I attended a parochial elementary school in Western Kentucky as a child. The school and attached church had been around for some time likely predating World War II. My most enduring memories of the school are of the library and the old radiator system that heated the buildings. These two disparate things came together to shape my love of books and writing.
Every classroom in the school was equipped with at least two radiators. These were the classic cast-iron types that would literally burn you if you touched them with your bare skin. A menacing boiler stuffed into a dark, dingy room on the first floor fed the radiators as they clanked, pinged, and hissed heating our classrooms to a balmy mid-Spring warmth during the cold Kentucky winters.
The school library was fitted into one of the larger second-floor classrooms. The whole school smelled of age and dust, but the library possessed the additional sweet, musty odor of books. Tall metal shelves lined the walls and were set in rows in one half of the room. The second half was occupied by several tables and chairs, smaller shelves containing picture books, and a rug which served as our seating area for story time. We visited the library once a week for an entire period or could receive library passes from teachers whenever we completed our classwork and had time left before the next period. The library was my favorite place to go and I never missed an opportunity to visit.
The school was a Catholic school staffed by a combination of nuns and lay teachers. Sister Ellen was the librarian for many of the years I was there and I had a special arrangement with her. Always looking for a reason to be invited to the library, I would help Sister Ellen return books to the shelves, dust-mop the floors, clean the chalkboards, or assist with any other menial tasks needing attending to. In exchange, I came and went from the library as I pleased.
I enjoyed any time I spent in the library, but my favorite came during the winter months. A small space existed between a bookshelf and one of the radiators, and the brown and black floor tiles were always toasty warm in that nook. I would find a book on one of my favorite topics – extreme weather, Bigfoot, UFOs, volcanoes – and wedge myself into that spot or sprawl onto the floor in front of the radiator. There I would lose myself for the half hour or so of free reading before Sister Ellen called us to the rug to listen to another adventure of Encyclopedia Brown. This library, its radiator-heated tile floor, and the countless hours I spent there were the ingredients to the primordial soup from which the writer in me evolved.
The first story I recall writing I wrote in second grade for a contest at school. I rewrote the plot of the movie The Empire Strikes Back – or at least the showdown between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker – turning the tide heavily in favor of the Sith Lord. The story garnered my first and, to date, only literary awards: I took first place in my grade-level at school and second place somewhere beyond.
My foray into long-form fiction came not too long after when I discovered the word processor on our Kaypro II home computer. The timing was impeccable as I had serious concerns regarding the story arc involving two of my favorite G.I. Joe comic book characters. The Kaypro’s nine-inch CRT screen, with its green dot matrix display, became the window through which I first observed the fantasy world inside my head. My book opened with Snake Eyes penetrating a secret Cobra compound, via a ventilation shaft, on his way to facing off with his brother/enemy Storm Shadow. I do not recall how the story played out and sadly it is lost somewhere on a 5½” floppy disk.
To say my writing career flourished from there would be a lie. I have had my moments, but they have been brief and separated by vast, barren voids of “more responsible pursuits.” Amazingly, the creative fire inside of me has never completely died. Perhaps when I come again to those two roads diverging in a wood, I will take the one less traveled by. And hopefully, all the difference that will make.