Other than having a fan letter published in Archie Comics in the summer of 1969 and winning the top prize of $5.00, I think when I really knew that I wanted to be a writer, or at least entertained the notion of becoming a writer was in Mrs. Gandolfi’s eighth grade English class.
I also believe, when I look back now it was when the seed was first planted to pursue a degree in English and to either teach or write.
However in the fall of 1971, that was the last thing on my mind. I was an eighth grader at Washington Grade School and as a big a man on campus as I could be after having survived a year of bullying from last year’s eighth graders (and a few of the seventh graders). For one year, there would be no one to pick on me, at least I hoped there wouldn’t be anyone to pick on me.
Good thing, because I had plans. After having survived the Wrath of Mom following that ill-fated sleepover at Jim Black’s house, I was ready to take eighth grade on. I had places to go and someone to meet. I had a paper route and I had a crush on Glenda Glynn, the daughter of one of my mom’s friends. And now that I had passed through puberty with flying colors that prepubescent angst I felt the year before with Debbie Hansen towering over me at the annual Halloween Dance, this puppy love thing I had for Glenda was going to get hotter, or so I thought.
And then Mars attacked.
It was a cool autumn afternoon and school had let out early for a teacher’s conference. Up and down Walnut Street, the main street through downtown Oglesby, traffic was light, just the occasional Schwermann’s semi leaving with a load of cement from the Marquette Cement Mill or one returning from a delivery.
A group of kids were hanging out at Balconie’s Tap catty corner from the grade school. Halloween was three weeks away and most kids were talking about Washington Grade School’s Halloween dance and what costume they were going to wear.
A few boys were playing basketball in the playground. Ray Lance, one of the boys thought he had seen a bright light in the sky as he went in for a lay up, but it must have been the sun reflecting off the metal backboard. He missed that lay up, too.
The first spaceship was spotted a little after three landing behind the deserted Lehigh Cement storage silos. At first, when Mary West and Debbie Porter—who were riding their new pink Schwinn bikes down Walnut Street—saw the spaceship they thought it was some new military aircraft. After all, Chanute Air Force Base was only 100 miles south of Oglesby.
But this was not like any airplane she had ever seen even on TV or the movies. No, this one was circular and had no wings. It was spinning, too.
“Did you see that?” Mary asked Debbie.
Debbie put a hand on her forehead to block out some of the afternoon sun and squinted.
“What do you think it is?” asked Debbie.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” said Mary. “Come on, let’s ride a little bit closer.”
Just then, Sam Mertes and Mark Weiden, who had been riding their Triumph motorcycles in a large field across the street from the abandoned cement mill, spotted the two girls and intercepted them before they reached the entrance to the mill.
“Hey girls, like the new bikes,” said Sam pushing up the visor on his helmet. He jabbed Paul in the ribs. Paul had a crush on Mary and the jab in the ribs was Sam’s way of letting Paul know that he knew about that crush.
“Did you see that Sam?” Mary asked.
“See what?” Sam asked, leaning forward on the handlebars.
“In the sky. It looked like some strange new aircraft,” replied Mary. “Debbie and I were going to take a closer look because it landed behind the cement mill.”
Sam and Paul laughed.
“A strange aircraft? Don’t you know that Brent Smith lives near here? He has a lot of model airplanes that he flies,” said Sam. “It’s his hobby. Don’t you remember that show and tell last year?”
“He’s right Mary,” said Debbie. “Maybe that’s what….”
Before Debbie could finish, a thunderous sound arose from behind the cement mill that sounded a like a rocket taking off. This was followed by a high-pitched whirring sound that pierced the cool air. The sound got louder and louder, more metallic in its high-pitched whirring. It was so loud Sam, Paul, Mary, and Debbie had to put their hands over their ears.
Then it stopped.
They all stood there quietly for a few seconds, too shocked and scared to speak and then they saw it slowly rising up from behind the cement, higher and higher until it stood over them.
“Oh my God,” said Sam. “It’s a….”
Mrs. Gandolfi stopped reading and set the manuscript on her desk, she took off her reading classes, stood up, and walked to the blackboard. She wrote some words from the story—whirring, pierced, intercepted, and jabbed—on the blackboard
Most of the kids in class sat at their desks quietly after Mrs. Gandolfi had finished reading. A few moaned when they saw the words on the board knowing that they would have to learn them. Glenn Brown snickered and slapped Sam on the back for having been mentioned in the story. Mary and Debbie giggled softly. Brent gleamed after hearing about his model airplanes. Ray had fallen asleep.
About a week before, in our English books there was a science fiction story we had to read. At the end of the story we had to answer some comprehensive questions for homework. There were some additional questions and suggestions, including one on writing a science fiction short story.
And that’s what I had done and what I would continue to do for the next few weeks until the story was finished and read by Mrs. Gandolfi. All of my classmates were curious to see what I was going to write about and what I would write about them. For the first time at Washington Grade School everyone, I mean everyone was nice to me. No one wanted to get on my bad side fearing that I would write something bad about them; well not bad, but maybe something unfavorable like having someone pick their nose, cry or in the case of Linda Ferenchek or Glenda Hocking, have them kiss someone them didn’t have a crush on or liked in class.
Yes, as I had found out, the pen was mightier than the sword.
I had some of my classmates chasing after Martians on their motorcycles and jumping through the air that would have made Evel Knievel proud. I had some of the “jocks” single handedly taking out Martians in hand-to-hand combat. The girls in class fared just as well, if not better: they were 13-year-old Lara Crofts fighting along side of the boys and leading the attack.
Of course, if I had treated someone unfairly or unfavorably, they could always be waiting for me after class for a good pounding; however, I played it safe and made everyone look good. Even Steve Stachowiak who had been looking for an excuse to beat me up after school ever since I hit him in the head during dodge ball in gym class back in the seventh grade had a good part, albeit a small one. I had him distract one of the Martians so some younger students could escape.
On the other hand, Mrs. Gandolfi sensing my classmate sellout by even making the bullies and class clowns look good, took matters into her own hands and had weekly quizzes on the story. Suffice to say I got 100% on all those quizzes and on my way to my first A+ in English class. At the same time, Mrs. Gandolfi was encouraging me to write more. She sensed something that I hadn’t yet.
Martians attacked Oglesby and my classmates and I took matters in our own hands and soundly defeated them and saved Oglesby, the United States, and the rest of the world from this Martian invasion.
And in the end I got the girl. We didn’t ride off into the sun exactly and live happily ever after, but we fought some of the Martians together. Near the end of the story, with a Martian bearing down on us, she turned to me, the same way Princess Leia would turn to Luke Skywalker years later in Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope when they had to swing across a deep chasm in the Death Star and said, “good luck.” She didn’t kiss me the way that Leia would kiss Luke, but “good luck” was good enough for me. Especially when that girl was Janie Arkins.