A world in two bits (second bit) by Vincent McCaffrey
At nine, I had not yet begun to truly read. Reading, as I am calling it, is a sole pursuit of the contents of books. Of course, I’d learned about Dick and Jane in the first grade along with everyone else.
I had, however, already been initiated into that cult of worshipers who poured over the pages of latest EC comics and Mad magazine during lunch breaks at school. We collected in tight knots outside the Smoke Shoppe to read any new issue just delivered. I might not have appreciated the subtler themes that were current in the EC’s, but there was no missing the broader wit in Mad. And at the price of a quarter, my recent foray into the crab business had given me the wherewithal to be the kid at the center of the knot.
But my popularity was short lived.
My crab business had quickly come to an end when the unskilled workers had finished their job of wasting the earth and made way for the steel workers and masons who were uninterested in crab for lunch. I still had no head for math, and ran through my jar of quarters within weeks on such necessary items as baseball cards, marbles, and a very authentic looking pirate gun that used caps two at a time.
Still, the end came suddenly.
Part of the fun of reading EC’s was that they were absolutely forbidden by the nuns. This made them precious and all the more sought after.
Anyone caught reading those foul publications were severely punished. A fat wooden ruler across the knuckles. Ridicule in front of the class. Lengthy homework assignments involving numbing repetition.
I had invested heavily in my stock of Incredible Science Fiction, Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Weird Science, and Weird Fantasy through the years, often trading away other valuable stuff, like baseball cards and plastic soldiers. I already knew the name of at least one writer very well, Ray Bradbury. And it made the investment all the sweeter to smuggle them into St. Luke’s cunningly disguised within the cover of a ‘Weekly Reader’ or sandwiched inside of an innocent looking Davy Crockett lunchbox.
But I was not the only spy in my class.
Someone ratted me out.
On a perfect autumn day—I remember it that way, whether it was or not—with leaves of red and gold wafting downward on gentle breezes, as I sat on an abutment in the playground amidst some fair weather friends, a pale cold hand descended across my shoulder from the folds of black robes and snatched the latest issue of Incredible Science Fiction from my sweaty fingers.
Phone calls were made. My stash of comics at home disappeared.
My index finger became numb from the pressure of the pencil shaft as I wrote some poorly constructed confession and plea for absolution and forgiveness over and over again. There were many Our Fathers and Hail Marys necessary. And an act of contrition. (I could not spell contrition. I used a ‘u’ instead on an ‘o’).
But I was not done. Not vanquished.
I was just broke.
And nickels could be had. Almost any adult would give you a nickel if you asked. It was the price of a bar of candy. A coke. A newspaper.
It was also the price of any one of the odd lot of coverless pulps stashed in cardboard boxes at the back of the Smoke Shoppe. I had seen these before in my spying.
Pulps were very much like books, only better. All the words, but with pictures too. They displayed the fantastic art of Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay, and Alex Raymond—artwork often better than the stories they illustrated. And I, still keen eyed at the time, had spied a familiar name in the lot. Ray Bradbury.
It was not until many years later, as I bought and sold those same issues of pulps to collectors, that I finally got to see the wonderful and lurid covers. What was important at the time, however, was that these too were forbidden. Sold on the sly. The covers had been removed and sent back to the distributors for credit. They were illegal, in fact. But I did not know that. I just knew that they were included among the prohibited publications on the list posted in the principle’s office and sent home at the beginning of each school year.
And thus I learned to read.