I REMEMBER THEY what they used to tell us when we were children. They said, “You can’t do that! What if everyone did that?”
Other moms told my friends that, and they told me, too. “What if everyone tried to do this?”
My mom never did. She said I could do anything I wanted to do, no matter what others did.
Was mom right, or were the other ones telling the truth? I’d think about that at night. If everyone wanted to be an actor, I thought, snuggled under the covers, what would the world be like?
There would be in all the Yellow Pages, just one letter: “A,” for actors. No restaurants, no building contractors, no groceries, no pet shops, no psychiatrists. Just thousands of pages for Actors. Where did actors get automobiles? Where did they live? Where did 20th Century Fox find movie cameras, directors, guards at the gate, or even gates? Studios? Theaters? Offices? Film? Money? How would they do it, if everyone’s an actor?
By the time the sun came up, it was clear to me that mom was right. There was zero chance that everyone would do whatever I wanted to do. Because the world, I had decided, would collapse.
So I tried my test. For my first job, I worked as a golf-ball picker at a driving range. Sure enough. I was alone there, golf balls whizzing left and right. Not one other person, not one, had decided to follow me. What a relief!
I tried what seemed like everything, after that. Delivering phone books, being a marine draftsman at a boat-building company, carrying the mail, flying for the Air Force, writing flight handbooks for Douglas Aircraft, writing for a magazine. Sure enough, I could do anything I wanted. The one little problem I found was that I couldn’t hold a job longer than eight months.
The Air Force lasted a few years, because they’d shoot you if you left early.
So in civilian life, what to do? It was not just a little discomfort, after eight months, it was like a monster tearing out the bars of his cage…I’d do anything to quit!
Gradually I tried writing, the times I was out of work. I had a teacher in high school. John Gartner. He was the football coach, he ran the Creative Writing class, and he was a writer! He sold articles to magazines, he had published a series of books about a coach and the kids he taught.
And Mister Gartner changed my life, though I didn’t know that for years.
The first day of that class, he said, “I know why you’re here. This is not English Literature. It’s an easy class.” We shrank a bit in our seats. How did he know that?
“That’s fine. I just want you to know, though, that the only way you’ll get an A in this class, is when you show me the check you’ve earned for writing a story.” We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. “Simple,” he said. “You don’t have anything else to do in this class. You want your A, show me the check.”
The man was cruel. I wanted to get A’s from that easy class, and I couldn’t do it!
He brought articles he had written, showed us chapter by chapter of his latest book, asked us what we thought of each one. “Incidents!” he told us, “Examples!”
Oh, I thought, there’s a system that writers use! He showed us a check that came to him, held it between his two hands. “Your ideas,” he said, “turn into money.”
In the semester I wrote a story of an amateur astronomer group, grownups and a few kids, the telescopes they built, the sights they saw through eyepieces that looked like spaceship windows. Craters on the moon, the storms of Jupiter, double stars a gazillion miles away, the stories the adults told of what they had seen.
My story sold to the city’s Sunday supplement. They sent me $26, less $4 for the photographs to illustrate it.
Came Monday, I brought that check to Mister Gartner. He nodded. “You’ve got you’re A, Richard.”
Years later, that terrible boredom of jobs, finally listened to what John had done. I had written for money, when I was in high school!
I began writing when I was out of work. Writing was a little raft in the sea of unemployment. It sank. But the more I wrote, every time I left a job, the raft would sink a little more slowly. Finally, I wrote a book. and after that, after I left a job of flight instructing, I could just barely survive.
More stories, more books. Characters become friends, though they never lived in mortal bodies. Friends become spirit guides. Easy lessons, sometimes. Once in a while a difficult test. Yet every one was a blessing as soon as I learned I had asked for its lesson, deep in the subconscious, and surre enough, it appeared. Just recently I began calling them blessings, even when they seemed to be difficult tests. Sooner or later I would call them lessons, I thought, why not call them blessings at once, instead of being forced to acknowledge them at the end?
After a while, in one of my later blessings, I learned that there’s no such thing as death. It’s walking from a mortal room to a spiritual one, no pain, light and color, our consciousness leaving in a coma while the body decides to survive, or not.
I’m discovered, I think, that every story we live, every test we pass, is important to our lives.
Some are funny (why did I insist on sleeping under the wing of my airplane when an old-time barnstormer with me stayed in the best hotel in town?), some are remarkable (before I went out to fly, a friend sent me a spare propeller I never wanted, a week before I hit a hidden back-furrow with my propeller, bent it at high speed), some are startling (why did I hear a voice “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” before I knew what the story was about?).
Everyone can’t have a life like ours. But we can. Gradually I’m getting the idea that learning never stops, during our life on Earth. I think that maybe we can take a vacation while we’re in the afterlife. Can we fly an airplane that won’t crash? What a great idea!