I wrote my first story, “The Yeti,” when I was in third grade. It was about an abominable snowman in a Canadian lumber camp and starred “Bill Conway,” a character I would revisit for years. “Yeti” was certainly a clone of tales I’d seen on Strange Tales of Science Fiction, Thriller, Chiller, or one of the other Creature Feature shows I loved.
But that was the first, and it was followed by others. At this time, I thought I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, and I remember my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Turner catching me misspelling the word “Science” and making me write it a hundred times on the blackboard.
That was cool.
I attended a summer camp for the first time, “Camp Round Meadow.” I had the time of my eight-year old life swimming, horseback riding, and learning about secret badges and ceremonies inside the YMCA.
The idea of belonging to a secret club of guys . . . that was just too cool for words. If I had enough brothers, maybe it would compensate for not having a dad. Maybe.
When I graduated to junior high school, somehow things slipped sideways. Maybe it was the fact that we were all maturing, entering puberty. But the hierarchical nature of kid politics became more pronounced, and I was at the bottom of the pile.
The worst of my tormenters was a kid named Rudy. I’d known this little thug since I was in 4th grade, when he pulled out a pair of brass knuckles on me and took my lunch money. Great.
Well, he and his brother Oliver and friends were even bigger thugs at Mt. Vernon Junior High School. And one day, maybe in eighth grade, I was sent to the principal’s office, to take a message from my teacher.
I got down there, and Rudy was sitting in the office. I barely looked at him as I walked into the office, but somehow he got it into his head that I had narked on him—turned him in for whatever petty mischief he was currently in Dutch for.
And he swore that he was going to kick my ass on the way home.
He made good on the promise. He and his friends followed me all the way down Washington Boulevard, hitting and spitting and cursing at me, daring me to stop and fight.
At five to one odds. Hell, Rudy was bad enough by himself! But as I walked, something was breaking inside my head. Some essential sense of self was dying. I simply couldn’t continue like this, humiliated, diminished, emasculated. I couldn’t get beaten more, either. But I couldn’t win, and I couldn’t go on. It was a nightmare scenario for a timid and insecure kid.
Finally something cracked. I set my books down and walked out into the middle of Washington Avenue, standing on the middle of the double yellow lines, cars and trucks whizzing past me on both sides.
I looked at Rudy, who was drop-jawed with amazement, and said, “Come out here and do that.”
I was going to push him in front of a truck. I was going to kill him. And I think he looked at me, and saw his death in my eyes.
After a long pause, he said: “Aw, man . . . that nigger’s crazy!” and they walked away.
But they never bothered me again. I stood out there on the double yellow lines and swore to God I would find some way to stop being afraid, even if it killed me.
My Mom disapproved of the odd stories I gloried in writing and actually used to ferret them out and tear them up. I think she was worried that I’d follow in my father’s artistic footsteps. His singing career had ultimately failed, and that had contributed to their divorce, I’m sure.
My eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Otterness, became an important ally—she loved the fact that I wrote and encouraged me to continue. Those words, that support, were so precious. I remember coming back from Christmas Vacation to find that Mrs. Otterness’s husband had died. She smiled slightly, heart-broken, but keeping a brave face.
There had been more death that year: Frankie Peterson, brother of Calvin Peterson (my best friend at the time, who went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys), had died of kidney failure. I was starting to wrap my mind around the concept that people, nice people, went away and didn’t come back.
But I wrote, and read my stories aloud to anyone who would listen. Science-fiction stories and spy stories and adventure stories. My spy stories were about Bill Conway yet again, this time agent of “OCTOPUS,” where each of the eight arms represented a different division. There was some clever stuff in those stories, and some of the elements made it into later stories. I remember a bit about flexible robots sneaking into OCTOPUS headquarters with magnetically coded joints that snapped together, so that the bean-bag looking amorphous protozoan shapes they originally had began to be stretched into threatening robot forms, and then finally break free to wreak havoc. Years later, I appropriated this idea for a Star Wars novel and got paid damned good money for it.
Writing wise, these were good times. In terms of my personal relationships . . . things were pretty dreadful. There was an absolute cutie-pie named Sonia Douglas I just adored in junior high, but was too shy to say anything to. On the phone with a friend Cornelius “Corny” Gilliam one evening, and I confessed to having a crush on Sonia. I asked him if he would relay a message that I wanted to ask her to “go with me,” a term that meant, roughly, to be my girlfriend, although what duties and obligations that might have entailed were probably confined to walking home together, and maybe holding hands during assemblies.
Well, the next day was torture. I shared several classes with Sonia, and from time to time I would see her casting glances at me and giggling with her friends. I never spoke directly to her: she’d said she’d give me her answer by the end of the day, and I believed her.
Then in our last class, a note was passed to me, from Sonia. I opened it and it read: “Dear Steven: I wouldn’t go with you if you were the last dog on Earth. Sonia.”
I’m pretty sure I curled into a ball for about an hour and made myself another promise. Somehow, in some way, I was going to find someone to love, and who would love me. I had created my three defining goals in life: love, martial arts, and writing. They’ve been with me ever since.