Some time between junior high and high school, I developed a strategy of telling stories at lunch time to members of the football team . . . and breaking the stories in half, the Scheherazade technique. This had a delightful result in that when bullies came after me, the football players would say, “Leave the little brother alone!” And that, of course, anchored additional pleasure to story-telling.
My mom signed me up for a class in laser technology at the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry. As terrific as the class was, I enjoyed wandering around the closed museum, opening odd doors even more. In some of them were stacks of old magazines, and I remember thumbing through old copies of Life magazine. Along with 1930s patent medicine ads, I remember cigarette commercials proclaiming that their products were actually healthy for you, that they “soothed the Y-Zone” in your throat. I remember that every time I hear someone suggest that unregulated capitalism will save us. My father eventually died because ads like that did everything they could to convince you that tobacco was benign. If there is a single group of human beings in the world I hold in lowest esteem, it would probably be tobacco executives.
And people who think unregulated capitalism will save us.
In junior high my love of science fiction was more deeply cemented, and with members of the journalism staff, including a kid named Jeffrey Johnson and a pretty thing named Patricia Butler (who had received her hormonal gifts before most of her fellows, to spectacular effect), we formed a science fiction club called “Foundation,” in tribute to Isaac Asimov’s trilogy. About this time I also started a fanzine called “Monolith,” dedicated to my all-time favorite film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A note: that movie totally blew my mind. I never considered it less than a classic, an attempt to convey the shock and awe of first contact with an alien species, two geniuses working together to mighty effect. The fact that years later I was able to sit down and have lunch with Arthur C. Clarke is one of the high points of my life.
High school was the beginning of a better time, but there were speed bumps for a maladjusted kid. I had always enjoyed chemistry, and my interest took a more practically impractical turn when I began to learn how to make explosives. Ah, the glory of Nitrogen Tri-Iodide, or Potasium Permanganate mixed with Aluminum Powder and rolled in a brown paper tube. A few of my buddies and I used to enjoy setting them off around the campus, and the halls rang with their jolly detonations, and people who displeased me found their lockers smeared with an odd purple substance that exploded (harmlessly but loudly) when they touched it.
I think I might have gotten into serious trouble if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was in a creative writing class, and members of the Student Senior Board came and asked for skits for a clean-the-campus “Trash Day” assembly. I came up with some ideas, and they liked them. Even more, they allowed me to perform onstage. In the style of Henry Gibson, an actor and character on then-popular Laugh-In television series, I held a flower (made of shredded newspaper) and recited an original bit:
“A Poem. By Henry Gibson.
I like to think of trash heaps tall
And towering to the sky.
They’re beautiful, yes one and all
And made by you and I.
Perhaps one day these wondrous things
To which we’ve given birth
Will take to flight on orange-peel wings
And conquer all the Earth.
Well, it may not be much to you, but those fifty-odd words changed my life. Overnight, everyone in school recognized me. People were saying “Way to go” and “That was funny” to me in the halls. Former bullies wanted to be friends.
I got my first girlfriend shortly after this period. Her name was Belita Moore, and my best memory of her was making out in a Lou Rawls concert in the school auditorium.
For every little kiss, there’s a little teardrop. Indeed.
One of my all-time favorite teachers was in my life at this period. Her name was Miss Nowacki, a biology teacher, and she was so sweet and tolerant of my odd mind. My academics were pretty crappy—I just couldn’t get myself to buckle down. In my senior year, I had to take a calculus class in summer school, and would have failed it if the teacher hadn’t taken mercy on me. Every problem in the final exam would have been easy to answer if it had been possible to divide by zero. So . . . I created a new number system, right there on my Calculus exam, called Superla, Superla being the multiplicative identity of zero. And then gave all the answers in “S.” My teacher couldn’t believe what I’d done, and gave me a mercy “C.”
During this time, another interesting thing happened. The ABC television series Room 222 with Lloyd Haynes and Karen Valentine filmed exteriors at our school. As part of the deal with L.A. High, members of our acting class got to audition for the show. I doubt that any of us made it onto the show, but I remember being so thrilled to go to Twentieth Century Fox. I actually pitched them an idea for a show, with a bullied kid learning karate and becoming a bully himself. They loved it, and promised to get back to me.
About eight weeks later, the episode was on the air, starring Eric Laneuville as the kid and Chuck Norris as the teacher. I looked at that, and had two choices: I could be really, really, really pissed . . . or I could grin and say: “Hey! I’ve got ideas worth stealing!”
I chose the latter.
My first sexual experience was at nineteen, and rather un-dramatic. The sister of a guy my mother had sold a house to said: “I’m a nympho, Steve. Come over any time and get some.” So one night I did. It was the most fabulous 120 seconds of my young life.
Shortly afterwards I had my first “real” girlfriend; S. S. was my second lover and was rumored to be the love child of notorious pimp Iceberg Slim. Whether that was true or not, she most certainly opened the door to a wider, wilder world for me.
I’d begun studying the Korean style of Hap Ki Do under an excellent instructor named Sea Oh Choi. This was my first formal training, and to my surprise, I was actually pretty good. As a green belt, I competed in the National Korean Karate competition, winning second place—that was an amazing day. I was fast, fearless, and totally wired, beating people two belt levels above me.
I entered Pepperdine University with a major in Communication Arts, living on campus for the first two semesters. In an attempt to please my mother, I actually stopped writing for over a year, but stories kept creeping back into my mind and heart.
A writing contest was announced on campus, with the winners to read their stories to a group of alumni. I won, I read, and looking out over their faces, at their chuckles and nods of approval in all the right places, and their applause after I was finished, I realized that this was what I wanted, this was what I loved, more than anything else I could think of.
That was the second-best thing to come out of Pepperdine. The first was meeting my future wife, Toni Young, who would one day give me my beautiful daughter Nicki.
But that was in the future.
There was a kid we’ll call “Robert” who was in one of my creative writing classes. The teacher, a very attractive lady, used to fawn over him. He actually did deserve it—the kid had serious ability. She used to derisively refer to me as “the king of slick.” But there was something I noticed that she didn’t, and the rest of the kids didn’t. Robert couldn’t take criticism. If she, or anyone else in the class, didn’t absolutely fall over backwards for him, he got very bristly. And that was when I knew. He couldn’t take criticism, and I could. Which meant that I was going to make it, and he wasn’t.
But disgusted by the way the staff drooled over him, I realized my time in academia was going to be short, and not sweet at all.
I left college, and had a series of minor jobs that climaxed in a position as a tour guide at CBS television in Hollywood, where I worked shows like The Price Is Right, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. That was fun. Delivering messages to Cher’s dressing room was always an adventure. She used to enjoy zapping us with little lasers of sexual innuendo — nothing serious, just sort of “Look at what you’ll never have. Ain’t it a shame?” — delivered with the kind of great good humor that suggested we were both sharing a marvelous joke.