upon paper, was the production of homemade “books.”
These were first written with my sloppy penmanship, and later hastily composed with my succession of typewriters. From around age 10 or 11 until I was nearing 16, I cranked out 15 “novels.” Perhaps this can be viewed as quite prolific for someone that young, but I am not overly impressed with myself since none in my opinion are of publishable quality. In recent months I have come across notes I saved for an additional 12 or 15 book projects, most of which I started but never completed. Given enough time, there seems to be no limit to the amount of words I can write; whether they are good words is another perspective.
My first of these books was Ghost Castle. Its cover sports the silhouette of a headless knight galloping on what resembles a dragon more than a horse, plus an outline of a valiant man in armor dueling with an unseen foe. A large, gray “castle,” with multi-colored ornamentation, two windows that look like omniscient eyes and a triple crown beset with green flags rounds out the artwork. Under the title is “By John De Marco.” The back cover offers a terrifying portrait of “Og the Fire God.” Internal drawings depict the three main characters and a battle scene.
The storyline: Two knights, “Flash” and “Saturn,” are warned by a ghost that people in the community are scared and troubled. To find out why, they need to journey to Ghost Castle and inquire of Og on how to “help restore freedom to the kingdom.”
Along the way to this presumably haunted edifice, Flash and Saturn encounter a headless horseman who is slashing down one knight after another. The horseman escapes, and the knights proceed with their inquiry of Og. It is the horseman who troubles the people, Og explains, who “makes them scared of the dark and afraid to leave the house, and makes them scared of everything, including their children.” After freeing an imprisoned king in the depths of the castle, Flash encounters the horseman, scrapping with him until he cuts the headless villain to the ground. And so the story ends.
Flipping through the words across the pages, I note how childhood prose can be quite amusing, especially where the obvious is emphasized: “The ghost was creepy…” “and at the top, no head (a description of the headless horseman)…” “Come back here! (Flash and Saturn as they chased the headless horseman)…” “it was a dreary and haunted place (a description of Ghost Castle)…” Ah, the innocence of a fresh mind, unscathed by maturity.
I suppose I felt the story was just too compelling to let it end there, and I am sure the literary critics agreed. So, soon after this epic work came its sequel, Ghost Castle: Part II. (I believe my opening day sales record stood until the first Harry Potter sequel, but I cannot prove this.) This book’s cover simply depicts a tall, green castle; interestingly decked with a cross at the top that gives off a powerful green light. On the back cover is an action shot of a knight swinging from a platform suspended in mid-air, to some sort of extension housed by the castle.
This book, like its predecessor, was written by hand on half-sheets of legal paper and sewn together by my mother. The sequel’s action picks up where the first story ended, re-telling the fight scene to compound anticipation. The horseman having died, Flash swings to a different castle (because the first one disappears into thin air, which I suppose is what happens when castle owners fail to pay their mortgages), and stumbles across the astonishing discovery that the headless horseman is the ghost of a knight whose head was blown off by a cannonball. Even more stunning: this dead knight was no less than Flash’s own uncle! I am sure that only the fact that this book was written before The Empire Strikes Back prevented me from adding the dialogue, “Flash, I am your uncle.”
The next staggering event is the death of Og, the Fire God. After death, however, Og continues to address the knights from beyond the grave, a la Obi-Won Kenobi of Star Wars. The story culminates in a final battle between Flash and the headless ghost, wherein each finally throws down his sword and realizes the other is a relative. “They saluted each other. Happiness was in the kingdom again,” the sequel concludes.
There was a girl in my third-grade class named Jennifer, to whom my new friend Tommy wrote a love letter during class one day. Our teacher, the gray-haired Mrs. Rainey, intercepted the note and did something that even my eight-year-old mind knew was wrong: She told the class about it! Jennifer started to cry, and I think Tommy wanted to die.
Most of us laughed, but even while chuckling I sort of wished I could have been the one to write the note. More importantly, I was stunned in my own naïve way that our teacher had embarrassed Tommy in such a manner before our little classroom community. What was she thinking? Why did she have to be so cruel? I did not have the words or understanding to put it this way in those days, but there was a substantial lack of grace, mercy or compassion in Mrs. Rainey’s decision.
I have often wondered whether she created some scars in young Tommy that day, a touch of fear that may have haunted him into adulthood. I never got to ask him and I do not recall us ever talking about this incident; but Tommy continues to haunt the memories of my childhood like a ghost in a castle. I am sure Mrs. Rainey is long since deceased, but I would love to ask her why she had such a lack of empathy toward that young boy. I wonder why she did not view him like one of her own children, if she any.
Why don’t people in general treat each other more like fellow journeyers in the same three-act-play of brokenness and hope; trying to get life right but often getting it wrong?
We share the same human conditions. Like Flash and the headless horseman, we would oppose each other a lot less if we realize we are all related in some deeper sense, that ultimately we are children of the same loving God. We are each trying in our own manner to grapple with loneliness, find our hidden talents, unveil our identities and make an effort for the world to take notice and be transformed.
What a daily wonder society could be if we mustered more of the courage and character to drop our swords and salute, instead of condemn one another; to offer grace instead of shame.