I realized yesterday after I hit “publish” that outlining my religious development is going to be terribly dull reading if I stick strictly to that topic and that topic alone, and probably pretty dull writing, too.
A few hopefully more-colorful details: you may have noticed that, when the guy at church was trying to strongarm me into standing, I wasn’t running around like a cat chasing a laser pointer dot, I wasn’t screaming my head off, and I wasn’t playing with the myriad of Star Wars action figures that I had at home. I was sitting quietly and reading.
My parents claim that nobody taught me to read. That strikes me as unlikely (check back with me again in four years on that one), but at the same time, I don’t remember ever actually learning to read. In any event, reading was how I instinctively occupied my time as a little kid, and I wasn’t intimidated by “grown-up books” even if I didn’t necessarily understand everything. I was memorizing passages out of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos from the time I was four. By the time I was seven, I found my way into Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, C. S. Lewis, Greek mythology, Madeleine L’Engle, and much more (including some potentially unlikely stuff for a little boy, like Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language, the first boarding-school book I recall encountering). When I was five or thereabouts, my parents got me this Reader’s Digest collection of articles on various topics called Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, and I read that thing cover to cover probably ten times by the time we left Wenatchee. In its pages I read about regression hypnosis, St. Christopher having a dog’s head, Jack the Ripper (as well as Spring-Heeled Jack), cybernetic implants, the Shroud of Turin, Bridey Murphy, Stefan Lochner’s The Last Judgment, and hundreds of other crazy things. I have no doubt that being so exposed to such an crazy range of topics so early on influenced how I perceive and process the world around me, but there we are. I like to think that at the very least, it helped to inspire a sense of wonder.
My formational religious reading was mostly the old Golden Press The Children’s Bible, which to describe as dated is nowhere near adequate, but it was what it was. Besides that, my mom gave me a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism. I wouldn’t say that a huge deal was made out of this, and it was sort of treated more as a curiosity, an heirloom, than anything I was to take seriously.
Probably like every other kid born around the time I was, the other overarching obsessions were Star Wars and the Christopher Reeve Superman movies. I can remember being in the movie theatre at the age of three for the 1979 re-release of A New Hope, and I got the Death Star playset as a Christmas present the same year. I don’t know for sure that I remember seeing Superman: The Movie in theatres, but it was the first movie I remember seeing on VHS, probably c. 1980 or so, and I saw Superman II probably five or six times in theatres. For after-school cartoons, I was a Star Blazers kid all the way.
And between 1982 and 1983, Tron and WarGames came out, which guaranteed that even to this day, Kevin Flynn (“BECAUSE, MAN! …somewhere IN one of these… MEMORIES… is the evidence!“) and not The Dude is the iconic Jeff Bridges performance for me, I naturally think of Global Thermonuclear War and not a Ferrari when I see Matthew Broderick, and I’m trying to imagine how my digital alter-ego is delivering my e-mails.
Then there was Charlie Brown. Yes, I had started carrying around a magnifying glass by this point, and certainly had the deerstalker hat and trenchcoat a bit later, but during those early elementary school years there was no literary character with whom I identified more fully than Charlie Brown. You’ve Done It Again, Charlie Brown! was a collection of strips I think my mother brought home for me one day when I was sick, and it was but the first of many, many more. I had devoured enough of those little Fawcett-Crest paperback collections by the time we moved to the Seattle area to have completely internalized the persona. I wanted to legally change my name. I know I’m not exactly unique to have had this particular childhood hero — that’s what made Peanuts so compelling for so long, after all, Charlie Brown’s Everykid status — but the thing is, I was awkward, even as a little kid I always felt like I struggled to get through the day, and I really did have a head round enough to be mistaken for a bowling ball. In general, while I was apparently a naturally gregarious and friendly kid, that made me fresh meat for other kids almost from day one.
Well. There was me being a naturally friendly and gregarious kid, yes. There was also the fact that I got bumped up a grade two weeks into kindergarten because of what I was reading (and supposedly that was a compromise with my parents, because the school wanted to put me in fifth grade or some nonsense like that). There was the stuff I was reading, like D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and Sherlock Holmes and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (to say nothing of the subsequent conviction that I could build a working time machine out of spare computer parts, and to say nothing even further still of my actual attempt to do so). Yyyyeeaaaahhhh… there was no way I wasn’t going home in tears after school most days. I had a couple of friends that I spent a good amount of time with, but in some ways I got along with their parents better than I got along with them.
Somewhere in here — I must have been five or six tops, and it was on a drive between Wenatchee and Seattle, for reasons that are presently escaping me — my mother said, “Richard, when you’re older, I’m taking you to Europe. I went when I was young, and it’s something I really want for you.”
The final detail I’ll give for now is the piano lessons I started when I was five. My dad had bought a beautiful Yamaha upright grand, and shortly thereafter I found myself being taken to a music store for my first formal music instruction. To bring this all back around to reading, the story my parents tell is that at the first piano recital, I sat in the audience reading a book. When it was my turn, I put the book down, went up to the piano, played my pieces, then returned to my chair and went back to reading.
By the way — hopefully it’s clear that all of these details are in no way comprehensive or anything other than impressionistic (however well-remembered I think they are) or given from the perspective of the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, and give no more and no less than exactly the picture I wish to give. If you want accuracy and objectivity you’re going to have to get it from Mrs. Plouff, my first grade teacher, and I don’t have a clue where she is these days.
Be all of that as it may, hopefully this spices things up a bit.