Thursday, October 14, 2010

Clifford, Be...

As I watch my son negotiate the strange modern waters of technology and communication, I become more and more grateful for the atmosphere that surrounded me as I grew up. We X'ers are the last Americans to have wandered around, connected only to those who were physically present. It was rare that I spoke on the phone as a child, and when I did it was still attached to a wall. The cordless didn't make an appearance in my house until I was almost out of high school.

This is not better or worse than today's world, only different. My father, in describing what it was like to be a librarian at this particular moment in history, said, "I feel like a blacksmith in 1910."

Every generation feels that their childhood was vastly different than the one that follows. However, in examining the changes that have taken place between 1980 and 2010, I think it is safe to say that the gulf between the day-to-day life of a twelve year old today and the kind of life I led when I was the same age is a greater gulf than most thirty year periods would normally contain. For example, 1945 to 1975. Different, yes. Socially, culturally, economically. But technologically?

In 1945 you picked up the phone attached to your wall. In 1975 it might have been made of a different plastic but it was still attached to the wall. But 1980 to 2010? If you didn't know any better, you might assume we'd been invaded by aliens.

The most instant photo was a Polaroid and that was still a bulky inconvenience. Now a photo taken on a phone can be national news within twenty minutes.

I expound this way to set the scene.

As a kid, I spent my free time in very few ways. I played sports, either organized or in backyards, I listened to music and played with my sisters in our den, and I read. I read and read and read. Each week we would go to the library and check out as many books as we wanted. Everywhere else we were limited by my parents' natural sense of moderation. One candy. No extra soda at the restaurant. Very rarely in a restaurant period!

But books? Bring a wheelbarrow if you want.

And one of my favorite series of books concerned a young Middle American pre-teen named Alvin Fernald. The books I remember most are "Superweasel" in which Alvin creates a super-hero named Superweasel to combat pollution and proceeds to commit various acts of what comes down to eco-terrorism and "Alvin Fernald: Mayor For A Day" in which he wins a contest to serve as Mayor of his town and uncovers corruption while actually getting things done. All in one day.

I loved these books. I wanted to be Alvin Fernald. They were written by a man named Clifford B. Hicks.

I found a beat up copy of "Superweasel" at the used book store in our town and gave it to my son when he turned eight. He loved it as much as I did.

Now. In my entire collection of books, I have two autographed editions. One, "Superweasel" is addressed to me and "Alvin Fernald: Mayor For A Day" is addressed to Cashel, from Clifford B. Hicks.

The story of how I come to have these treasures is a treasure to me itself.

This past spring I was cast in Erik Patterson's new play "Sick" at the Los Angeles Theater Center. I was excited about this for a thousand reasons. I love Erik's writing but I also love Erik himself. Through Tuesdays At 9 and my sister's blog he seemed to be a satellite member of my family.

Aside from being an astonishing playwright, Erik is an accomplished screenwriter as well, focusing on tween movies. He and his writing partner did "Another Cinderella Story". IMDB him and see for yourself.

In any case, we were working on "Sick" and Erik was a wonderful presence in rehearsal, giving feedback whenever we needed it and ignoring one terrible idea I had which he will tell whenever he has a drink in him and wants to embarrass me.

I had just re-read "Superweasel" for some reason and I thought of Erik and his other career writing tween stories. I went to rehearsal and asked him if he knew of the character Alvin Fernald.

His head jerked and he said, "You mean by Clifford B. Hicks?"

Now, these books were popular but not Twilight level and they were popular in the 1970's which I described above. There was no instant knowledge. Everything was popular in a vacuum. Erik was the first person ever to know what I was talking about when I mentioned Alvin Fernald.

Erik's eyes bulged and he gushed, "I know Clifford B. Hicks! He's an old family friend...we used to visit them every July 4th! He's the reason I'm a writer! I wrote my first novel when I was ten and showed it to him!" I'm paraphrasing and Erik can correct me however he likes but that was the gist of the conversation.

Our minds were BLOWN by this mad coincidence. What were the odds? That we would have known each other going on five years...it is quite possible that we could have gone on being good friends for years upon years and NEVER discovered this connection.

We basically then jumped up and down reveling in the mystery of life before we had to settle down and get down to rehearsal. It was a beautiful moment.

Cut to a post performance moment at the LATC. "Sick" was a roaring success. Erik's mother was going to be in the audience. After the show we all gathered in the lobby to accept and give congratulations and bask in the aftermath of the play. Erik introduced me to his mother.

She had a package in her hand. I opened it to find the aforementioned autographed copies of "Superweasel" and "Alvin Fernald: Mayor For A Day".

Needless to say I was very touched. Moments like that are what it is all about as far as I am concerned.

Clifford B. Hicks passed away on September 29, 2010 at the age of 90. Here is his obituary from The Times Republican.

Even though I read those books before home computers, even though technology has advanced exponentially since then, the impact those stories had on me lasted a lifetime, my lifetime up to now. I passed them on to my son. And I hope he'll do the same.

Maybe things haven't changed that much after all.

Rest in peace, Clifford B. Hicks. Thanks for the books, both generally and specifically.

13 comments:

Sheila O'Malley said...

Oh my gosh. Rest in peace, Mr. Hicks. I love the story about Erik - I just can't believe it happened that way.

Beautiful work, Bren.

Erik said...

You paraphrased well -- I've got nothing to correct -- and I'm so happy we made that connection!

Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Cliff.

Anonymous said...

Okay, that just made me cry.

Kerry

kpf said...

I'm ordering it for my boy right now.

Sherry said...

This is so beautiful, Brendan. I will share it with Clifford's family, and I know it will mean a lot to them. I also know it meant a lot to Clifford to sign those books for you and your son--to know how much you appreciated his books.
Best,
Sherry (Erik's mom)

Javajini said...

Wonderful story! Thanks to Sheila for steering me this way. I'll have to look up these books for my grandson.

Brendan O'Malley said...

Thanks Sherry...so glad you liked it. I wish I'd written a real thank you note to him before he passed away but this will have to do.

Brendan O'Malley said...

hey javajini! there is a whole slew of them...i know i read them all and they were all enjoyable but for some reason the two i mention here were my favorites. they are very much a product of their time so a little explanation to your grandson might help...thanks for reading!

betty said...

I read several of Cliff's books to my students each year as I teach about physics and environmental sciences. I am stunned by his passing. Two years ago, Mr. Hicks made the most wonderful tape for my students, answering their questions. His sons helped him to do this for our Literary Week. We are just starting Literary Week this coming Monday... I was lucky enough to have Mr. Hicks sign a few of my books to me. I cherished these stories as a kid and as long as I teach, another group of 18 kids will fall in love as well.

Michael Leddy said...

Hello from another Clifford Hicks fan (I found your post via a Google Alert). Alvin’s Secret Code was the most important book of my 1960s childhood, and I’m glad that I got to tell Mr. Hicks that in a letter (1997). His reply is the only piece of correspondence I have ever framed.

Brendan O'Malley said...

Hi Betty...by all accounts this is the type of man he was. Thanks for sharing your story of him!

Brendan O'Malley said...

Hi Michael,

What a great story...I know I read that one too...I'm going to have to go back and re-visit it now...I am so happy that people are sharing their connection to these wonderful books. A truly American story.

Stephen said...

Singer and Rapper at http://stephenchuah.blogspot.com/