Although I began writing at age seven in July 1960, I stopped after the demise of The Gore Book in the spring or summer of 1961. (More musing is forthcoming on the unholy Götterdämmerung of The Gore Book collaboration with my friend Sabin.) But in Fall 1962, in the fifth grade, my class was assigned to write stories into which students were to work the week’s new spelling words. My first spelling story was a dull Hardy Boys rip-off which I threw away in disgust soon after. I do recall hating the thing even as I wrote it.
But the second assignment was a breakthrough and it sparked a writing renaissance. I can still recall my elation at creating Jack Commer and realizing I was somehow home, that I’d found my path. Other science fiction stories followed both for class (like this story, many of these were originally titled “Spelling”), and on my own. The resulting thirty-four stories, arranged in a blue notebook in order of their chronology from 1860 to 6000, were my own “future history” long before I knew Robert Heinlein had beaten me to that concept.
Even though I was well-bullied in that fifth grade era in Maryland, during the moments I read my stories from the front of the classroom, I had everyone in thrall, bullies included. In a way that answered everything.
Weirdly, as Mrs. Grammar must have intuited (that really was the name of my fifth grade teacher!), stretching to include ten new words each week helped fuel my imagination. I can almost know which of the words in the following story were on that week’s spelling assignment.
Of course at the time I had no idea that decades later I’d write five novels about Jack Commer. In any case here’s how he first leapt from the forehead of Zeus, or Athena, or whoever he leapt from, on September 19, 1962:
“Voyage to Venus” (2033)
Nine astronauts were walking to a USSF meeting. I, Jack Commer, was one of them. When we got in the building, we heard a man talking. He said the next space flight would be to Venus. Then he said that four brave men would go. After electing I found myself one of those four.
Among me were Jim Coner, Pat Walker, and Henry James.
It was Oct 19, 2033 and flight day. Inside an X-45 mounted on top of a Titan V booster, was my follow astronauts and me.
Then…. 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-l-….. “Lift off!” We were on our way.
It took us 3 days to get to Venus. When we got there, we cracked up the rocket. We knew that we would not get back to Earth but still we could report our finds. So we got to work. Suddenly there was a rubbling sound. We turned, saw smoke, and there before us, stood a huge Tyrannosaurus Rex! Jim, Pat and I ran. But James stood there paralyzed. I rushed to his aid, but failed. With a cry of horror, James was lifted in the air by the sharp teeth of the monster. After he went away, I noticed that he came from a large cave. We decided to have breakfast and then explore the cave. For breakfast we had toast. Afterwards I noticed that the heat from our stove was low. Later we decided to report our finds to central control. They said they would send another rocket to get us.
Three days later the rocket came, and we boarded for home.
The closest contemporary Jack Commer illustration I can find is from 1964’s Trip to Mars, at a point where a stowaway has foolishly leapt outside the Typhoon I without properly securing his helmet. Ship’s engineer Harri McNarri has “rushed to his aid, but failed,” one of my favorite lines from the above story.
Copyright 2013 by Michael D. Smith