e-mail us


Vern was a grown-up with a wide-eyed kid inside


My best high school friend and I were both Marvel tale fans. In that era before Star Wars and Star Trek, we couldn’t get enough of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Besides creating Tarzan, Burroughs also penned first-rate marvel adventures.

His derring-do hero, John Carter, ventured to Mars, finding there a wonder-filled civilization crammed with evil meanies, haughty princesses and damsels to be rescued. With twin moons overhead, Carter dueled in the Chambers of Mystery, sailed the Lost Sea of Korus. Our wily hero met his match at Polodona, prevailed in the Toonolian Marshes, then marched in victory down the Avenue of the Green Thoat, all the while assailed by terrific sandstorms and distracted by lusty love affairs. We ate those books up and went as far as a subscription to a fanzine devoted to Burroughs’ books, luckily published in our town. A man named Vern was its editor. Obsessed as only teens can be, we wrote fan letters, submitted erudite analyses and typed out our own sequels (with ourselves inserted into the plot). One day Vern wrote back: Stop by, guys! Let’s talk!

Vern published his ’zine out of a sober-looking midtown house. His day job was with an insurance company. Vern looked very ordinary, yet with a twinkle in his eyes. His house needed paint like our own. His wife fixed us Kool-aid, then Vern led us down a rather drab looking stairway to the basement. He opened the door to a treasure chamber, a cornucopia of delights, a wonderland.

The basement housed Vern’s collection, a lifetime’s accumulation. Every corner was crammed with books, movie stills, banners, lobby cards, covers, comics and ceramic action figures. The walls were a dazzle of color posters; the shelves loaded with model rockets, View Master sets and carvings of Martian lads and lasses astride thoats, the indigenous steed. Vern pulled out fat bound volumes that tipped open to gorgeously illustrated Sunday pages from the Tarzan, Prince Valiant or Flash Gordon strips. In a corner sat the spirit duplicator that produced Vern’s fanzine, its sides decorated with tiger skins.

Vern had worked for the circus when he was younger. He pulled out his scrapbook. We pored over snapshots of the acrobats, clowns, big cat tamers, sword swallowers, midgets and magicians he had traveled with and worked with under circus tents. Vern’s wife brought more Kool-aid. We sat for hours in that basement, utterly absorbed in wandering the wide world and the solar system.

We were spellbound, completely enchanted, wonderfully uplifted.

More and more in my life, I appreciate the blessing that Vern and other mentors like him were to me. From him and a few others like him, I learned early on that it was a good thing to live (at least part-time) in the wondrous world of imagination. Vern had kept the child inside himself alive well past middle age. By the time many people are 14 or 15, Ray Bradbury once wrote, they have been divested of their loves, their ancient and intuitive tastes, one by one, until they reach maturity and there is no fun left, no zest, no gusto, no flavor. Vern had kept his inner machinery of joy well oiled. The gears meshed and produced that special freak: the human with the wide-eyed kid inside.

Vern followed his bliss, as the late Joseph Campbell once admonished us all to do. Why follow bliss? Because, explained Campbell, there is where we most feel alive. There is where we most surely know the blood coursing through our veins seeking the far corners of our bodies, and our skin all a-tingle with the exuberant delight of being a living and breathing human being.

Jesus himself said that he came to give us life to the full, and a careful reading of the gospels shows he did not stint on the friendships, parties and feasts. The Inuit peoples of the Arctic have a word for it: nuannaarpoq. The word describes those people who take extravagant pleasure in being alive, whose eyes are crinkled with laugh wrinkles, full of awe and wonder at being here now. The Inuit cultivate this quality above all others and delight when they find it in those they encounter.

As we left Vern that day, his wife winked at us, saying: “Yeh, Vern’s always down in that basement puttering around. He’s in love.”

We don’t have to venture Mars-ward for marvels, wonders, adventures, things to putter over. Here on Earth in spring and fall, tiny migrant warblers cross trackless seas navigating by the stars alone, while below great leviathans sing and frolic under the waves. Ordinary people every day do mad, brave things and raise their kids as well. Fresh peaches and pears in the summer are the finest nectar and ambrosia. The world has teeth and often uses them on us. Yet our one moon gleams down with a wan and pearly light on marvelous ferny forests, hoodoo-haunted deserts and city sidewalks burnished by passing feet. Walk along a street full of ethnic restaurants and just take a sniff. Our world is full of enticing aromas, flavors, homemade beer and fresh-baked bread. It offers daunting challenges, tales, adventures, mysteries.

Fall in love today!

Rich Heffern is author of Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World (Forest of Peace Publishing).

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999