A Leaf on the Sea
My fiction comes from the life I have lived. It comes from the paradise years, the years I spent growing up in the Hawaiian Islands. It arises from the confused, meandering, brainless time in my life I now call, my boyhood.
All my fictions are true, though they never actually happened. All my fictional characters are real, though they never actually lived. They are real and true because I give them a taste of what I have been and what I have felt in my life. I have never forgotten the almost unendurable heartaches of my lost teenage loves, or the fear and tension that gripped me when I knew some kind of fight was imminent. It's all still there, deep inside me.
These feelings are the sparks that make me human.
I grew up emotionally alone. Help was there, but I was too ignorant to know I even needed it. My young years were superb, but utterly unconscious. I lived an easy and exciting youth, stumbling my way through those early years with a mind as blank as a cow's.
And I paid hard for those years in my twenties.
I had three fathers, yet was not raised by any of them. None of them were available to me. I drifted like a leaf on the sea.
When I left the islands to go to college on the mainland, I was completely unprepared to deal with the reality of it.
But before that, I had the time of my life. And that's where my stories live -- in that cauldron of boyhood experience, in that beguiling, shark-filled ocean that carried me along for so many years.
I write fiction for young readers because I feel for the boy I was, and I feel for the boys out there right now who are just like I was. There must be a million of them. Rudderless. Drifting. I feel for my own sons and daughters, who are growing into a world far more confusing than the one I grew into. That's one reason I believe fiction is so important. Meaningful fiction may just possibly urge them to think about a few things while it entertains them. It can enlighten. It can suggest options and possible consequences. It can offer hope in an often frightening and uncertain world.
Maybe I'm a little idealistic. Maybe I'm fooling myself. But I don't think so.
Tell me where this boy can go to lick his wounds. The story appeared in my local newspaper this summer. It took place in one of the large regional shopping malls where I live in Portland, Oregon. It started like this:
He was a small boy in a large man's dress shirt, buttoned up to his neck, tucked into his blue jeans. He was crying, hard, and wiping his eyes with the too-big sleeve of his pale gray shirt. His sloppy-long sandy hair hung down over his eyes, but not enough to hide his wet cheeks and the mottled red skin. Even before you could read the sign he was carrying, you could hear his sobbing.
Most folks (in the mall) last Sunday, at lunch time, must have seen the boy and his parents and two brothers, who walked behind him. A few read the sign and laughed out loud. "I'll bet he'll never do that again!" chuckled one man to a woman at the next table.
The woman did not laugh back. "I felt nauseated," (she said). "My first thought was that they were asking him to panhandle through the mall." The boy's parents weren't looking for money. They were looking to humiliate their son.
His sign explained, in graphic language, that the boy had urinated in the toilet and had not flushed.
Almost everyone who witnessed this appalling humiliation was disgusted. One incensed man finally yanked the sign from the boy's hand and gave his mother a piece of his mind. She shouted back that he obviously knew nothing of "tough love."
Most certainly, the man that boy will become will carry a scar. But maybe somewhere along the way this boy might pick up, say, Chris Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes and see that he's not alone in his abuse. Maybe Sarah's inner will to move ahead despite her problems will inspire him. Who knows? Maybe fiction will help this boy when the humans in his life won't.
If he reads, I believe it will.
I believe it because fiction has had an immense influence on my own life. That boy with the embarrassing sign is me. Not literally me, for I can thank my good-luck star that I was never treated like he was, but still, my boyhood was similar. The only difference was that I degraded and humiliated myself by way of my own poor choices. I still feel bad about some of the things I blindly got mixed up in.
There was a wild boy in our neighborhood in Kailua on the island of Oahu. I'll call him Buster, in case someone is still looking for him. He was a little older than I was, maybe thirteen or fourteen. He was bigger and smarter and not someone you played tricks on, unless you wanted to grow up with no teeth. My friends and I were fascinated by him, by his sudden appearances in our lives and his ghostly vanishings. He almost always left us with our mouths hanging open.
All my friends and I lived on a curved street that wrapped around the edge of a golf course. Our grassy yard sloped down to the shore of a wide, dirty river we called The Swamp. It was a smelly thing that purged out from the boggy islands to a clean, turquoise sea, polluting it with its warm, foul water.
Across the street from my house was a jungle of tall ironwood trees growing out of a tangle of long grass and weeds. We made forts in there, and hid from golfers. A short, hunched-over hike through a secret trail put me on the seventh green, a grassy carpet that felt like heaven under my bare feet.
Looking up, you could see back over The Swamp to the tee. Golfers had to hit long, over the water, and over a grassy marsh that ran along the shore, which was a golf-ball-finder's paradise.
Then looking the other way, from the green down to the next hole, you saw a stretch of beautifully cut grass that ran parallel to The Swamp. A thick mangrove jungle separated it from the water. The jungle was our safety net.
It was where we ran when the Jeep came.
The "Jeep" was our greatest enemy. It scared you spitless just to see it coming at you, whining down the fairway with three or four guys bouncing in their seats over the bumps. They were the groundskeepers for the country club, and the part of the job they loved the most was keeping kids like us off the golf course.
One day Buster showed up in our neighborhood. He lived on another street and didn't usually fool around with us, except when he was bored. He didn't have a lot of friends.
Terry, Dickie, and I were hanging out at our fort in the ironwoods, the fort being a six-by-six-foot pit dug in the sand, with palm fronds over the top for camouflage. From the outside it looked like a pile of old rubbish. Buster slid down the opening, scowling. We shut up and gaped at him. Then he laughed. He liked scaring us like that, which I think is one of the reasons he even bothered with us.
"Look," he said, and pulled a bomboola-sized cherry bomb out of his pocket. "Ever see one of these?"
"Wow," Terry said, reaching out to touch it.
"Got four of them," Buster said, snapping it back into his hand. "You should see what these things do to a toilet."
No one said anything for a few seconds.
"You punks want to set these off?" Buster said, a little annoyed at our silence.
"A-straight," Dickie said. "Sure." Dickie always was an ordnance man. He used to invite me over to blow up plastic soldiers with firecrackers in his back yard.
"Okay. Let's go," Buster said.
"Where?" I asked.
"You want to do it or not?"
"Sure, but . . ."
"Then let's go."
We followed Buster out onto the golf course, moving in a clump over the seventh green, heading down toward The Swamp. It was pretty early in the day. In the shady parts, the grass was still damp with dew. When we got to the marsh, Buster started across the long wooden bridge that ran over the water to the tee. The bridge had a chewed-up rubber runner down the middle where golf spikes had walked for years. The rust-colored swamp crawled under it toward the ocean, so dirty you couldn't even see an inch below the surface. What was down there had to be something like six feet of pure muck and sticks that would stab you if you ever had to jump in the water to escape the guys in the Jeep.
But the Jeep was nowhere in sight.
On the other side of the bridge a foursome was heading up toward the tee. We crossed to the other side of the swamp and sat on the edge of the jungle and watched them play past. They gave us dirty looks.
Buster took us on a short cut through the jungle. I loved it. Like we were on a military mission. No one spoke. No one made a sound by stepping on sticks. At the other side of the jungle, Buster put out his hand to stop us, like a platoon leader.
"Get down," he said, motioning with his hands for us to squat.
A golfer walked by with a huge blue bazooka golf bag hanging from his shoulder. A white hand towel hung from it like a flag. We waited in the bushes until he was long gone, then stepped out onto the fairway. I couldn't tell which number it was.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Shaddup," Buster said. "You'll see soon enough."
He led us around a dog-leg in the fairway to an immaculate, oval-shaped green, surrounded on three sides by trees and thick jungle. A thin white flagpole stuck in the cup at the far end.
We walked around one of three perfectly combed sand traps, careful not to step into it and leave a footprint. The Jeep guys watched for that kind of thing.
"Come," Buster said, and we followed him out onto the green. You could see where the cup had been the week before, a small circle of slightly off-color grass. They moved it around to keep from wearing the grass down in the same spot, or to give the golfers a different challenge.
I loved walking on the green, but I always stepped lightly because of the Jeep guys. I'd never been caught, but I'd heard stories.
Buster took out the four cherry bombs and laid them on the green. Terry, Dickie, and I knelt around him. I wondered if I was the only one who was nervous.
Buster pulled out a six-inch switch blade and flicked it open with a clean snap.
He smiled at our bug-eyes and cut a four-inch slit in the green then squeezed around the cut with his fingers, like you squeeze a baked potato after you make a slice down the middle. Dirt popped up. Buster took one of the cherry bombs and stuck it down into the slice, then pushed the dirt and grass back around it so it looked like it had before, only now there was a fuse sticking out of it.
He made another slit about two feet away and stuck another cherry bomb in it. "Got to keep them close together," he said. "The fuses burn too fast."
I suppose I knew what he had in mind to do the moment he made the first slit in the green, but the magnitude of the crime didn't click in my brain.
But the longer I thought about it, the more worried I became. This wasn't just any grass. This crime was big enough for the police.
My scalp and neck crawled with sudden fear. I stood up and looked down at Buster, who was still kneeling, with Terry and Dickie squatting next to him.
"You're not really going to set these off, are you?" I said.
Buster glanced up at me as if I'd just asked the stupidest question he'd ever heard in his life. "Why? You scared?"
"No . . . it's just that . . . this is the green."
Terry and Dickie waited. They didn't want to challenge Buster.
I didn't want to challenge him, either. So I shrugged, and Buster went back to the bombs.
"Anyone coming?" he asked, and all three of us quickly looked around.
"No," Terry said.
I studied the trees, planning my escape in case someone suddenly appeared.
Buster took out a book of matches and peeled one off. "Get ready to run," he said.
I hurried away, walking backwards. Terry and Dickie jogged off to the other side of the sand trap.
Buster lit the first fuse. It caught quickly and started crackling down toward the green. He dropped the still-burning match and lit another one, then touched off the second fuse and ran.
He looked back just in time to see the cherry bombs go off.
Dirt and bits of grass flew into the air.
We walked back over to take a closer look.
The green was ruined. Smoke smoldered out of the two scars. Clumps of dirt and grass littered the putting surface. Looking at it made me feel sick, like you feel when you see pieces of glass and puddles of liquid in the street after an accident.
Buster smiled and said, "Pretty good, huh?"
Nothing in my young life had ever scared me as much as the sight of those two holes in that perfect grass, except for maybe the first time I had to swim in deep water. I started to jog off toward the trees.
"Wait," Buster said. "I got two more."
"I don't care," I called back. "I'm getting out of here."
"You chicken shit," he said.
Terry and Dickie ran after me, hurrying toward the trees, nervously glancing back. "Come on, Buster," Terry said. "Let's go."
"Beat it, punks," Buster spit back.
We raced into the bushes. Brush and low branches crowded in and scraped me as I tore through them. I held my arms up to shield my eyes. Seconds later, we burst out onto the sixth fairway just as the muffled thumping of Buster's other two bombs went off.
"He's crazy," Terry said, sprinting ahead, keeping close to the jungle, running toward the seventh tee and the bridge.
On our own, we would never have even thought about doing something like what Buster did. We liked the greens. Now, we were criminals.
We heard an engine and looked back. Buster was running toward us with the Jeep screaming up from down at the other end of the fairway. Buster veered into the jungle.
We weren't that smart.
"Run!" Terry yelled, as if anyone had to think about it. We raced toward the bridge, toward the wonderfully narrow and flimsy thing that no Jeep could ever cross.
Two golfers were getting ready to tee off over the water. We blasted past them, tearing down and banging out onto the bridge just as the Jeep pulled up onto the tee behind us.
"Hey you punks!" someone yelled.
I could hear feet thumping on the bridge behind me, could feel the wood rock and vibrate.
When we got to the other side the three of us broke up and ran in separate directions. I headed into the weeds, never looking back. Just ran and ran, until I was home. I raced into the garage and burst into the kitchen. The house was silent, my mother and sisters gone somewhere. I hid in the living room between the upright piano and a wall, my lungs burning.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! The front door shook.
My heart pounded.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
I covered my head, in case one of them had his face up to the window.
Then the pounding stopped.
I let a couple of minutes pass, then got up and peeked up over the bottom of the window. Down the street, three of the Jeep guys were walking around, going from house to house. Some of the neighbors were standing around in their yards watching.
Soon the Jeep came down the road. Fast. The three guys jumped in and drove off.
For the next several weeks Terry, Dickie, and I stayed as far away from the golf course as we could possibly get. We didn't see Buster again for a long time, and when we finally did, he completely ignored us.
Even today, so many years later, whenever someone knocks loudly on a door, my heart jumps.
A leaf on the sea.
Drifting into trouble simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was so typical of my boyhood. It's not that I or any of my friends were delinquents. We were just curious, and much too unconscious to notice things, like the fact that Buster was up to no good. We hadn't learned that certain choices lead to certain consequences.
In Blue Skin of the Sea there's a story called "The Year of the Black Widows," where the main characters, Sonny and Keo, are held spellbound by a boy named Jack. Jack grew out of the Busters of my life, slightly older, trouble-filled boys who fascinated me. I can still remember the perverse, almost electrical charge of excitement that surrounded them, like an aura.
The stories are there, in those boys that walked the line between right and wrong. Somehow along the way I managed to make a couple of decent choices for myself and ended up on the right side of the line.
Some boys aren't so lucky. Maybe no one ever gave them the tools they needed to help themselves. Maybe you know one of them -- a boy who gives you a vacuous gaze when you ask him a question as simple as, "Hey, Billy, what you been up to?" If you know this boy, remember him. He's not an idiot. He's wandering, he's drifting.
I know him well, and no matter what he says, he needs something from you.
He needs you to care about him.
It was a long time before anyone said to me, "Hey, buddy, where you going? The world is this way."
I attribute my own slow growth to having grown up without a father, and, sometimes, without a mother.
I spent two years in sixth grade. The second time around I had a friend named Mike, who had an adopted brother named Charlie, both of whom I liked very much. I knew them from Punahou, a private school on the other side of the island that I only lasted a year at. Mike had five hundred dollars in a small bank in his room. I had about twenty-eight cents in mine, and the sight of all that cash nearly popped my eyes out.
Mike and Charlie invited me to spend the weekend with them five or six times. Their house was in Kahala, where all the rich people lived. Right on the beach. A lush, jungled estate that dazzled you and made you shade your eyes when you walked through it to the white sand and sparkling blue-green sea. At least it dazzled me, who lived next to a murky swamp.
One morning at Mike's house -- actually, we were in Mike and Charlie's cabana bedroom by the pool -- the three of us stumbled out of our beds at about ten o'clock, yawned through the sliding screen door that opened to chaise lounges and a kidney-shaped turquoise pool, and headed over to the main house. We went in through the kitchen, the servant's entrance. The cook was a happy Japanese lady who said "Good morning, boys," to us. We said good morning back and went out to a long dining room table and waited for her to bring us some breakfast.
Mike's mother was either sleeping or long gone with her tennis racket.
The cook brought us fresh-squeezed orange juice and big plates of toast, rice, bacon, eggs, and fresh pineapple, which we ate with heavy silver forks. The three of us ate noisily and started to wake up, chattering about what we were going to do that day. I was in heaven.
Then a man came in.
A huge man.
Big, and round, and sullen, and old.
He sat way down at the other end of the table without even acknowledging that we were there. Mike and Charlie shut up. I did too, because they did. Only I wasn't so sure why. I didn't know who the man was, but he must have been someone Mike and Charlie steered clear of. I'd never seen him before.
We finished breakfast in silence and blasted out of there.
Mike's last name was Kaiser. It didn't even dawn on me until years later that the man at the end of the table was the man of steel, Henry J. Kaiser, himself. Mike's father. I was brushing up against history, and I didn't even know it.
A leaf on the sea.
At thirteen, I was finally sent away to a boarding school on the Big Island. The headmaster, James Monroe Taylor, was the first person ever to tell me that I could be somebody. But I didn't figure out what he was talking about until I was well into my twenties.
So what's the point of rambling on about my boyhood?
I guess I just want to put in a good word for those seemingly hopeless boys in your lives.
I'll say it for them, because they won't:
They need you to care about them despite their moronic actions, or exasperating inactions. Don't give up on them. More than likely, sooner or later, a pretty decent young man will emerge. From my hard-earned experience as a male-person, I can assure you that seven or eight out of ten of us eventually manage to wise up, and maybe five out of ten of us get lucky enough to discover that we actually have feelings, just like girls do.
For me it was a matter of time and the good fortune to have run into a couple of adults who actually cared about my growth as a human being.
I've thought a lot about what my job is now, or should be, as an author of books for young readers. I don't write to teach, preach, lecture, or criticize, but to explore. I write to make good use of the amazing English language, and to binge on stories that feel good to write and, I hope, feel good to read. And if my stories show boys choosing certain life options, and the possible consequences of having chosen those options, then maybe I will have finally done something worthwhile.
Wonder of wonders.
Graham Salisbury, who says he treasures his copies of The ALAN Review, delivered this article at the 1993 ALAN Workshop in Pittsburgh. His latest book from Delacorte Press is Under the Blood-Red Sun