Sunday, October 11, 2009


Sputnik ruined my life.

I was three years old in 1957. I wasn’t interested in world politics, international tensions, or the pace of scientific research. I was working on the transition between walking and running without falling down. It didn’t matter to me that the kid next door could already do it.

After Sputnik the emphasis went on kids who excelled in math and science. Like a grow your own astronaut program. I was never good in math or science.

In my way of thinking you didn’t need to understand the principle of trajectory to make a good hit on a hornets nest with walnut or understand E=mc2 to hit a homerun during a neighborhood baseball game. I had something more valuable than mere scholastic aptitude - I had imagination. (Ok, my teachers referred to it as daydreaming.)

My book reports seldom resembled the original story. Common objects became extraordinary in my hands. A dirt clod was a perfect mortar shell. A stick with just the right fork could easily become a gun.

My mother worked for the Navy and would bring home those official looking plastic retractable ballpoint pens with “US Government” stamped in white ink on the side of the black barrel. This made an exceptional spaceship, which I would to launch through the “silo” of the ink reservoir hole of my wooden flip top desk at Shawswick Elementary School.

“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, Weewah, Weewah, Blast Off!” The rumble of the engines drowned out my teacher and her blackboard instructions.

The Captain of my spacecraft sat in the fat end of the pocket clip, the black plastic barrel was the fuselage, and the metal ink reservoir was the solid rocket fuel. Whenever the ballpoint was engaged I was ready for battle with any antagonistic extraterrestrial (their spaceship was inferior and usually resembled a pencil).

That experience successfully created in me what I affectionately refer to as my “pen fetish”. Refillable retractable pens are my favorites. It’s not uncommon for me to refill a pen over and over and over.
A while back I was at the laundry mat. When my washers finished, I put down my writing tablet and pen, and transferred my clothes to the dryers in the usual manner. I sat back down at the folding table I had commandeered and realized my favorite pen was gone.

I should tell you here that I have this sort of sixth sense about the location of my pen. As a matter of fact its safe to say that I know where my pen is at all times. If a friend or co-worker picks it up to jot down a note or a phone number I watch them carefully to make sure they don’t walk off with it. So I was pretty sure I had indeed left it on the folding table, but on the off chance that I had it in my hand when I had swapped my clothes, I went over to the washers and next the dryers and performed an extensive search with no success. Then reality struck. Someone had stolen my pen.

I scanned the laundry mat for suspects. No one in particular stood out. I decided to use the well-worn technique my mother had always used in such cases – guilt. I walked around the laundry mat and with all the sincerity I could muster asked each and every person if they had seen my pen, loudly bemoaning my concern that if I had mistakenly dropped it in the dryer my clothes would surely be ruined. After completing circuit of the room I went back over to my folding table and waited.

Several minutes later a young boy of about eleven approached me. He held my pen in his hands and sheepishly asked if it was mine. I said it was.

My first thought was to throttle the little “varmint”, but I held back. I thanked him for helping me find it and told him how much I appreciated his help. He nodded a thank you and went back over to the other side of the laundry mat to sit down by his mother who smiled her approval of his actions.

It was pretty obvious that this boy had never seen an pen worth more than twenty-five cents before. A blue BIC “globber” was probably the best pen he had ever had. Now I was the one starting to feel guilty. I knew I had another pen in the glove compartment of my car. It was identical to the one I was using only the barrel was green and the lettering was worn.

I went out and retrieved it and brought it over to the little boy.

“Here, I had an extra,” I told him. “I thought you might like it.”

“Wow”, he said as he held it with both hands.

I felt pretty good about myself after that. I went back to my writing. When I had finished my laundry chores (folding and stacking and matching socks) I placed my clean clothes back into their baskets and, just before I was about to leave, leaned back to look into the other room.

There sat the boy with the retractable pen erect on the seat bottom. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, Weewah, Weewah, Blast Off! Up it went in an arcing motion that I clearly recognized.

I had to laugh at myself.

© 2009

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