The day I entered Alta Loma elementary school, my mom walked me hand-in-hand to the kindergarten, introduced me to the teacher (can’t remember her name; I know my first grade teacher was Mrs. Benjamin, and my sixth Grade was Mrs. Turner) and said: “Hi, I was wondering if you’d watch Stevie for me today?”
A very sweet, very comforting way to introduce a child to the idea of school.
In kindergarten, I made two friends, Howard Kokubun and Lee Taylor, who were respectively Japanese and White. Didn’t mean squat to me—we were three musketeers, all for one and one for all, right?
My sister Joyce, three years older than me, taught me to read, and the first book was one called The Five Chinese Brothers. She read it to me a dozen times, until I could recite it by heart. Then I read it until I could identify each of the words. And then I had it!
Then in first grade, Mrs. Benjamin’s class, all the kids were divided into reading groups. I remember Lee and Howard were placed in a group composed of white and Asian kids. My group was black and Hispanic kids. “Wow!” I thought. “Wonder why Howard’s over there, not here with me?”
I found out a few minutes later. We were tested for reading by some older kids, fifth grade perhaps. They listened to the other kids struggling with their reading, and when it was my turn, I read better than the fifth graders. Embarrassed, they immediately took me out of the black group and put me in with the white kids.
I have no words for how painful that moment was. No child should have to realize, that young in life, that society does not hold him precious. It seriously sucks.
Home life was pretty good at this time. Dad worked nights and slept through the days a lot. He was a stunning baritone. I remember seeing Dad’s group, “The Exciting Young Voices,” performing with Nat “King” Cole at the Greek Theater, and meeting Mr. Cole. He was so genteel and kind.
Never a big kid, I was stunningly nonathletic, and I was nerdy before the word was popular. Although adults seemed to like me—I was chosen to appear on Romper Room, and to compete in Art Linkletter’s Hula-Hoop contest at CBS Television City, where I later worked—there were problems getting along with the other kids.
Not to put too fine a line on it, I got beaten up a lot. A LOT. By boys and girls. Singularly and in groups. Not a lot of fun. But part of the result was that I took refuge in stories of heroes: Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and later Conan the Barbarian, John Carter of Mars, and countless others.
Somewhere in elementary school I read my first “real” science fiction novel, Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I was in love.
They say the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and I tried my hands at being a writer/artist, ripping off Marvel comics’ The Hulk with a character I called “The Ar.” Probably because when he turned into a single-eyed giant with his brains sticking out of the sides of his head like giant mouse ears, he said “Arrrrr” a lot. Honestly.
Let’s just say that my skills as a graphic artist never blossomed, to put it mildly.
Now, during this time, my dad was around less and less. I remember coming out in the morning and finding him sleeping on the couch. What exactly was going on I cannot say, but one day my mother told me that she and my dad were going to live separately, and I needed to choose who I wanted to be with.
In some ways, it felt as if I hardly knew my dad. I have no memories of him teaching me to read or do math. No memories of him playing ball with me, although I do have one of us going to a baseball game together. One memory of fishing with him.
That’s about it.
I chose my mom.
The whole thing hurt so much. It felt as if there was something essential missing in me. I only really remember her dating one man in all the years after the divorce—although there must have been others—a man named Frank Drye. Good man. Liked him. But I remember him being at the house, sitting on the couch with my mom, and I was about seven, I guess. I was curled up behind the couch like a puppy or kitten, wanting so much for him to play with me, or reach back and hug me. I just wondered . . . was I so ugly, so stupid and weak that no one wanted to be my daddy?
One memory of Frank took place at Lake Isabella, or one of the tributary streams running into it—I remember a current. My sister Joyce and I swam out too far (although nothing I did in the water could really be considered “swimming”) and got into trouble.
Joyce, sensibly enough, struggled her way to shore, but I wasn’t letting her get away, and I piggy-backed, almost drowning us both. Frank and my Mom were on shore, and I remember looking up out of the water and seeing him standing there, looking strong and capable, about to dive in and save me.
He didn’t even have to do it. Just knowing he was ready to gave me new strength. We made it to shore.
That image—of a brave man who might save me, or save someone, broad of shoulder and thick of chest—remained with me. The hero. Who is that? Always, it was someone or something outside myself. But the inquiry had begun.