The Great Literature Launch of ‘63
Once I learned to read, I became lost in the world of writing.
Of course I read all the stuff required in school, but I read lots of other things as well, mostly magazines. My family subscribed to a bunch of them, so even in grade school I regularly buzzed through Life, Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, Coronet and others I’ve since forgotten.
But while I was devouring periodicals, at the same time, I was driving my mother to distraction. She thought of magazines as the snacks of reading, or maybe even just appetizers, and as such they didn’t count. Books, and only books, were her idea of meaningful fare. To that end she was always shlepping home kids’ books from the library … which I then summarily ignored.
Unlike a lot of other dynamics in our relationship, I wasn’t doing it because of simple anti-authoritarianism. I just found kids’ lit boring. The worst of the lot was the Hardy Boys. I couldn’t have stood being in the same room with those puds for ten minutes, let alone having to slog through several hours of their detecting derring-doo-doo.
By my pre-teens my literary sophistication blossomed after I discovered men’s adventure magazines. All the stories were exotic (“Escape from the Cannibals of Kwan Mai,” “30,000 Foot Free Fall, Without a Parachute,” “Sneaking into the Seraglio”). In addition they were well-written since they were chosen from freelancers’ submissions. And they inspired my entre’ into the world of writing.
It was a small world since it consisted of only the school newspaper, The Red and White. A small world indeed, but big enough for me. The same, however, can’t be said of my friend Harry Pierce.
Early in our senior year, my boon companion Ralph Carlson and I were at lunch when Harry came to our table. After the initial exchange of insults, he sat down.
“Guess what I just did?” he said.
“Dynamited the town hall?” said Ralph.
“Got a hysterectomy?” I said.
We dissolved into laughter.
He shook his head, a look of disgust on his face.
“Go ahead and laugh,” he said. Then he added, “Dumb ***es.”
“OK, I’ll bite,” said Ralph. “What’d ya do?”
“I started a literary magazine,” he said.
“Really?” I said. “How’d ya do that?”
“I just did it, just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I got a bunch of kids for a staff and Sally Stewart agreed to be the adviser.”
High marks for the perfect mark
Sally Stewart was the perfect mark. She was the new 10th grade English teacher, fresh out of college, and drunk with the ideal of bringing the Light of Literature to her charges, who heretofore had spent their meager lives imprisoned in the Dungeon of Ignorance.
She was the Petrova School equivalent of Prometheus, the Greek god who gave fire to the mortals. For doing that, Zeus condemned him to be chained to a rock, having eagles devour his liver, day after day, for eternity.
Old Prometheus got off easy compared to Sally. For him, the eagle-liver-devouring was just Same Ole Same Ole. But Sally had to spend 40 years correcting essays, tests and term papers — almost all of them different in their own horrid way.
No matter. The dear thing was in for the duration, and as adviser to Harry’s mag, she’d be able to look back fondly at her first year of teaching as the Muse of Belle Lettres at SLHS.
In fairness, Harry was an excellent writer, a skill that served him well in his career as a lawyer. So it wasn’t his skills that Ralph and I belittled, but his attitude, which we found imperious.
“You got a name for the mag?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Avanti.”
“Avanti?” said Ralph. “You named a literary magazine after a Studebaker?”
Harry rolled his eyes in obvious disgust.
“Ya know,” he said, “I’m amazed you two have enough brains to remember to breathe.”
“We don’t,” I said. “But our mothers gave us notes to remind us.”
Again, Ralph and I cracked up, and again Harry rolled his eyes.
“Actually,” Harry said, “in Italian it means ‘forward,” as in progressive, ahead of its time.”
Which was true. That it also meant “come in” was lost on him, I’m sure.
“And are you gonna be the editor?” I asked.
He shrugged and sighed heavily, his body language saying it was a weighty job, but in all modesty, thank God he was there to do it.
“You going shopping after school?” said Ralph.
“What for?” said Harry.
“Your tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches,” said Ralph.
“And your pipe,” I added.
“Laugh if you want,” said Harry, “but at least we won’t be printing stuff like the abysmal crap in The Red and White.”
Then he gave us the finger and started to walk away.
“Hey, Harry,” I called after him.
When he turned around, I said, “That’s right, The Red and White is number one.”
Then I gave him the finger.
All the juvenile joshing and jiving aside, Harry got his magazine up and running. He collected a staff of kids who were also good writers and they managed to put out several editions that year. And although I’m not positive, I think after we graduated, the Avanti stayed alive and well for at least another year.
When I look back at the Avanti, I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s quote: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Like a lot of his quotes, at first glance it appears either obvious or just plain silly, but upon reflection it has a message rife with meaning. Such is the case with the Avanti and me.
At the time, I thought the its contents were nothing more than the pretentious and overwritten scribblings from a bunch of puerile drama queens.
Now, after four decades of teaching English (or at least trying to), I realize Harry and his budding artistes did a damned fine job.