My First Story Called ‘Total Crap’ & Torn Up In Front of My Eyes
I learned to type when I was 10 or 11. My older brother had long since moved out of our parent’s house, but he’d left a lot of curious goods behind, including an Underwood typewriter from the 1920’s. We’d call it a ‘manual’ typewriter, but that’s not what it was called originally, since electric typewriters didn’t exist yet. It was old — but it worked! Gvido had gotten through college with it, now it was there just in case I wanted to try it out — so I took full advantage! I taught myself how to type, pecking at the letters, one at a time! Good thing I did this, it facilitated my experiments in writing; and by the time I was in high school and actually took a business class that included typing, I was timed at 93 words a minute on a 3-minute test. Later, I did more than 100 w.p.m. on an electric.
It was delightful, being able to put together words and sentences and see them on paper right in front of me! Before I knew it, I’d typed a 50-page story. Unfortunately, my one sibling did NOT approve of my writing, he was alerted to the fact that I’d been very busy typing-up some kind of story, and my Mom didn’t read English well enough to understand what it was about. So he agreed to have a look at it. He found the story, started reading it. He got angrier and angrier, his nostrils started flaring! “This is shit! Total crap!” He was my first critic and did my work the most damage, because he took the pages and tore them up into little pieces and threw them in my face and walked away.
Even so, Mom pleaded with him NOT to take away the old typewriter, so I was able to start typing assignments for school. There’s a typewritten term paper about the California Gold Rush that I typed in the seventh grade, for example. I was shocked by my brother’s behavior, but he’d done the same thing to my comic book collection a few years earlier. I’d collected dozens of 10c Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck comics along with Superman, Batman, etc. Often when we went to Fererro Brothers’ Grocery at Cypress and Stevens Creek, Mom would give me a dime and I’d gleefully choose a comic book. So there were all kinds of goodies, collected since the mid-1950’s. But one day, Gvido, visiting from Berkeley, was angry with me for writing my name inside one of his books, so he found my cache of comics in a breadbox in the pantry, and tore them all into tiny pieces. If I’d been able to keep all those comics, they’d probably be worth $10,000. Anyway, even with rampant sibling rivalry going on, I continued writing, and eventually I was able to “show him!” Maybe his calling my story “total crap” actually helped push me toward writing more & more.
I wrote a piece called “The Red Sands of Mars” which won a short-story writing contest when I was in the eighth grade. Someone got word of my story out to the larger world, and imagine my surprise when I got a letter from the Scott Meredith Literary Agency in Manhattan, asking whether I would let them represent me to the big New York publishers. I couldn’t take such a thing seriously, it didn’t make sense, and I was probably still thinking my writing was close to worthless — after being critiqued so severely by my big brother.
At fifteen and sixteen I went deeper into science fiction and wrote a story called “Emerald of Mars” which was published in a fanzine dedicated to the life and works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of “Tarzan” and a lesser-known series of adventure novels that take place on Mars and Venus. The magazine, and my story, took me to that year’s World Science Fiction Convention, where I saw a number of big Sci-Fi personalities of that era. The one that left the biggest impression in my mind was Harlan Ellison, who came into the convention ballroom with a statuesque black woman on his arm. She was quite interesting, since she appeared to be wearing nothing but transparent cellophane and was at least eight inches taller than Ellison. My story suddenly surfaced about four years ago, when a E.R.B. fan in Finland located a copy and found me, to ask for my permission to post the story to a Newsgroup devoted to E.R.B. So a story written in 1964 was reprinted 40 years later.
Deaths of an Orchard
My first printed book came out the following year — 1965. I wrote it over a period of time when I was 15 and 16, and published it right after my 17th birthday. It was something I felt compelled to write and publish about the orchard I’d lived in from age 2 to age 16. After my family moved out of the 1880 ranch house, the house, and then the orchard, were destroyed, to facilitate the expansion of suburban “Silicon Valley” housing at the expense of orchards, meadows scattered with stately oaks, and occasional farmhouses and barns. Fact was, value per acre was becoming astronomical. The owners of our plot of land, Lester & Lester, could sell a hundred acres, reinvest it in cheaper Central Valley acreage, and have a ton of money left over. I had bitter feelings about the unimaginable situation of the house and its gardens and surrounding trees, all being demolished, but that’s exactly what happened. One day the house was there, bathed in rose bushes, prune trees and willows; the next, it was a pile or rubble. There was a creek that ran about a quarter of a mile from my orchard home. I played there countless times as a child! The creek was torn-up and buried inside a concrete tube (if you can do that to a creek!), which was then buried again, and that is how the San Tomas Aquino Creek disappeared, for most of its trek across the Santa Clara Valley, to be covered-over by the San Tomas Parkway, which runs N-S from the Bayshore Freeway to Campbell and Los Gatos.
The isolation I felt in childhood in my orchard surroundings was replaced almost instantly by a more social life in suburbia, and my old haunts were all destroyed in front of my eyes. There was a sad scene of my favorite walnut tree, which stood at the point where our driveway met Pruneridge Road, being pushed over by a bulldozer as I stood twenty feet away. It wasn’t easy, it took the bulldozer quite a few head-on attacks before the tree tumbled over, and hundreds of green unripened walnuts scattered on the ground.. I wondered at the mass of roots. The tree was gone, turned to kindling within the next few days, and all I could do was walk away.
I had grown up a kind of ‘nature boy’. The trees were my friends, damn it! Have people never sat beneath white- blossom prune trees when the most gentle breeze makes the petals drift down slowly in clouds? I loved the moths, the Golden-Eyed Lacewings… the owls that followed people around at night in the woods… the lone apple tree, and its abundant annual harvest of big juicy apples.. a tree that had been planted a quarter mile deep in the middle of nothing but prune trees… The pump-house which brought the water up from deep under the valley… The gorgeous willow tree that Dad and I had planted from a strange seed that I’d brought back from a visit to Villa Montalvo in Saratoga…
I gathered up the poems I’d written (yes, this is a book of poetry!) and discovered a place called Gestetner Mimeograph somewhere on The Alameda as it turned, heading into downtown San Jose. I took the bus over there a couple of times and said I wanted to publish my own book of poems. The supervisor gave me a bunch of mimeo ‘masters’, I typed-up the poems on those masters. When I returned with them, he showed me how to operate the mimeograph machine and left me to print-off the book. He sold me some nice light blue cover stock and got the book collated and stapled.
It starts with a quote from Jack Kerouac’s “Big Sur”:
“It’s all one row of houses down the line 50 miles to San Jose like a monstrous Los Angeles starting to grow south of Frisco.”
Then, after some bio material, the text began:
Paleolithic landscape, ancient (tractor-dredged)gullies,
filling floods sweeping old leaves and bugs with it,
Channels cut through hillsides ot change the flow;
Summertime! Cracks appear several dreams deep, Mars?
Some other world? Prunes are men falling down them.
“Captain Jones has disappeared!” “Great Scott, Professor!”
Marbles to lose out there, seeded into the scent.
The scent of the earth; hot – alive – germinating.
(There might be Mammoth bones under there!) Dig deep, dig and let
the hole stay a month until leaves & clods fill.
Building a disneyland of channels near the house, and Robin Hood among them,
around channels, transplanting palm tree weeds,
irrigating by bringing a hose over.
Watching the bays of orchard fill through the window twice a year
surrounding the whole house, flooding the shed.
Dams, ditches, colored rocks to collect and put in bottles
into the breathing shed* at the end with the ghosts of
dead wasps and bees & chickens and what else….
*Breathing shed… Ah, yes! That was one of the sheds — a finished room attached to our farmhouse where, I can remember, just as if it was yesterday, my brother attached a print of Picasso’s “Demoisseles d’ Avignon” on one of the walls, and the 5 freaky ladies looked down on me with steely eyes whenever I came into the room. I looked up at the picture very skeptically, but my concerns were dismissed by, “Ah! You know nothing of art!” But there was something else in that room that seemed to watch. Gvido did not care to be in that shed for very long. He said “I can hear someone breathing when I’m in there, just over my shoulder!” The room spooked him, as the whole house would later spook me and Mom, long after he moved out.
Most of the strange noises came from the attic:
The attic, of its own accord so, lay hazy in a waiting, crisp way, lay cool like summernight moths. Wasps, ghosts in the attic’s higher reaches, hung dried and mummified entangled in predatory webs from bird-dropping-colored octagon webs and hives above. And down the boards, inside the walls, flee yet the scrawny rats, and the ghost of that 1956 Opossum, a tommyknocker in the night, wailing on in a sqweaking mourn for the man who died there a year before we came. And Nelson came up there and taunted me, up the steep black ladder, flush against the wall in rot… All was in rat traps which never worked but rusted, gnarling around the wooden beams. And all was dust and unmoved. Yet the pegleg would sound in the night and I thought of ocean fog rolling — and from there would descend these ghouls and to there I would go in the day…and a flash of sun might peak in somewhere. But all was dark and smothered and rough and deep. And colors weren’t in the attic, so I drew crescent moons of Flash Gordon in the dust below, and pebbles were distant stars and asteroids and the attic would cake with dust. –Deaths of an Orchard, III
The pegleg was exactly what the thumping from overhead sounded like. Back to Gvido… a few years in that haunted orchard home inspired his art. I did a painting of it at http://www.edaugusts.com/?page_id=26 Here’s a portion of that painting. Magnified, it seems to show figures in the windows that I never intended:
The book appeared between my sophomore and junior year of high school. Within weeks after I dashed-off those 100 copies, I became embarrassed at some of the sentiments and some of the child-like writing. It seemed to me I’d written some of it in a trance because in some ways it didn’t make much sense. My brother was actually impressed with my effort, but criticized my choice of light blue cover stock — he called it lavender and said it looked ‘effeminate’. Eh, what did he know!
The book is Item #23 on http://www.edaugusts.com/?page_id=32
…………………..Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books
Once I actually had copies in my hand, I felt the strong need to scatter them around to potential readers. I took the Greyhound up to San Francisco. This was back in the days when the station was on 7th Street near Mission. I walked to North Beach and found City Lights Books on Columbus Avenue. I went downstairs to their poetry section and presented the book to the startled, bearded man at the basement counter, and asked him if I could just leave several copies in his poetry section. He agreed, and that’s how I got my little book into City Lights. The man behind the counter was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the noted “Beatnik” personality, author, and publisher. He took a quick look at the book and then, as I stood there in front of the counter, gave me a kind of up-and-down look. I was just about as tall as I would get,then.. 6′ 2-1/2″ He asked me how old I was. “Seventeen,” I replied.
It was about eleven in the morning. He asked me to come back around closing time that night, he wanted to have a talk with me. He looked at me in a daunting, unexpected way with those piercing light blue eyes. I told him I didn’t know if I could stay. “Oh, please!” he said. “I’d like to see you!” There was no way I could stay all day long in San Francisco waiting to see this guy that night, and the way he looked at me and seemed to ‘come onto me’ made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t know if it was poetry he had in mind. Would he have helped my career as a writer? Or would he have pushed me in another direction? He may have had an interest in younger males, but I had no interest in men. The vague threat I instinctively felt overcame my desire to become better known as a writer. So, I pondered my situation as I walked around the Financial District and Union Square, taking-in the vibrant excitement of the City, and then hopped another Greyhound back to San Jose and Santa Clara. It was probably a year before I returned to City Lights again, and I never looked up or spoke while I was there.
Ferlinghetti was big, and is big… One measure of fame is whether it is International. In a tour of “Shakespeare & Company” in Paris, which occasionally plays as a 15-minute filler on Book T V on CSPAN-2, there was a quick shot of Ferlinghetti’s photo, and, in another, the familiar “City Lights”, symbol… all these symbols of the ‘most hip’ side of San Francisco, within a stone’s throw of Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris. Best, —Ed