Writing my untitled run-away-to-an-island novel felt too much like school, so as I said, I abandoned it after eight pages. But I began a second novel, one about a prison camp for juvenile delinquents. I titled it Antcondor. I don’t think the name was meaningful, because today, I can surmise no meaning. Did I just like the sound of it? Or did the meaning simply disappear over the decades as my Barbie and GI Joe had? I drew a map of the prison, and it looked like a POW camp because my best idea of what juvenile lockup was like was Hogan’s Heroes. Maybe my mind was indeed polluted by pop culture, as Mom feared. I was routinely shamed for watching TV. It supposedly wasted valuable time and rotted my brain. I don’t notice any long-term ill effects. In fact, I’m generally glad that I know what most people are talking about. I still watch TV because I love stories, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve never apologized for loving stories; instead, I bought an oversized, high-definition, flat-screen TV and hooked it up to expanded cable and a DVR, which illustrates exactly how remorseful I am today.
I sent my first-person protagonist to the Antcondor prison for breaking the grade-school windows. He also set a cat on fire, blocked traffic, and resisted arrest. In real life, I wasn’t disruptive in that way. I only broke two windows, both accidentally. The first, I tossed a wooden bat through, and the second was a storm door that I bashed with my bare hands in my rush to get outside. And I’d never hurt a cat. I even had a cat, Tabitha. Tabitha was named after the Bewitched character. Tabitha “ran away” after leaving paw prints on the windshield of Dad’s sports car. And I never stopped traffic. Cops never came after me and were thus never eluded or resisted. See? Fiction! In real life, we just had the usual mud-clod fights that ended when someone ran home stifling tears. It seems that most of our games ended with someone’s mom glaring down at me. I think that’s why I was uncomfortable around Marsden; he reminded me too much of myself. But I never ran home when battered during roughhousing; there was no point to it. Sympathy wouldn’t await me inside. There would only be commands to stop feeling sorry for myself and to go to my room and read The Science and Health. To admit pain denied God’s comfort and protection, which, of course, just made me wrong again.
I admit that I lit matches for no reason other than to express my anger—I had no idea why at the time, though—and I tossed grasshoppers into white-hot barbeque coals. Most boys I knew did the same thing. But if the wrong person had uncovered my prison prose, I might’ve been mistaken for a budding sociopath, a wannabe gangster. I mean, first a fantasy about running away and having gang combat on a deserted island and now this? Would they send me to the school counselor? Would I wait in the hallway next to Marsden as he whispered about witches and looming automobiles and said not to tell his parents that he was there? With my hands beneath my hamstrings and my head hanging, I’d wonder what I’d say when my turn with the counselor arrived. Would I insist that I didn’t want to destroy anything other than anthills? That I respected authority? That I didn’t want to hurt a human? Really. Hey, I was the one hurting; I was trying to talk, and no one listened! Would I have the wherewithal to say, “Listen, I’m a boy. You’ll no longer catch me playing with Barbie dolls, but if you leave me unattended by a grill, something’s going in. That’s a given.” Was that such a heinous crime, a reason to be loathed? True, the unlucky grasshopper screamed and pleaded for mercy. Nobody showed me mercy, so in it went. At least I had the wherewithal to step back so as not to inhale the smoke from its cremating insect body. Here’s the real question: Who was going to progress to rodents, cats, and (gulp!) humans, and who was only going to draw a map of a prison, begin the table of contents, and write the first four pages of Antcondor?
I never got around to plotting out that novel. As I reread it almost fifty years later, it seemed there would be a gang rivalry and a prison break. More important are the themes that emerged, which I was unaware of at the time. There was the tension of close violence and the sense of feeling incarcerated by laws and authority. But within the mandated parameters was the connection to accepting peers. Life seemed better as a masculine adventure with some measure of personal power and autonomy—oh, and plotting the humiliating downfall of bullies due to my heroics. Yes!
Really, I wasn’t any more the leader of a gang than Tenner the dog was, but in my fantasy world, I was in the inner circle as an intellectual, and I had influence. Nobody in real life saw me as very bright or as a menace of any kind. I was merely a semiferal kid, similar to Tenner and Marsden, running wild around the neighborhood.
I admit that I had an urge to get out from under authority. Was that so unusual? In psychobabble, wasn’t that the process of individuation, which is necessary for growing up? My island runaway novel and my bad-boy prison novel were my early attempts at both connection and rebellion. But in real life, I didn’t run away or behave antisocially; I did what came naturally to me: I wrote it out so that I didn’t have to act it out.