I spent most of the summer of ’81, my summer before seventh grade, A. B. Davis Middle School and Humanities writing my first book. I’d been inspired by my second-place finish in Mount Vernon’s city-wide, K-12 writing contest, which came with a $15 check. It wasn’t really a book in any adult sense of the word, but for eleven-year-old me with all my interests in war and weapons back then, it was a magnum opus. It was a book about the top-secret military hardware the Department of Defense didn’t want the rest of America to know about. I remained consumed with reading about war and military technology in my spare time — I wouldn’t have learned the word “fortnight” otherwise! Everything from the B-1 bomber to the M-1 Abrams tank to the Trident submarine and MX missile was to be in this scoop on the latest in military high-tech.
I even wrote a letter to the Pentagon for declassified pictures of these weapons, which I received in mid-July. It would be another two years before the M-1 Abrams with the 120mm cannon went beyond the prototype stage, so I knew even then that someone at the Department of the Defense had made a mistake in sending me these photos.
By the time of my brother Yiscoc’s birth (one form of Hebrew for “Isaac” and pronounced “yizz-co”) later in the month, I’d written nearly fifty pages on these weapons and why they were so cool for the US military to have. Especially in light of the Soviet military threat. Unfortunately, they didn’t declassify the fact that America’s latest tank used depleted uranium in parts of its hull or in its cannon shells. That would’ve been a real scoop at the time.
Three weeks after Yiscoc came into the world, all of us spent the afternoon at White Plains Public Library. I did some more research for my military book. But I deferred on this book, not really sure that this was what I was meant to do and be. Not only would it be the last time I worked on my military hardware book. It would be the last time I’d write anything that I’d hope to publish for a decade.
Honestly, I’m not sure why I stopped writing, except for school or to journal about getting beat up by my
stepfather Maurice. Maybe it was because of the cares of this world, the steady drop into poverty and welfare, the very nature of being a Hebrew-Israelite for three years, or having a stepfather who terrorized us for so long. Or maybe it was going from one to two, then three by ’83, and four by ’84, younger siblings in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment. Maybe I just looked at myself through the eyes of my Humanities peers and saw someone who could only play Jeopardy! and sing high-falsetto, not a person with a gift for the written word.
As I’ve thought about those lost years — an eight-year writer’s block, really — three things come to mind. One is that my father Jimme was completely absent from my life for more than a year between April ’81 and August ’82, mostly because of a baseball bat (more on that next week). Two is the reality that I grew to hate, actually, literally, hate, my stepfather, who saw himself as a writer (he was an okay writer, never published, but not really the point). I dare say that I couldn’t hate him as passionately as I did and then turn around and embrace myself as a writer at the same time.
But the third thing involved answering the question, what kind of life would it be for me to pursue writing as a passion, a career and calling? The only people who ever asked me that question were my teachers. My eighth-grade and twelfth grade English teachers Mrs. Caracchio and Ms. Martino and my Western Civ II TA Paul Riggs. They at least made me realize that my biggest fear was being as impoverished at forty or fifty as I was at seventeen or eighteen.
Luckily, once I left Mount Vernon for Pittsburgh and Pitt in ’87, I became interested in writing again. And then once my stepfather became my ex-stepfather two years later, I found myself writing for me in volume for the first time in seven years. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d have writer’s block. Still, the longest I’ve had writer’s block since ’89 has been a day or two.
Yes, I’m still a struggling, though published writer. But I’m not Edgar Allen Poe, like I thought I’d be in pursuing this calling.