GeekDad: The Formative Years III

Education Entertainment Geek Culture

Continuing in our ongoing series in which the GeekDads reveal the influences that transformed them into geeks, here are the Secret Origins of Jim MacQuarrie and Roger Mullins. I get to go first because I’m older.

From Goofy to Gonzo

by Jim MacQuarrie


I was a nerd before there was a word for it. Seriously; I was a sophomore in high school when Happy Days coined the term (yes, I know Dr. Seuss invented the word, but he used it for one of his funny animals, not the current meaning). As possibly the oldest member of the GeekDad crew, I have a more unique perspective; when I was a kid, if you were a geek, you had to earn it. You had to actively go looking for the weird stuff that scratched the geek itch, and some of it was hard to find. Fortunately, I had a GeekMom. Dad was, deep in his heart of hearts, a geek, but he hid it and tried to suppress it, believing, according to his upbringing as the son of Irish immigrants in Boston, that a man had to be strong and stupid; fighting, drinking and chasing women were respectable pursuits, reading and drawing were the sort of thing “sissies” did. So he buried that part of himself, restricting his reading to books about World War II and such, and tried to repress it in me. Mom, on the other hand, loved cartoons and comics; my brother Don is named after Irwin Hasen’s Dondi, and my brother Randy is named after Katy Keene’s boyfriend. She indulged my interests as much as she could, though I still hear her in my mind saying “you’re going to die from lack of sunshine! Stop drawing and go outside!”

Like most of my generation, I was an overexposed media child, spending nearly every afternoon and every Saturday morning bathing in the cathode glow of a black & white TV, watching whatever was on. I was lucky; we lived in Los Angeles, so we had many more channels to watch than other areas. We had SEVEN channels, plus a couple on UHF if you wrapped the “rabbit ears” antenna with aluminum foil, positioned it just so, and didn’t mind a little snow on the screen; if you wanted to watch Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion, Marine Boy, 8th Man, Felix the Cat, or Bosko, that’s where they were.

One of my earliest memories is Donald Duck banging the gong to open the Mickey Mouse Club, which must have been the syndicated re-runs, since I was not yet a year old when the show was canceled. I immediately fell in love with Goofy, whose classic “How to” cartoons were a staple of the show. It was Goofy who first set me on the path of being an oddball. It was also Goofy who started me on my career as a cartoonist; I realized early on that somehow, somebody had drawn pictures and made them move, and I set out to learn to draw. By age 3, I could draw a recognizable Mickey Mouse (Goofy was too hard), and by 4, I could do it on an Etch-A-Sketch, which earned me the designation “the artist” in my family. I soon branched out to copying the cartoons in the Sunday comics section of our newspaper. I could draw Charlie Brown and Snoopy, but Pogo eluded me.

By the end of first grade, I was too busy drawing pictures and watching cartoons to bother with tedious stuff like learning to read. I just really did not care about Dick and Jane and their stupid dog, so I didn’t bother. At a parent-teacher conference, my teacher suggested the new line of books by a guy calling himself “Dr. Seuss.” Mom signed up for the subscription service, and the first to arrive was Dr. Seuss’ A-B-C. I remember looking at the weird pictures, and by the time I got to the letter U (“Uncle Ubb’s umbrella and his underwear too”) I had to ask my mom what was going on here; her answer was “learn to read and you’ll find out.” Then One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish showed up, with that page showing a guy with 11 fingers (7 on one hand, 4 on the other); I couldn’t read, but I could count, and there was something very weird here. Again I was told “learn to read and you’ll find out.” I learned to read, but neither of these two weird pages were ever satisfactorily explained. I learned that if you’re weird, you don’t have to explain anything. Dr. Seuss’ strange sensibilities became a part of me, furthering me along the road to geekdom.

A seismic shift occurred in January 1966; I was in second grade and reading up a storm, when Batman premiered on ABC. I initially wasn’t interested; I thought the guy in the mask looked a little creepy. But my older brother wanted to watch it, so we did, and I was instantly hooked. (In the second season, I really liked the episodes with Batgirl, though I wasn’t sure why.) A couple months later, on a routine stop at a local convenience store with my mom, I noticed a spinner rack for the first time. There was Batman on the front of a magazine! With a bunch of other guys in costumes! I sat right down in the middle of the store and began to read about the Justice League of America (issue #44) while mom picked out the stuff she was there for. Somehow, around the time the clerk said “hey kid, this ain’t a liberry” (a line I was to hear a thousand times in the next few years), I convinced mom to part with 12 cents and took my treasure home. Several months later, I convinced her to pony up again, this time for X-Men #29, featuring the Super-Adaptoid and the Mimic. There was no going back now. I was a full-on nerd and might as well embrace it.

For the next few years, my geek needs were filled by comics I bought by cashing in coke bottles collected at the beach, the Superman-Aquaman Hour and a vast array of other cartoons (Space Ghost, Bird-Man, Super-President, the Super Six, the Mighty Heroes, Spider-Man, the Merry Marvel Marching Society, Super Chicken, Rocket Robin Hood, Mighty Hercules… I’d watch anything), the Sunday funnies, and whatever else crossed my path. I really got nerdy around 5th grade. The summer before, I had discovered MAD. My brain exploded when I got to Don Martin. Then Planet of the Apes came out, which in turn led to discovering Famous Monsters of Filmland and the work of masters like Dick Smith, Stan Winston, John Chambers, and eventually Rick Baker. It was around that time that I also discovered the Muppets due to their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show.

It was around 7th grade that I discovered the 700 section of the library, “Arts and Popular Culture,” everything from the life-drawing books of Andrew Loomis to special effects make-up to the histories of Burlesque, Radio Comedy, Film Serials, and Comic Books; Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes and Dick Lupoff & Don Thompson’s All in color for a Dime became my bible, and I became a mark for anything with the words “Golden Age of” in the description.

The local library screened movies in the evening during the summer, usually classics like The Wizard of Oz or the many forgettable live-action Disney films, but occasionally gems like “The Golden Age of Comedy,” a compilation of the best silent comedians; Buster Keaton and Charley Chaplin, of course, but also Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chase, Fatty Arbuckle and Laurel & Hardy. A better education in funny could not be had. I spent 8th through 10th grades listening to Dr. Demento and hanging out at a pinball arcade (long before the advent of Pong and Asteroids), as well as visiting a different set of Thrifty, Sav-On and 7-11 stores after school each day looking for the comics I’d missed that month. What I didn’t know at the time was that my brother Don was sometimes following behind me; if some local kids decided to hassle the nerd, he’d wait until I left and then beat the tar out of them for me so they would know better next time.

Around this time, I got into the habit of poring over the TV Guide with a pen in hand, marking all the stuff I wanted to watch that week. As I said, there were no VCRs, no video-on-demand, no cable, no internet; if you wanted to watch a particular movie, you had to wait until it was on (usually in the middle of the night), go to one of the old movie theaters that specialized in old or cult movies, or, if you were truly dedicated, buy a projector and rent or buy films from a catalog like Blackhawk or Castle. When you’re a kid, only the first option is remotely possible. At least one night a week, I would be up until 2:00 or 3:00 AM (mom worked nights, so no adult supervision; latchkey kids for the win), watching The Green Slime, Trog, or Strait-Jacket. For me, the price of being a geek was usually getting caught napping in history class.

Between 10th and 11th grades, we moved again. A new school brought a new drama department, new friends and new weird interests, including the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom of the Paradise, and the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band. With them came a greater interest in other cult movies, weird music, science fiction conventions and costumes (we didn’t call it cosplay then), as one discovery led to another. Of course, the constant criticism of my nerd ways, by both family and random strangers, was wearying, and I had just enough self-awareness to be almost embarrassed by my weird interests and hobbies; most teenagers didn’t dress up as werewolves and scare people around the apartment complex unless it was October. The final step in my transformation into an out-and-proud nerd came with the premiere of the Muppet Show. Instantly, Gonzo became my spirit guide. I internalized his approach to life, which I sum up as “if you’re weird, be a weirdo.” I’ve never regretted it. I leaned into my weirdness, and every good thing in my life has come as a result. The little hook-nosed freak has never led me astray.

Now, despite all my many “why, in my day” comments, I absolutely love the fact that no matter what weird thing I remembered from my childhood, 30 seconds on Google search put it in front of my eyes. We live in the Age of what Patton Oswalt called ETEWAF (“Everything That Ever Was, Available Forever”), where movies, books, records and TV shows I previously searched for decades to see are now at my fingertips instantly, where comics I knew were too geeky to ever be adapted to film have become blockbuster hits, and I couldn’t be happier. I’m still a sucker for “the Golden Age,” and the Golden Age is right now.

Becoming a Citizen of the World (Book)

by Roger Mullins

World Book '72
The World Book Encyclopedia, 1972 edition. (Image by Roger Mullins)

Sometime in the summer of 1985, just as all my friends and I were gearing up for second grade, my parents and my aunt and uncle struck a deal. My cousins had graduated high school, and among the leftover things at their home was an entire set of The World Book Encyclopedia, purchased brand-new in 1972. My aunt and uncle had no use for them, and I had been reading by myself for a good couple of years. Why don’t I borrow those to get me through the year of research papers coming up?

I don’t recall actually being a party to the conversation, just that one evening my Dad went down the road in his truck and returned a little while later with a short bookshelf and several stacks of brown and beige books, each with a letter on the spine. We set the bookshelf up in my toy room and arranged the books in alphabetical order. And there I was: a soon-to-be second-grader with a complete set of encyclopedias at my disposal.

I don’t recall doing much with the books that first little bit; in fact two of my earliest recollections involve building a castle with them and using stacks of them as supports for ramps for my Hot Wheels cars.

Eventually I cracked one open. I wondered at what awaited me inside – page upon page, article after article, of… stuff. Suddenly my world felt bigger than my play room, than my house, even than my neighborhood. Suddenly there were untold numbers of fascinating things waiting just beyond the horizon.

At some point shortly thereafter, I started reading the volumes. Not as the good folks at World Book intended, as in to look up specific information. Rather, I began to read them front to back, like any other book. I skipped around some, but for the most part I followed along in order.

I learned about the automotive industry, fascinating to me because so many of my uncles on my Dad’s side of the family had moved away to Michigan and the neighborhoods around Detroit during the boom years. I learned about artichokes. Thanks to the “Aviation” and “Airplane” articles, I developed a fairly well-rounded – for an elementary school student, at least – understanding of the mechanics of flight, such that several years later when I got subLOGIC’s original Flight Simulator for the Commodore 64 I faced only the smallest of learning curves.

I read about the Bayeaux tapestry, and when my wife and I found ourselves in Normandy a few years ago and saw it in person, that photograph in volume 19 still stood as my reference point as I examined the genuine article. Of course the list goes on, all the way to my report in seventh grade on the Zulu. The books were a constant companion, and a volume was always close at hand. When we traveled on one vacation to Michigan to visit our family there, the M volume made the trip with me. On another vacation to Washington, D.C., the W-X-Y-Z volume was in my lap the whole way.

But the experience of growing up reading the World Book goes well beyond the random nuggets of trivia still lodged in my brain nearly three decades later. Not to downplay the trivia; it served me quite well through my time on the academic team in middle school, high school and college, and even enabled me a few years ago to win a Frisbee from a local sports bar on Trivia Tuesday. Knowledge indeed has its perks. More than that, it helped to make me a citizen of the world, grandiose though that may sound. Years spent perusing “See Also” lists enabled me to see connections between topics I might otherwise have missed.

And quite unlike the experience of our kids today in the age of Wikipedia, there was a comfort in the finite nature of the books on the shelf. In retrospect the naievete of myself at age seven, who looked at the 21 volumes (22 if you count the Research and Study Guide) and thought, “If you read all the way from A to Z you’ll know everything,” astounds me. But at the time it seemed an attainable, worthwhile goal.

I even went so far as to develop a reflexive inability to use the encyclopedia the so-called “correct” way. If I had research to do on Thomas Jefferson, it might take me hours to get to him because I would stop along the way to visit Jakarta or learn about Jamestown. Or Janus, and his two faces. Or the proper technique for javelin throwing. You probably get the idea. True, it’s a meandering approach to scholarship. But it shaped me, for better or for worse, into the voracious reader I am today. What’s more, linear research is boring. Sure, you can execute an academic surgical strike, get in, get the information, and get out. Buy why would you when there’s so much interesting “stuff” adjacent to your target?

All of which is not to imply, even momentarily, that I didn’t “use” the encyclopedia in my school years. In fact they served me well. In addition to countless reports I made at least two of the science experiments included in the volumes. One, a model of a dam, I recall my Dad had to help me with because it leaked like a sieve – it’s probably good for everyone that I avoided a career in civil engineering. Another, a working telegraph made from a few pieces of metal roofing, some copper wire and a couple of those giant flashlight/lantern batteries, was my first experience building something for no other reason than to say I did. Wires were wound, terminals connected, and when the ‘key’ was pressed on one set the ‘receiver’ clacked on the other. My younger cousin and I high-fived each other and then went our separate directions, as far as the wire would allow, each with our own receiver and the transmitter key to the other device. We were forced to reconvene a few minutes later when we realized, independently but quite simultaneously, that neither of us knew Morse code.

Reluctantly, I left the books behind on their bookshelf in my bedroom when I left for college. It was our first time apart in eleven years. One of the first things I did after getting squared away on campus was go to the library and familiarize myself with the reference holdings, especially the gleaming set of World Book almost twenty years newer than mine. They were familiar and would work in a pinch, but it wasn’t quite the same.

On the phone one night with Mom, she mentioned in passing that my aunt and uncle wanted the encyclopedias back since I was done with them and their granddaughter was at an age where she could start using them. I suppose I knew it would happen someday, since that’s the nature of things that are borrowed. I worked my way through all five stages of the K├╝bler-Ross model of grief almost at once, all the way to acceptance. They were, after all, on loan to me and I would be forever grateful for our time together. And, even better, their granddaughter – my second cousin – was just about the same age I had been when I got them. The books were gone the next time I went home to visit.

My acceptance lasted not quite a full semester, because right about then a new web site called eBay became all the rage in my dorm. I logged onto my roommate’s computer one evening and on a whim searched for “World Book 1972.” I found a complete set, all 22 volumes, up for auction in Oklahoma City. I placed my bid at the reserve price of $20 and waited. A few days later, I got an e-mail notifying me that I was the high bidder and shipping was going to be $35 – so, $55 total. I didn’t even blink. Heck, I was working in the computer lab on campus at that point and I made that much money in just two or three days. Besides, some purchases just have to be made.

I think my roommate was pretty sure I had lost my mind the day I lugged the huge shipping cartons up to our second-floor room. I know the lady at the campus post office thought I had once I told her what was inside. I lined them up on a shelf under my window, by my bed. It was as though the universe was whole again, or at least as whole as it had been in 1972.

College and grad school are in my rear-view, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve moved in the succeeding years. Each time, the encyclopedias have moved with me. The set is just a few feet from me now even as I write this.

A few nights ago my four-year-old daughter asked me, “Daddy, what’s a platypus?” I had my iPad beside me in the chair and my smart phone in my pocket, either of which could have produced in mere nanoseconds multimedia information about every variety of platypus known to man. Instead, we got up and walked over to the bookshelf.

“What letter does ‘platypus’ start with?” I asked her.

“P- p- platy… P!” she said, eyes lighting up.

“Do you see the ‘P’ book?”

She pointed it out, and I retrieved it from the shelf. We sat back down in the chair and found “platypus” and looked at the pictures. I read to her about them. Then, satisfied, she jumped down and went back to playing. I smiled, then sat back and read about plantains and James K. Polk. Old habits die hard.

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