Was Tom really all that Swift? Were Frank and Joe Hardy?

My wife claims that I’d be a better writer today if I’d read the ‘classics’ when I was a wee lad. She might be right. I never read David Copperfield, but I know the name of the Hardy Boys’ speedboat (which they bought with reward money from solving crimes too tough for the local bumbling police chief to solve), and while I might not have read Jungle Book, I can tell you how many bathrooms there are aboard Tom Swift’s flying laboratory.

If I’m being honest, and I can think of no reason to be otherwise, I grew up on a steady diet of junk literature. Besides the evening newspaper, my father wasn’t much of a reader. My mom would stay up late reading romance novels and Readers Digest Condensed Books that she would trade back and forth between friends and relatives. I don’t recall my two sisters doing much reading or what their preferences were.

I attended Edgar Allen Poe grade school on the south side of Chicago. The school mascot was the Raven. Every seat was filled and teachers rarely held kids back. You learned what you wanted to learn and then they passed you along. I remember watching a lot of movies in school. The educational kind. On Fridays almost all the teachers showed movies. We were even allowed to bring candy to school on Friday. If you were reasonably well mannered you could coast along through the grades without being noticed—or learning much. I recall there was a library on the second floor of the school. I don’t know if they had copies of Jungle Book or David Copperfield. You weren’t required to read books so I didn’t read that many.

Then we moved. It was only thirty miles away, out into the suburbs, but it was a fresh start of sorts. I enrolled in Sunnybrook grade school. Our school mascot was the beaver. Our basketball team was the Sunnybrook Beavers. No lie. The year after I started attending they decided to change the name of the team to the Sunnybrook Nationals. The teachers at Sunnybrook were different than at Poe. They remembered my name, for starters. The class sizes were smaller and there was a genuine emphasis on learning. I wasn’t familiar with this concept, but I caught on fast.

Another big difference between the two schools was the libraries. At Poe the librarian, Mrs. Middleton, guarded the books like they were her little ducklings, and you had to have a very good reason for taking any book down off the shelf. At Sunnybrook, I don’t remember the name of the librarian, but she actually offered you books. She took you around and suggested titles that might interest you. How wild was that?

It was in the Sunnybrook library that I got my first sweet taste of serialized fiction. I rode the bus to school (as compared to Chicago, where the school was only a block away from home) and kids who rode the busses had to wait for them to arrive in the library. A door at the rear of the room opened out to the parking lot. A teacher usually sat by the door and announced which bus was loading, and looked bored most of the time. Meanwhile, us kids sat at the desks and either did homework, played desk football, or dug through the National Geographics looking for the ‘good’ issues. One day I was doing none of these things. I idly scanned the shelves and saw a series of books about a group of youngsters called the Bobbsey Twins. I picked one up and paged through it. It was little kid’s stuff, stupid, really, but by the time my bus was announced I was a couple of chapters in.

Then I did something horrible. Something that I regret to this day. I took the book with me. I didn’t check it out. The librarian was long gone for the day. I stole it. I stuck it into the pocket of the winter coat that I’d been sweating in for the last half hour and walked out the door.

Which was worse, I wondered. Stealing a book from the library or stealing a baby book from the library. That night I examined the book and tried to figure out why I’d taken it. It was certainly written for a younger age group than I was in, but this book was weird. It had been written in the 1920s and it was written in a denser writing style than I had ever experienced. It may have been a little kid’s book, but there were a lot of pages and the text was small. There was a lot of attention paid to mundane details, the most minor of characters were introduced with whole chunks of back history. And of course, because it was written in the 1920s, the characters had only a few of the conveniences I took for granted.

Everything seemed to involve a great adventure. If you wanted to do something as simple as wash your hands, you had to bring the wash basin downstairs, put on your wool jacket (the one with the blueberry stain on the sleeve, from the time that horrible Jimmy Creggers pushed you down into the blueberry bush near Hobson’s Creek. Mother and the wash woman tried their best to get the blue out, but to no avail) your rubber galoshes (last winter your feet were too small for them, so mother bunched up some rags and scraps of cloth into the toes) and your favorite mittens (which were a gift from Aunt Francine who claimed they were woven by the mystical old gypsy woman who lived in a caravan at the edge of town. She claimed that whoever should wear the mittens shall be eternally lucky. You told father once that whenever you wore the mittens you seemed to do well if there was a test at school. Father laughed and told you that there was nothing mysterious about my getting good grades. He then commended me on my study habits). Now dressed, you carried the water basin outside to the water pump. The pump handle had to be pulled once, twice, three times to bring water up, and then a few more times to run the brackish water through. With the basin full, it’s time to give your hands and face a good scrubbing. But while you look for the bar of soap and a wash cloth, Scraps the dog gets curious and while attempting to see what is in the basin he succeeds in knocking it over, spilling water on the rug that Uncle Nathan brought back from Spain after the war.

Part of what hooked me on the Bobbsey Twins was the period stuff and the attention to detail, but the other part was the element that made Edward Stratemeyer (creator of the Bobbsey Twins, as well as Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and a dozen other series) a genius was that each book began with the characters talking about the great adventure they’d just had, and ended with a teaser for an upcoming adventure. On the surface this was such a cool concept, because to a reader it meant that these characters didn’t just start and stop in the book you were holding. They existed before that particular book began, and kept on keeping on long after the particular book ended. Heck, they probably even did cool things that never even made it into the books.

Of course, only slightly below the surface, this was blatant and shameless advertising. How could I bear not knowing about the great times these characters just had, and were about to step into? I couldn’t.

Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway because this is my confessional of sorts, in the days that followed I stole all four of the Bobbsey Twins books from the library. I had every opportunity to check them out, but I was afraid of being made fun of for reading such baby stuff. I did it and I regret it. (To make matters worse, after reading the books I hid them away in the garage. There was a hole in the drywall, so I tucked them in the wall. Years later my father decided to do some refurbishing and I just happened to be standing there when he ripped the drywall down and the books tumbled out. He asked me if I knew anything about them. I lied and said I didn’t. I knew then, as I know now, thirty-five years later, he knew I was lying. He didn’t push me on the subject and he never mentioned it again, but he knew I was lying.

After the whole ugly Bobbsey Twins debacle, I checked out all the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books in the library. And then I found out they had them on sale at the stores, so I started collecting them. These weren’t as well written as the Bobbsey Twins had been, but they were a good read. (In fact, the early Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books had been written in the same wordy, detail packed style, but around the 1950s all the books were rewritten, streamlined, and in effect dumbed down. The only good aspect of this was that a lot of the racism and stereotypes were removed. I’ve read a lot of the originals and some are so politically incorrect they’d make your hair stand on end. The books that I’d swiped from the library had been the original versions)

While waiting for the next Hardy Boy adventure to be published, I spent a lot of time at the public library. It was only a mile or so from our new house. They had a great Young Adult section, and best of all there was an air-conditioned reading room. In the summer, when it was too hot to play ball or do anything destructive, my friend Kenny Madison and I would bike to the library and cool down. After a while Kenny stopped coming along and I read most of the Young Adult section from A to Z. There was no David Copperfield, but there was S.E. Hintion, and I never found Jungle Book, but I did have a nice run-in with The Mad Scientist’s Club.

A few weeks ago I came across a book at Borders that took me back in time to when I first met the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys.

The book is ‘Operation Red Jerico’ and the subheading reads that it’s ‘The Guild of Specialists Book 1’. The author is Joshua Mowll, a British graphic designer.

The book takes the form of a journal from the 1920s, recounting the adventures of fifteen-year-old Rebecca MacKenzie and her younger brother Doug.

Intentional or not, the pretense of the book mirrors the basis of the Lemony Snicket series. Plucky children, secret guild, missing parents, kids being bounced between relatives like pinballs. But that aside, it’s still an outstanding book.

Because it’s a journal, nearly every page features extensive diagrams and maps. There are vintage photos and newspaper clippings. Brother Doug is a talented sketch artist, so there are plenty of pencil drawings of people, places and events.

Every important location is detailed in foldout gatefolds, and the book ends with extended appendices and notes. The overall book design is a delight.

I found this book in the kid’s section of the store, but I don’t know what kids will make of it. It’s a definite curiosity. Perhaps it was created with readers like me in mind. My daughter Dakota is twelve. She showed little interest in it. She’d sooner wrestle with a fifty-pound Harry Potter book.

If you dig innovative Young Adult fiction, look for this book at a store near you. It’s only fifteen bucks, and even if you don’t buy it you should give it a good look anyway. See if it sparks any memories.


LOS ANGELES, California (AP) -- George Takei, who as "Star Trek's" Sulu was part of the Starship Enterprise crew through three television seasons and six movies, has come out as a homosexual in the current issue of Frontiers, a biweekly Los Angeles magazine covering the gay and lesbian community.

Did you know about all about this? Were you somehow involved in on the cover up?

You realize, this changes everything. Everything!

I hope for your sake you didn't know about this all along.

This is so very wrong. I feel betrayed.

Didn't he have to sign some sort of Federation oath?

I'm repulsed, yet strangely aroused.

No! Wrong!

Of course, this explains the dreams.

Me, trying to land my shuttle in Sulu's docking bay. Him, yelling for more thrusters, more thrusters.

I should call my priest. Well, not Father Andrews. His cellblock lost their phone privileges for a month after some idiot started his mattress on fire.

Maybe Sister Pat. She promised to come over and rebuild the engine of my Harley, after she gets back from her religious retreat in San Francisco.

How could Sulu be gay? Next they'll be telling us that Captain Kirk is really bald. Or that mop top Chekhov was only put on board to reel in the 'Beatle crazy' youth of the 60s.

I think it's all a bunch of lies propagated by Khan. I bet he's behind it. Him and his luscious long hair, and those washboard abs and pecs of perfection.

That's it. Never happened. Not true. Not going to melt all my Sulu action figures with a blowtorch. No need to peel the posters off the ceiling.

Everything's fine. Deep breaths.

All is good.

"Live long and use plenty of lubricant"



Just like my horse in the basement story idea, which I discussed down yonder, I’ve been bouncing around another idea inside my noggin, which I think is pretty good, but that I can’t say for sure if it’s original or not.

Last year for Christmas I did a parody of one of those ‘family updates’ that some families send out every year, detailing what the Smith or the Jablonsky family has been up to during the past year. “Timmy hit a homerun during the big t-ball tournament, Earl finally got around to painting the garage, Marge won first prize for best pumpkin loaf at the church raffle”Stuff like that. I got lots of good feedback from my parody piece, but I also know that a few people didn’t get the gag. (At times my humor can be as dry as Joan Rivers’ hootchie)

I decided to do something different this year. I was thinking about doing a riff on everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The Little Drummer Boy. The story is preposterous, of course. Anyone who’s ever been anywhere near a newborn baby will tell you that the last thing a baby wants to hear is a snare drum solo.

I thought it would be funny to have the Drummer Boy panic, once he sees the Little Trumpet Boy, who is ahead of him in line, get smitten by a lightning bolt after his trumpet solo makes the baby Jesus cry.

So maybe Drummer Boy has to go through extreme (and comedic) measures to coerce one of the Three Wise Men to let him put his name on one of their gifts.
“Congratulations on being born, and being the son of God and all that. Enjoy the frankincense.”
Wise Man #3 …and Little Drummer Boy

I think I could make it funny. Maybe even do it as a mini comic book, but I’ll be darned if it seems like a really familiar idea.

Is it familiar because it’s been bouncing around in the back of my head for a while, or because it’s not my idea?

I drink a lot of diet soda (pop) and I think years of guzzling phenylalanine has addled my brain. I’ve also been having reoccurring flashes of déjà vu. But maybe I’ve already mentioned that.



Christmas and Hanukah are now on the horizon and approaching at a fast clip, which means it’s time for the catalogs to start showing up in the mail. Brookstone, Levenger, Sharper Image, Hickory Farms, and the daddy of them all (with regards to containing the most useless junk at the most inflated prices) Hammacher Schlemmer.

For years I used to look forward the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog with delight. (Similar to the delight I used to show over the arrival of the new Sears Roebuck catalog when I was eight or nine. Back then there were limited ways to learn of the existence of a new toy. Either you; saw it in a television commercial, saw it in person in a store or at a friend’s house, or in the ultimate source—the Sears Catalog. The new catalog would appear toward the end of the year, and it was fat as the phone book and it stank gloriously of ink on cheap newsprint. Every toy worth owning was in there to be check marked, cross-referenced, and drooled over. Years later I discovered that there was another section of the catalog to be drooled over, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The Hammacher Schlemmer catalog was famous for featuring the three or four ridiculously priced extravagant gifts peppered amidst hundreds of moderately priced extravagant gifts. The big stupid stuff would be like things like a one-man submarine, a solid gold tennis racquet strung with platinum strings and came with a diamond encrusted tennis ball, or a full-sized hot air balloon that looked just like the Star Wars Deathstar.

After you read about the wild stuff, you could browse through the pages filled with Scandinavian Moose Hide Moccasins, replicas of the New York Public Library Reading Lamps, and the Go-Anywhere Wind Meters. It always made for quality bathroom reading.

The latest batch of catalogs have recently arrived, and they’ve got me thinking. I noticed that Hammacher Schlemmer has really cut back on their ‘big’ items. They’ve only got one, as far as I can tell. It’s an $80,000 replica of Robby the Robot from the movie Forbidden Planet. I wonder how many of those they’re going to sell this year? Back in the 1990’s with all the Internet start-up money flowing around, sure, I know three or four people who might have bought one, but do we have as many people today with ‘stupid’ money as we used to? Anyway, that’s just Robby.

I paged through the rest of the catalog and started wondering exactly how many of some of these items they were selling. Here are some examples:
$429.95 - goat suede shirt
$499.00 - gasoline powered remote controlled truck
$139.95 - fish finder watch
$269.95 - Irish walking cape (trip to Ireland sold separately)
$59.95 – two pair of Sea Island cotton socks
$699.95 – portable backyard ice rink
$1,099.95 – animated light-up Santa on motorcycle (Ms. Claus available for only an additional $949.95)
And my personal favorite—
$39.95 – The Children’s ATM Bank (which allows them to deposit money, then use their very own ATM card to withdraw said money to buy a $500 gasoline powered remote controlled truck!)

Maybe I just hang with the poor crowd, but this catalog seems to be aimed at Lotto winners and the recently bereaved that have come into a ton of inheritance money. Even so, how many goat suede shirts can they sell in a month? Have you ever seen anyone walking around in one? Ever seen anyone playing a little hockey on a portable backyard ice rink?

Maybe I’m getting too cynical in my old age. Or maybe I’m just confounded by the amount of money some people must have to burn. How could anyone spend sixty bucks for two pairs of socks? If you added up all my sock purchases over the course of my lifetime, I don’t think I’m anywhere near sixty bucks.

If I ever get stupid rich, and you see me walking around wearing a fish finder watch and an Irish walking cape, do me a favor and slap me silly, okay?



I’ve always loved that expression, but do many bands even have wagons these days? When is the last time you saw U2 riding around on a wagon? I would switch over to ‘I’m always the last one on the bus’ or ‘the last to board the plane’ but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The thing that I’m late I’m one of the last to do is to sing the praises of the film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Val and I saw it this weekend and we were both floored—I believe me more than here—by how most excellent it was. I never read the graphic novel it was based on, but that wasn’t a necessity for enjoying it.

The movie was directed by David Cronenberg. His movies have always been hit or miss (mostly miss) with me. I enjoyed The Dead Zone, but I think that was mostly due to a striking performance by Christopher Walken (before he turned into the cool living cartoon that he is today), and The Fly had a lot going for it, but none of his other films have connected with me.

The cast of the History of Violence was aces, all the way across the board. Even the supporting and bit players were top notch. You know that these characters existed before the movie started and you have no doubt that they continue on doing what they’re do, long after the credits roll.

Even the tiny Canadian town that passes for a tiny Indiana town is a character.

But the best part of the movie, hands down, was the story. It was a beaut, and it pulled you along from start to finish. Thanks to massive budgets and the miracle of CGI, filmmakers can create whatever they want and put it up on the big screen, but without a solid story everyone is wasting their time.

I know that sounds simple, and it is, but it’s something that’s missing from a good chunk of what Hollywood pumps out every Friday. Everyone loves a good story. That’s what first attracted me to Stephen King. I don’t like horror novels, and none of his have ever particularly frightened me. But he tells a great story.

In the past I’ve been accused of candy coating my writing. D’you know when you need to candy coat? When you don’t have a strong enough story.

I was taught that the plot of the story runs from the beginning to end, like a clothesline, and it’s what you hang all your story elements on. I always like that analogy, but I wish I’d been told that your clothesline needs to be powerful and taunt, otherwise elements of your story will droop down into the mud.

I’m glad that I sat through History of Violence, but I think I would have enjoyed reading a quick paragraph summary just as well. It’s one of those movies that I walk out of and I’m glad to be a writer. The movie had succeeded at something I strive for when I sit down at the keyboard.

If you get a chance, check this movie out. Like I said, it’s got a great story, plus you get to see Maria Bello naked. I call that a win/win situation.