When I was young I was like most kids, unremarkable and ungood at anything in particular, but interested in most things and pretty average at trying. One particularly boring day I hunted through the damp recesses of the basement and located an old Smith Corona typewriter. It was green and you had to force down the keys to make an imprint on anything, but it didn't need electricity and it was fun running strings of random letters across scrap paper until the ribbon was almost completely worn.
I adopted the typewriter and kept it in my own closet, not telling my parents I'd had it until the day Sister Mary Emmeric, my seventh-grade teacher, assigned a few of us the task of entering a writing contest held by the Weekly Reader. Weekly Reader was a magazine of sorts, eight tissue-paper thin pages published by the Scholastic Press which covered current events and some other worldly topics the educators of America felt were useful for grammar school kids to know.
The Weekly Reader's editors invited schools to submit their students' best prose. Man had just landed on the moon, so the topic was outer space. The prize was one-thousand U.S. dollars, donated to the winning author's alma mater. The categories were fiction and non-fiction, and for reasons beyond my kid comprehension, the towering white and black draped hulk called Sister Emmeric felt a submission from me in the fiction department would put St. Lawrence O' Toole school on the literary map.
Armed with a fresh typewriter ribbon my mother bought at the stationery store, I sat down and pounded out my masterpiece.
It was a little three page S.F. number on the accidental destruction of the earth by government of the United States, which in attempting to fend off a heinous attack by then communist Russia, deliberately explodes two cobalt encased H-bombs in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as a sort of a shot-across-the-nuclear-bow, and winds up creating a fusion reaction in the earth's atmosphere that burns up all the air and turns the earth to a star for about fifteen seconds, before it becomes a lifeless, carbonized cinder. The end.
I remember my father's reaction to the story. He'd just finished his dinner and I sat on the floor in front of him while he leafed through the three pages two or three times.
He did not speak to me, at first. Instead, he looked at my mother and said, "Joanie, did you read this?"
My mother said, "No," and my dad proceeded to explain the story, including the lifeless cinder of the earth circling the sun like a ghost ship in the Sargasso Sea of the universe. The end.
My mother and father were from New York. They'd grown up in the 40's and 50's, and so they had this way of looking at you that made you feel like the guy with pimples at the sock hop.
"What ever made you think of this?" my dad said.
I shrugged, feeling as guilty as any Italian boy could be made to feel. And the truth was I'd gotten the idea about the cobalt bombs from Popular Science magazine, and then from a Charlton Heston movie where he disarms one at the end. But the stuff in the middle about the bombs coming from a space station, that was 2001: A Space Odyssey all the way. I liked that thread bobbin of a space station with the Pan Am spaceship ship docking.
"I didn't mean to steal someone else's idea," I said.
My father could raise one eyebrow like DeForest Kelley could when playing Doctor McCoy on Star Trek, and he did that.
"You didn't steal this idea. I'm not mad at you," he said. But then he couldn't tell me what he was at me, and neither could Sister Mary Emmeric who could also raise one eyebrow.
She never explained why D.J. Cole received the third-place honorable mention letter all contest entrants got, why he should get one and I didn't. Though now as an adult I can't imagine what she did with the story other than to give it to a child psychologist.
The next time I had use for the old Smith Corona was when Sister Augustine gave us an assignment to write a story for religion class. We were supposed to write about our patron saint, and in Catholic school in the early 1970's every child was sure to have one.
Saint Joseph was mine, and I sat in front of the green machine dreaming up stories about Saint Joseph fighting off Roman Legions with laser powered palm fronds or Jesus developing magical powers, but after a few paragraphs, my intensity for those stories waned and I found myself unable to write an ending that felt right to me.
My father read the story I felt good about and rice-a-roni fell out of his mouth when he did. He was eating his dinner and having finished mine, I was sitting on the floor glancing between the television and him when I saw him stop breathing and drop his fork.
He said, "Joanie," and my mom came from her end of the table to read over his shoulder. They both turned to stare at me and I felt as most pornographers must feel--very pleased right up until someone suggests they'll probably burn in hell, because even pornographers have to admit that once in a while their ardent denial gives way to fear of brimstone and trident-bearing imps.
"What in the name of God made you write this?" my dad said.
"He's your son," my mother said. My father now turned in his seat, and my stomach dropped. Because the man would not turn his face from a plate of food for any reason that did not warrant swift and immediate punishment to the source of the cause.
He said, "Come here, boy," and I slowly got into the seat next to him, expecting to be smacked silly.
He put the papers down and went back to his food.
"Do you know what this means?" he said between bites.
Of course I knew what it meant. I'd written it.
I said, "No."
"A writer's always got to know what he's writing," said my dad. "Never write if you're not sure. Are you sure about this?"
"It's just a story."
My dad washed down the last of his steak and put the tumbler on the table. Then he looked at me and smiled.
"You thought this up all by yourself, didn't you?"
I had to admit that a couple of Robert A. Heinlein stories made me think of it, as well as that book Dune that I'd read during the long car ride to Disney World that prior summer. He smiled again, and handed me the paper. Somewhat certain I would not be smacked, I admitted my wrongdoing, and suggested I wouldn't do it again.
"You tell me what Sister Augustine says when she sees this," he said, and dismissed me.
What Sister Augustine said, she said in the principal's office, with me sitting at her side. I told the nuns that my parents had indeed read the story, and they were shocked that I could be allowed through the hallowed entrance of St. Lawrence O' Toole school with such blasphemy. Therefore my parents hadn't read it, I was lying, and would be punished.
I was sentenced to be held inside at recess for a week.
My dad came to my rescue the next morning, and in a heated, private conversation with the nuns who ran the school, got my sentence commuted, though I received a failing grade on the paper and had to write another, more pedestrian story about Saint Joseph.
That night, my father told me he'd submitted the story to a couple of magazines. He was very proud of it, and proud of me for writing it, and when some dinner guests arrived my dad had one of them read the story. He was a writer named Michael Sullivan. He wrote for the Chicago Tribune and he took me into the family room, away from everyone else, sat on the sofa next to me, and spoke in low tones.
"You understand why something like this might make people upset, don't you?" he said.
And I told him I didn't see how it would make anyone upset, it was just a story. But Mr. Sullivan explained about opinion, and bias, and how people read from their biases. Strong stories could make people upset because their biases would be injured. Or they could make people really excited. Did I get it?
I told him I did, just to get out of there. Sitting alone with an adult who was not my relative creeped me out.
"If you want to be a writer," he said, "you should be one. Don't mess around. Write like this, all the time."
And he mussed my hair the way adult males of the early 70's did to kids, and sent me off on the rest of my life.
I forgot the story. Years passed. We moved away from Chicago and I moved away from my parents. I stopped writing stories. I did other things. I became an engineer and a father. My writing was never more than a hobby. It was always with me, and occasionally I would wow one of my bosses with a particularly well written business strategy or specification.
Despite a couple of abortive, half-hearted attempts I never became a writer. My mother was particularly vocal in keeping me from trying writing as a career. She was a pragmatist. She didn't want a 40-year old writer living in the spare room whom she would occasionally have to introduce to strangers as "my son, the author".
Recently, my mother was recounting the horrors that happened to people in the Battery in New York City on September 11, 2001. She said, "Remember that story you wrote in grammar school?"
I told her I didn't, even though I did. I really didn't want to have that thing dredged up again.
"Your father tried to get it published, remember?" my mom said. "He didn't think anyone would believe a fourteen-year old boy could have written it."
"A lotta good it ever did me," I said. I say that a lot when I think of opportunities I've missed.
"Your father thought you were a genius," she said, and I could hear that quaver in her voice that showed up whenever she mentioned my Dad, dead nearly five years now. "He was so proud of you."
"Sure," I said, and changed the subject. Because the whole thing was depressing me.
And then I didn't think of it any more.
So in the mail today comes an envelope. Inside, ten typewritten pages. The onion skin paper is yellowing. You can see the typewriter ribbon's fabric checkerboard in the print. The lower-case letter 'i's are all dropped a little. I didn't have a correction ribbon so the page was populated in misspelled words, double-struck in 'x's.
It was my dad's typewriter. The stories he'd published in college had been written on it.
I thought of his hands on the paper and how he looked at me having read what I'd put there.
I still can't bring myself to read past the first paragraph. It's embarrassing to me, even thirty years later. It's a clumsy story. It's written by a fourteen-year old catholic school boy with long brown hair and thick glasses who doesn't exist anymore.
But the idea is still in me. It probably comes out every now and then.
The kid's story is called "Grethesis". It's about a man fighting Gods. In his world there are many Gods, and they're all as good as any God any of us have. And these Gods, they come from people's thoughts, because when people believe something strongly enough, it comes true. And when a whole lot of people believe something with all their hearts, it simply is.
So in this world, Gods are created by multitudes of believers. And they stay alive, imbued with feelings of omnipotence and immortality by keeping their believers full of adoration for them. The strongest Gods are the ones with the most believers. And the Gods are always fighting for more believers.
Because there are only so many people in the world, the Gods know they can only get new believers as fast as people are born. So they develop armies of missionaries to convert people to their captive religions. But they don't grow fast enough, so the Gods decide to take the opposite approach and start wars on the planet, killing off each other's believers, and so weakening the competition.
In the end, when almost everyone is dead, the Gods are weak. They come to earth and beg the last man to believe in them, promising all types of rewards for his faith.
But he doesn't believe in any of them. And so they all die. And the man goes off onto the earth with all the animals and mountains and oceans and storms, and alone he becomes God.
That's the first day of creation.
And no, Dad, I still don't know what made me think that.
And no, Dad. I still don't know what Grethesis means.
I made it up thirty years ago.
Just like the story.
I miss you, though. And I do wonder where you are.
In loving memory of Joseph D. Mastroianni Sr. 1937-1998
Postscript: I have only now learned of the word egregor, which is a german gnostic term that means, fundamentally, a meta-spiritual creature formed by the thoughts of numerous people simultaneously. It is said that during the time the dead sea scrolls were written, and they spoke of the simultaneous battles in heaven by the sons of light and the sons of darkness as well as on earth by human kind, that the humans were pressed into service by their gods--which were egregors--"superior" giants capable of enslaving the people of whose thoughts they were composed. Indeed, by the same definition, humans are egregors of the billions of individual cells of which we're composed.
The fact the term is well-known in gnostic literature (e.g. as in the lit of the rosicrucians -- see: http://telesma-evida.com/en/teachings/peace.shtml#Gods) and the fact the word is similiar to the one I chose as a child, does indeed send a couple shivers of wonder down my spine. The world is a very weird, interconnected place.
Indeed, no one in my family had any contact with the rosicrucians or the masons, or the theosophists, any other mystic society, as far as I know.