I really liked listening to stories that dad or mom read to me from a book. Most of the stories mom used to read to me had pictures on every page and just words on part of the page around the picture. Those were books for little kids, because grownups thought that kids needed to see pictures on every page so they could figure out the story and not get bored. Mom would let me see the pages while she read them, and she pointed at each word as she said it. That helped me figure out what all those words were so I could read them myself without anyone helping me.
But dad read me regular books for older kids or grownups. Most of them had only a few pictures. Most pages were all words, and he only showed me the pages that had a picture on them, and he didn’t point at the words when he read them to me, because they were pretty small and close together and there were so many of them. So what I did was listen to the words and make my own pictures inside my head.
I wanted to write my own books. Pictures AND words. Before I knew how to write words, I would just draw the pictures of the story in these “blue books” that dad had. They were pretty neat. They had a blue cover and white pages inside with lines on them to help you to write your letters and words in the right place. Dad said he gave them to his students so they could take “writing tests”. Sometimes when I did just pictures, mom would help me, and I’d tell her the words for each picture and she would write them on the page.
At school I was learning how to read even more words by myself, and figure out the words I didn’t know by saying the different letters in the word and trying to squish them all together. I still had trouble trying to read dad’s big red books about the war. There were still so many words I didn’t know, that didn’t make sense when I tried to make the letter sounds.
“Learning” was different from just figuring stuff out by yourself. It was somebody else showing or telling you how to do it and helping you do it. That was usually a grownup, like my teacher or even mom or dad, but sometimes it was another kid. Mom or dad only helped me learn things when I asked them a question, or I asked for, or they figured out that I needed help. My teacher was ALWAYS trying to help me learn, even when I didn’t want her to. Except at recess, where my friends and I could figure stuff out for ourselves. But I didn’t worry about my teacher too much because she was nice and not so much like a regular grownup.
But at school I was also learning how to WRITE all the letters so I could make words myself, and then put the words together to make a story. Just like I could figure out how to read a word by saying all the sounds in the letters, I could write a word by trying to turn each sound in the word into letters. It wasn’t always the regular letters that were in the word, and my teacher would always tell us the regular way. When she looked at the writing we did for her, she would circle the word with her special red pencil and then write the regular “spelling” below that.
But it was Saturday today and I didn’t have to go to school. It was cold and windy and there was only a little snow left on the ground, which was brown and not white anymore. Mom said February was the “worst month for weather”. I had gone over to the park, but most of the other kids weren’t there.
There were some grownup men playing basketball way over in that corner of the park where the tennis place was and I didn’t go very much. So I walked over there to where they were playing. They were running around each other and saying things to each other and passing the ball around until one of them shot it at the basket. If the ball got into the “basket” thing, then all the guys on that team would yell something and slap the hands of the other guys on their team. And if the ball didn’t get into the basket, their talking sounded sharp and worried. It didn’t seem like they were having fun, but like they were doing something hard that they had to do, but felt a little better when they got it done. I watched them play for a while but they didn’t say anything to me or even really look at me. It was like I was “invisible”. That was a neat word that meant you were there but nobody could see you.
There were also a couple older boys sitting on top of one of the picnic tables under the trees that didn’t have any leaves on them. As I walked toward them they didn’t see me but I heard them talking about girls in their class at school.
“You heard that joke about Roy Rogers and Dale Evans?” one asked.
“Yeah”, said the other, “He wants her to turn on her headlights cuz his pistol’s stuck in her holster.”
“Pretty funny, right?” asked the first.
“Sure, yeah” said the second, but he didn’t sound like he really thought it was funny.
“Would you pull down your pants if a girl you really really liked asked you?” the first asked, “Ya’know, wanted to see your pistol”, he asked.
“I don’t know”, said the second, “Would you?”
“I don’t know”, said the first, “If it was Jill, maybe, if…”
“If what?” asked the second.
“If she showed me her headlights first”, said the first, laughing a little. The second laughed a little too.
“Jill doesn’t even have headlights”, said the second, “Now Miss Blake, SHE has headlights.”
“You’re right”, said the first nodding, still laughing a little, “Maybe Jill would have to show me her holster!” After he said that both of them were quiet for a minute.
“What even is a holster?” asked the second.
“You know”, said the first, shaking his head slowly, “That thing on your belt you put your gun in.”
“Yeah I know THAT”, said the first, “I’m not STUPID.” He got quieter and said, “But like on a girl, between her legs.”
“I don’t really know”, said the first, “But it’s some place where you can stick your pistol. You know… your dick.”
“My brother Fred says it feels good”, said the second.
The first one laughed through his nose. “How would he know”, he said, “Is he married?”
“No”, said the second, “But he says he has a girlfriend who likes to do that kind of stuff.”
“What stuff?” asked the first.
“Ya know”, said the second.
The first one finally looked around and saw me, standing not too far behind them, listening.
“Were you listening, little kid?” he asked me with a sharp voice.
I figured I wasn’t supposed to be listening so I shook my head.
“Well go somewhere else”, he said, “We’re trying to have a private conversation. You probably don’t even know what we’re talking about, do you?”
I’m not sure why I just didn’t shake my head and get out of there. Instead I said, “I kinda know”.
“Know what?” the first one asked. His voice wasn’t so fierce now.
“That girls don’t have a…” I didn’t know what to say for the “penis” word. “Penis” and that “dick” word sounded really naughty, and since I was younger than they were they might think I was a really bad kid if I said them. And “gun” seemed kind of stupid, so I just pointed down between my legs.
“How do you know that?” asked the second, sounding worried but also like he really wanted to know.
“I saw a girl naked”, I said.
“What”, said the first, “Did you spy on her in the bathroom?” I shook my head.
“We both took off our clothes”, I said.
“Jeez”, said the first, “How old are you kid?”
“Five”, I said.
“Kid”, said the first, shaking his head, “You’re way too young to be getting naked with girls!”
The other one shook his head too and said the same thing, “Way too young!”
I suddenly felt really strange. I felt excited that I had done something maybe they wanted to do but were afraid to. But I also felt worried that I had done something that was very naughty and that I was a really bad kid. I really didn’t want to be there anymore.
“I gotta go”, I said, and I ran away from the two of them and toward my house. As I ran across the cold hard ground of the park with no other kids anywhere, I was thinking about so much. Was I a bad kid? Since I even liked telling those older kids what I did, did that make me extra naughty, extra bad? But why was it bad to show someone you liked what you looked like with no clothes on if they wanted you to? I couldn’t remember ever seeing mom and dad naked. But they saw ME naked a LOT, when I took a bath, specially when I was littler and they had to help me. That wasn’t bad! That was regular stuff moms and dads had to do with kids.
And now, even though older kids were telling me I shouldn’t be taking my clothes off for somebody else to look at me, specially a GIRL, and I was worried about being really bad, I still liked doing it and even wanted to do it again. Was that really REALLY bad? I was asking mom and dad a lot of questions now about all kinds of stuff, but I couldn’t ask them about this, they might want to be in charge of me all the time. So I would just have to be worried and try to figure it out for myself, like I did before I started talking and started asking questions. I just kept running and thinking and not looking back at those older boys in the park until I got back to my house.
I ran around to the driveway and opened the side door.
“Is that you Cloob?” I heard dad ask from down in the basement. I usually didn’t want to talk when I was worried about and thinking about stuff.
“Cloob?” he said again, sounding kind of worried now too. I really didn’t want him to be worried about me right now or think I was worried and try to find out why. So I tried to say something like mom or dad did when they came home.
“Yeah it’s me”, I said, “Just got home.”
“Okay”, he said, “Your mom took David over to Hannah’s house to play.” Hannah liked playing with David because she was older than he was. She didn’t like it that her sister was always older than she was.
I ran down the basement stairs. I was breathing really hard and it hurt a little when I sucked all that air inside me. Dad looked at me.
“Are you all right?” he asked. I got worried for a minute, but figured if I said I was okay, dad wouldn’t be worried anymore, so I nodded.
“You sure?” dad asked, “You’re out of breath and look like you’ve seen a ghost.” I was lucky MOM wasn’t there. She might have asked me stuff and figured out what I was thinking, even if I didn’t say anything.
I wanted to make dad think I was really good so I wouldn’t worry about being bad anymore. He was reading those “blue books” and writing in them with his red pencil, instead of the regular yellow pencils that I used that made a gray line. I had been thinking about making another of my own books, with pictures AND words, by myself.
I walked up to dad and looked at his pile of blue books.
“What’s up?” he asked, “What can I get ya?”
“Can I have a blue book to write on?” I asked.
“Sure”, he said, his eyes twinkling because he liked it when I did writing, “Let’s see… I’ve got a stack of unused ones here somewhere.” He opened the different drawers of his desk to look inside them. They kind of squeaked when he opened them.
“Here they are”, he said, making a big smile and giving it to me, “Let me know if you need any help with anything.” I just nodded and took the blue book over to the white table in the TV quarter of the basement. I put the book on the table and got up on the chair next to the table and sat on my feet, instead of sitting the regular way in the chair on my bottom. If I sat the regular way I wasn’t high enough to draw or write things very well.
I looked at the cover, that was the page that was blue, though it was also blue on the back. All the other pages were white and had lines on them to help you figure out where to draw your letters. I had looked at some of the blue books dad’s students had written in. Most of them wrote their words between just two lines and they did that different kind of writing where it was all curvy and hooked together. I think they were supposed to be the same letters and words but I couldn’t read them. What I was reading and writing now in school were the regular letters that WEREN’T all hooked together. And when I wrote them on the pieces of paper at school, I wrote them between three lines instead of two.
Regular books had words on the cover that were called the “title”. A lot of the books I had had pictures on the cover too, but some of dad’s only had words. But I liked a picture on the cover because it told me about the story in the book without having to read it.
There was a box on the cover of the blue book with three lines in it. You were supposed to write your name on the first line in the box. I wasn’t sure what you were supposed to write on the other lines. So I wrote my short regular nickname, “COOP”, on that first line in all big letters. Then I wrote a title for my book on the cover under the box. I wrote, “the big Book of stories, When We made a rocit”. I didn’t know the right letters for the “rocket” word so I just wrote some that sounded right. Then at the top of the cover above the box I drew a picture, not of a whole rocket, but a part of a rocket still being made.
I turned to the first white page and I put the number “1” in the top left, because every page should have its number on it. I wrote the words for that page that started to tell the story. I wrote, “One day we wanted too mack a rocit.” I used the lines on the page to help me make my letters like I had learned at school, and put that “period” dot at the end. I remembered to make the first letter big because it showed that it was the first word in a “sentence”. I had heard dad say that “sentence” word before, and my teacher said that word A LOT, because when you put words together that’s what you made most of the time, unless you were making one of those titles or one of those sign things. I got to the right side of the paper before I could write the last letter in the “mack” word. So I had to put one of those line things that you put after the last letter before the paper ends to show that you haven’t finished the word and the rest of the word will be on the other side of the paper below the words you just wrote. It looked pretty strange, but I think that was the way you were supposed to do it.
The writing paper we used at school had three lines next to each other. Some letters you were supposed to start drawing at the top line and draw down past the middle to the bottom in different ways for different letters. Other letters you drew just between the bottom two lines. Some letters were strange because they went below the bottom line. And the “t” too, because you started it above the middle line but not all the way up at the top line. But our teacher said that was the way you made them, and I guess since it was grownups that decided how to draw letters, they weren’t all going to make sense.
After I drew the letters to make the words to make the sentence, I remembered that I should have a chapter name first. So I wrote above the sentence I already wrote on the part of the paper above the lines, so I had trouble drawing all the letters the same size. I wrote, “When we 1st r did macking a rocit”, but I didn’t think there was a period at the end of a chapter name. That was chapter “1”, but it was also page “1” which I had already written, so I decided not to put a second “1” because then it would look like an “11” instead. Then I drew all the different parts that seemed like they would go into a rocket, like long circles, hooked together long circles, a long tube, smaller side rockets, and all the “stages”. Those were the parts of the rocket that kept falling off when they were done. I also drew two people in the middle of all that stuff.
Dad started doing that quiet kind of whistling he liked to do when he was sitting at his desk thinking and he wasn’t worrying about anything. He also used to do it when he would walk along with me outside when I was riding my tricycle. Now that I was riding a bike I did that by myself. It wasn’t like regular whistling which was loud and squeaky, but was more like whispering. Dad said that the “music” part of a song that wasn’t the words was called the “tune”, and I could hear the “tune” he was whistling now. It was one of his favorite songs, “Don’t Fence Me In”, which he had sung to me at bedtime many times. I could even hear him singing the words in my head even though he was only whistling the tune.
Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
It was strange, but I liked hearing him singing even though he really wasn’t, while I kept making my book. On the second page I drew a “2” at the top left and wrote two sentences this time. “Then we wanted to mack a rocit” and “Then we stred too mack it.” You had to think and want to do something before you really did it. Then I drew some of the rocket parts I had drawn on the first page and kind of drew them more hooked together. On the third page I drew the rocket all put together and next to all those tall “tower” things where it would take off.
On the fourth page I put the “4” number for the page, but I also wanted to put the “2” number for the next chapter. But if I put the “2” next to the “4” that would look like a different number, “42”. So I decided to put the “2” over in the middle of the top part of the paper and I had to write the chapter words over it. I wrote, “when we stred too chec the rockit”, but with no period at the end. Then I wrote the regular words between the lines below, “We stred to chec it.” I put the period at the end because it was a sentence. Then I drew another picture of the rocket ready to take off with all the other tall tower things next to it, and one little guy in a little box hanging from one of the towers checking it. That picture looked really neat because the rocket was so big and the guy was so small.
On the fifth page I wrote, “it was oumost redy to put the fwol in.” I drew the hoses coming from the fuel places to the big rocket and to the little rockets on the side of the big rocket.
On the sixth page I wrote the sentence, “Then we did strt too tak the last chec up.” I drew the rocket again with the towers on either side. I drew two guys on either side of the bottom of the rocket. I drew other guys way up by the top of the rocket. I drew them smaller because they were farther away.
Page seven was a different chapter, chapter three. I drew the “7” on the top left and the “3” over by the middle. Then I wrote to the right of the “3” the chapter name, “when the rocit firs”, which was shorter so I didn’t need to write over the “3”, which looked a lot better. Then I wrote the sentence, “The rocit strts off.” On page eight I just drew the rocket higher up on the page with fire coming out of the bottom but with no words. On page nine I wrote the sentence, “Then the rocit was owmost redy to hav the frst staj to come off.” Below I drew a picture of the rocket with all the stages still hooked together.
Page ten started the last chapter, chapter four. It had a longer name, “when the rocit strts to come down”, so I had to put the “4” in the middle and I had to put the last words below the other words. I didn’t write a sentence but just a picture of the different “stages”, coming apart from the rocket until all that was left was the last stage. On page eleven I wrote, “Then the last staj came”, and I showed the small last stage apart from the stage before the last one.
The next thing would be for the rocket to get to the ground, which would be the end of the story, but I still had five pages left that were empty. I could do just one more page and stop, but that didn’t look very good. Regular books used all the pages, so I figured I could make the story longer so I could put stuff on those pages so it would look more like a regular book.
So on the next four pages I showed the rocket coming down. On page twelve I wrote, “It went down more.” The picture showed it still coming down. On page thirteen, “It went down more and more.” And on page fourteen AND page fifteen I wrote the same words again. All the pages had the same kind of picture. Finally I got to the last page of the blue book so I could end the story. I wrote, “it come down and icsplodid.” I drew a picture of the last stage smashing into the ground and drew an explosion around it.
While I wrote and drew things for my book, dad was at his desk still working, but also kind of watching me the whole time I was drawing and writing. When he figured I was done he came over and I knew he wanted to see what I did. I was worried to show it to him because he knew so much about writing and I knew that I didn’t know very much. He might think what I made was stupid.
“So Cloob”, he said, “You’re done?” I nodded and looked up at him a little worried, which I think he figured out.
“So did you write pictures AND words this time?” I nodded again. Before I had just done the pictures and mom had written in the words.
“Have you ever done that before?” he asked. I shook my head. He opened his eyes up really big, pushed his lips together and nodded really slow.
“Can I take a look?” he asked. I didn’t say anything or even nod.
“It’s probably not very good”, I said. He laughed through his nose.
“Hey”, he said, “The first things I wrote were not very good, but each time I got a little bit better. No writer starts out being good. You have to start out not very good before you can learn how to make it better. Some people never do anything because they want it to be good the very first time.” He shook his head and said, “But it doesn’t work that way.” I looked up at him and nodded.
That all kind of made sense, so I pushed the book over the table towards him and watched his big hands carefully open it up and turn the pages until he got to the end and closed the blue back cover.
“I’m impressed”, he said, “That you have all the elements in there. A cover with a title and a picture. Page numbers and chapter numbers. Sentences with periods and pictures. And a story with a beginning and an end. There were some words that you don’t know how to spell yet so you tried to spell using the letters that together sound like the word. You know, a long time ago when people wrote they just spelled words however they thought they sounded. It was only later that the know-it-alls who were in charge of everything thought that everybody should spell words the same. They even kept letters in words that people didn’t even pronounce anymore. That’s why our language today is full of words with letters that aren’t pronounced or pronounced differently than you think they should be.”
“Pronounced?” I asked. I had heard my teacher say that but I couldn’t remember what it meant.
“Yeah, pronounce”, he said, and tapped his finger on his chin while he was thinking, then pointing the finger at me when he finished thinking. “That means to make the sound of a particular letter like ‘khh’ for the letter ‘K’. Then that crazy letter ‘C’ sometimes sounds just like the ‘K’ sound but then other times has an ‘S’ sound instead. Our language is VERY tricky!”
“Language?” I asked. I had heard a lot of grownups use that word in a lot of different ways, and I figured it was something about talking, or maybe about using bad swear words.
“Yeah, language”, he said, nodding and looking like it was really important, “All the words we have that we can either say or write. OUR language is called English, and it has all its words you can say or write. Then there are other languages like French, Spanish or German, that have mostly different words than our English language has.”
I still remembered, from when we took the train to my grandparents’ house in Binghamton, when dad talked to that woman and those kids in that “Spanish” language.