Friday, July 27, 2007

Comic Book Friendships: These people are fact, not fiction


Have you ever seen or participated in an online message board?  I have.  I do.  A LOT.  (I don't want to say how much.) 

Jeph from Boston & "LikeAlways" in her New York kitchen during the 2007 NY Comic-Con

It's strange how it all started.  Back around 2003, I stumbled across a collection of early Superman comic book reprints, assembled in a handsome volume called "DC Archives".   As a kid, I owned literally THOUSANDS of comics, before--choke! forcing myself to walk away from them in the 1980s.  

Anyway, it looked like a nice book so I bought it for sentimental reasons, as a reminder of a hobby I once loved.

Of course, after I got it--I loved it and wanted more.  I began doing some online investigating, & soon amassed quite a collection of these "Archives".   (I currently own around 80 volumes.)

And then one night while looking for more information on them, I stumbled across an online message board (at the DC Comics website) devoted to--what else?  The discussion of these books.   And I discovered that there were hundreds of adult fans who shared the same love for these comics as I once did. 

(Of course, some a lot more than others--I soon realized I was a greenhorn on a website full of pros.)   I eventually became a member, and for several months joined in various discussions about the artists, classic stories, personal histories, and speculation about upcoming releases.   (You're right--it was about as nerdy as one can get.)

One of my favorite "incidents" there was the "Silver Age Superman Debate".  THIS was the book everyone wanted to see published, a collection of Superman stories from the late 50s/60s.   And the more it was discussed, the more one member named "Swatteam" laughed & ridiculed everyone, as he anxiously waited to see "which of you losers are going to tie a towel around your neck & jump off the roof when you learn DC isn't doing this book". 

(It eventually arrived of course, but not before weeks of anger, shock & outrage ensued on those boards at his gallows humor!  I took it all in good fun & laughed nonstop at the daily drama.)  I guess you had to be there.

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Other books from the DC Comics Archives collection

Sadly, it was around this time that my mom found out she had cancer.  And as my family's hopes for her survival began to lessen, these message boards became more and more a refuge of sorts for me, late at night when I was alone with nothing but my worries.... there was always someone to talk to.

But one can only talk about comics so much--and I soon "met" other members who shared similar interests in other things--science fiction, movies, etc.; and I began paying visits to other message boards.  (Eventually I never went back to the old DC site.)  So where did I wind up?  At a website pretty much devoted to Marvel Comics!  

(To this day, I’ve never bought a Marvel Comic book; when I was a kid, you were DC or Marvel—not both.) 


Rhett "Gormuu" Thomas, who created 'The Marvel Masterworks Boards'

And the next thing I know, I find myself involved in daily discussions of various topics-- sharing "adventures in the office", upcoming vacations or even upcoming marriages.  I became a fixture on that board, and it soon became a part of my daily life.  And the names I saw out there everyday--Visual Fiction, Gormuu, Interstate Shogun, Indefatigable Fjor--begin looking a lot less like strange names, & more like actual people.

It was also around this time that Mom died.  I suddenly had so much free time on my hands it seemed, and I felt lonelier than ever.  I began to spend a lot of time there, at first for the company, then for the camaraderie.  (Strangely enough, I didn't talk about my mom's passing with these other "posters" for nearly a year.  It was something I didn't need to dwell on.)   Was it a healthy way to spend my time?  I don't know.  But it helped me thru many a rough patch.



Rich (Indefatigable Fjor), center—who is this man & why do we share such a kindred spirit?! 


I think things really took off (for me personally) when I began posting about a friend & co-worker of mine, Karyn.  I wrote this post titled "You Can't take Kar-Kar to the Ghetto" that seemed to get a lot of positive attention.  And the next thing I know, I am suddenly sharing a lot of personal information (okay, too much) & enjoying all the feedback.  It was also around this time I started a discussion devoted to Star Trek, which really took off--I had no idea that so many other members even shared an interest in it. 

(And I think it helped that I couldn't shut up about it for months!  Eighteen months & thousands of Trek posts later, it's still going strong.) 


My friend & coworker, Karyn (aka "Kar-Kar" on the boards) whom I've known since 2001--has it really been that long?  

There's so many people I've gotten to know online, it'd be too difficult to talk about them all here.  People like John "Rhett" Thomas, a smart & friendly guy from Georgia who makes the whole thing possible.

He didn't just create a website devoted to 'Comic Collections', he created a real phenomenon.  On the Trek chat alone, I've gotten to know people like carabimero (David), a writer & filmmaker from Calif; JadFlores, a Filipino orchestra conductor from San Diego.  Queen of the Geeks (Robin), a gay Trekker from Minneapolis, JephYork (see first picture) from Boston, DavidTai from Virginia--Visual Fiction (Jon) from Chicago--SamyMerchi from Finland, and one of our more knowledgeable Trek fans--Aayjay, a thoughtful woman who lives in Texas.  It's been a fun ride.

The people in the first picture (Jeph & "Like"--that's not her real name, but I hesitate using it here) are two of the members I've talked with outside of the message boards--which doesn't happen all too often.  It's one thing to exchange thoughts on a topics board, or even email.  But with these two, we've shared some pretty lengthy phone chats--I know for a fact that if I was to run into either one of them on the street tomorrow, I'd feel completely at ease with both. 

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(Left to right:  JJJ, Martin, Eric, Alex "Bricky" Lear)

There are other members who I have a genuine fondness for:  guys like mcmaenza (Martin), someone close to my age & background.  Others like LK1966 (Larry), another guy with a VERY offbeat sense of humor & a very big heart.  JJJ, a lighthearted soul from Canada, Dave "Doc" Bromberg (a quiet but funny child psychologist who's been brave enough to share his recent separation with us).  There's also Alex ("Bricky"), a songwriter/musician from Maine and srca1941 (Eric), a young man from the South who delights in "tormenting" me with altered pictures of myself.  (It's all in good fun, of course.)

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(Ross aka “Larry”, Dave "Doc" Bromberg and "Aussie Stu" with their kids)

What also helps (IMHO) is actually "seeing" who you're talking to.  Back in March of this year, I pushed n' prodded for a "Members Gallery", which was even more successful than I'd expected.  We currently have around 50 members photos on there.  I realize that part of the attraction of such an online message board is the ability to have true anonymity; you have to respect the members who don't want their images online.  But personally, I think it's a lot more fun--and more "real"--when you've seen the person, so to speak. 

Besides, I've posted more darn pictures of myself than anyone else there!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

An Eighties Timeline: The Search for Spock & a life of my own



Recently, an old friend of mine (Brenda P, in case she’s reading this) contacted me to say she had seen my blog and enjoyed my look back on things, but wanted to know why there was nothing written about my life in the Eighties. 

Looking back, the 1980s were a very rough road for me; to this day, I feel fortunate that I was able to move on like I did.

In 1980, I was still a teenager--I'd graduated from high school the summer before, and had no idea what to do with my life.  (It would be another year before I enrolled in Waynesburg College.)  Plus I had recently moved back home after attempting to live on my own after graduating high school (with disastrous results), and my parents were anxious to know what my next plans were.      


My 19th birthday.  Skinny and holding a big chocolate cake, it doesn’t get much better than this!  But it wasn’t going to get any better for awhile, either…   

1980:  “Welcome to Murphy's Mart, your Friendly Discount Store" 

 During my senior year (and the summer following graduation) I worked at both 'The Olde Southern Pancake House' & Shop n' Save.  Now back home however, I had no job.  And then one morning, Mom said "Doug--did you see this ad in the paper?  They're building a Murphy's Mart in that field across from Bortz Chevrolet & are accepting applications." 

I went and applied, and was offered a job.  The store was months away from opening, we assembled racks and shelves and unloaded hundreds of boxes of merchandise while they literally poured concrete around us. 

In fact, it felt odd on 'Opening Day' to see the customers coming in—we’d been accustomed to having the store to ourselves for so long.


"Price check on Register 3!"

I worked there full-time (even while going to college) from the summer of 1980 to February 1986.  I started as a stockboy, and 'moved up' to the Garden Shop/Home Improvements area. 

But as anyone who's ever worked in retail knows, it was not easy work.  The schedule can be a rough one--I worked 3 days a week 9-5 and 2-3 days a week, 12-9:30.  Getting weekends off was out of the question, & there was no sitting—you were always on your feet.  Also, you were constantly being pulled in 3 directions:  you're needed for the registers up front, a woman in Paints needs customer assistance, a truck with 12 palettes of potting soil is at the rear gate.  And all of this for minimum wage.  

When I started there in '80, I made $2.25 an hour.  When I left in '86, I was earning $4.10.  It wasn't exactly a living wage.

But there were good memories too.  I quickly made friends with a few people my age, & one person in particular became my best pal, Brenda Ullom. 

We worked together for years, and shared a love for Stephen King novels.  She hosted weekly Saturday Night get-togethers at her house, to watch 'Solid Gold', 'Knight Rider' & 'Chiller Theater'; she always had snacks, and sometimes the night would include haircuts!  

1981:  Doug & Shawn are off to college—but not for long 

In 1981, my sister Shawn & I both started school.  I attended Waynesburg College & majored in Business and Mathematics, Shawn went to West Virginia University & majored in Education.  Both of us lived on our respective campuses, and both of us lasted a year. 

Shawn did well, but changed her mind about teaching & wanted to take a year off.  As for me, I was having a difficult time paying for things.  My school was 10 times the cost of WVU, and I knew I couldn't go to my parents for help; Dad was laid off, our oldest brother was away at law school, and there was still 3 kids at home. 

(Just for that one year, it would take me 11 years, off & on, to pay off my student loans.)

November 1, 1982:  85 South West Street


Grandma Barnhart's little house (several years after Shawn & I moved on, the new owners almost burned it to the ground)

In the fall of 1982, our mother's mother (Grandma Barnhart) had a stroke.  Our mom (in a bit of temporary insanity) wanted Shawn to go live with Grandma to help her out.  I asked to go along & the day after my birthday, November 1 1982, Shawn & I moved to Grandma's small house in town, on 85 South West.

Grandma didn't stay there long; luckily our parents realized she needed professional care, and she was moved to the Curry Home, a nursing home.  But Shawn & I remained living in that little house for nearly 4 years.

For a long time afterwards, it used to upset Shawn when I would talk about how much I missed those years there.  I don't blame her, WE WERE POOR.  Between my take home of $85.00 a week, & Shawn earning even less (she now worked in the Shoe Dept at Murphy’s & would eventually become a manager there) we could barely afford groceries, let alone heat.

But we've always been close, and we’d often go for long walks at night and look at nicer homes around Waynesburg Park, and I think we both wondered and worried if each of us would ever have a better life.

June 1, 1984:  The Search for Spock is released & all is right with the world

ST III The Search for SpockY’know, I’ve never really talked about my being a Trekkie on here, but suffice it to say I was and still am, and I sure was surprised (and relieved) when this sequel was released.  Spock is found—alive!  Captain Kirk loses his son and his starship Enterprise to get Spock back, but that’s beside the point… right?

I was so ecstatic I dragged my poor sister Shawn along to see it.   (I’m still dealing with the guilt from that too.) 

I bet Kirk has long since moved on from his.

January 28, 1986:  One disaster after another...

The Space Shuttle Challenger, shortly before the explosion

I’ll never forget this day, for purely selfish reasons.  I had been in a pretty depressed state for months, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.  I knew Shawn & I couldn't go on living together, broke & living in that little house.

So the afternoon of the day we all watched this tragedy on the news, I called my older brother Duke and told him I’d take him up on his offer; he was living in Washington DC at the time, working in the legal dept for the Federal Housing Administration.  (Some months before, he told me I should come down there and look for work, as there was plenty of good paying jobs.)  I would soon learn there wasn't-- at least not for someone with my lack of education or experience.

I went to DC the first time on a week's vacation; couldn't find anything.  I returned to Murphy's Mart for 2 days, thought "I didn't try hard enough" and with both great fear and relief, quit & went back to DC.

In retrospect, I can't believe I left Shawn on her own, but I knew she would be moving back home to our parents soon.  (I didn't have this option as the boys were expected to be on their own by a certain age.)  

June 1986:  The FBI & a good friend help me from becoming homeless

 When I returned home (jobless & worse off than ever) that second time, my parents were livid.  Mom said:

  • Your sister Donda is getting married in August.
  • Shawn is moving back home.
  • Be out of that house by June 1.

I was 24 years old, and now homeless.

I searched for work frantically, but in a small town (with no car or drivers license), there was nothing to be found.  On a whim, I applied for unemployment and was approved.  I couldn't believe it.  (I even asked them to confirm, in case they had made a mistake & I'd have to pay it back.)  It turned out that a civil service test I'd taken for a clerical job with the FBI had been approved & then canceled due to Federal budget cuts; they saw this as my reason for leaving DC.  So at least I had a little money coming in, but still no place to go.

Fortunately, 2 weeks before the June 1 deadline to exit the premises, my best friend Dan & his wife Jean offered to take me in--for $50.00 a month for their room in the attic and if I helped get their son off to school in the morning.  (Jarret was in the first grade.) 

August 1986 - Donda's wedding day.  I was happy for her, but was too caught up in my own sorry situation;  my parents and I were barely speaking.  

It was a strange existence; Dan & Jean lived in a fairly rural setting, and weren't home much.  We had no phone (and this was before cellphones).  The nearest place was a nursing home--the Curry Home, where ironically, Grandma Barnhart now resided. 

I spent a lot of time alone & deeply depressed.  One time my mom stopped by and angrily said "Why aren't you visiting your grandmother?  The Curry Home is only half a mile up the road!" I yelled back "Why doesn't anyone visit me?  Shawn's the only one that comes out here!" 

But looking back now, I can see the stress my mom was under too.  And no one will ever believe me, but even with the troubled history I shared with my mom's mother, I swear I DID visit her, on several occasions.   Anyway--it was a lonely and bleak time.  I felt alienated from everyone.   

1987:  Getting back on my feet--well, sort of

It actually began when I was offered a job waiting tables at the Country Squire Restaurant.  (It was little money & part-time work; but it was something.)  Soon after, my former boss at Murphy's Mart (now Ames) offered to let me return.  My Aunt Terry also offered to let me live with her (and ironically, she was renting the very house that Shawn and I had once shared for 4 years!)  And soon after that, I met Fay, a girl who also worked at the store; we became good friends and then some, & moved in together. 

But I was right back in the same boat I'd been in before the Challenger Disaster; in a minimum-wage job and going nowhere, fast.  I really don't know where I'd be today if it wasn't for my dentist, Dr.Jane Weinzierl, & Bill Lewis, a thoughtful OVR counselor.

One day, desperate for some dental work (but no insurance), I managed to work out a payment plan with Dr. Jane.  And on the first visit, she came right out & said "Doug why aren't you doing something with your life?"  I said I was desperate to, but had no money and didn’t know how or where to start.

 She said "What about OVR?  They helped me...and with your epilepsy, they could help you."  Really?  I'd never heard of it—and I hardly considered my seizure disorder as being a disability.  She gave me the phone number for the Washington Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, what did I have to lose?   I met with someone right away (Bill Lewis) who brought me to Pittsburgh for a battery of diagnostic & aptitude tests.

They said I had a strong aptitude for computer science, and could assist me in going back to school.  I was informed of a special accelerated degree program sponsored by CCAC, Pitt & various Pittsburgh corporations.  It was an 18-24 month 'crash program' of intense study--8 hours a day, 5 days a week.  And you had to maintain a 90% grade or you were out.

I got into the program, which started July 16, 1987.  I discussed it with Fay, who at this point wanted to move home (in southern Ohio) and also return to school.  My parents didn't think it was a good idea.  Mom said "Doug you're just chasing more dreams--what are you looking for?"  I said a real job, where I can afford to have a home and a real life.  She answered "You and 10 million other people."  

So after Fay & I parted company, I sold my tv & the boombox my mom & sister had given me for my birthday, and with $230.00 to my name I said my goodbyes and moved to Pittsburgh. 

Arriving in Pittsburgh, I felt like Dorothy in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ seeing the Emerald City for the first time

On the first day, with roughly 25 students in the computer lab, a trio of teachers introduced themselves and informed us that before the end of the program, over half would drop out or be asked to leave. 

But for those who 'made it', we'd have a degree, an internship to put on our resumes & (hopefully) little trouble securing a position.  They were right--only 6 made it through the entire program and I was one of them.

I never worked as hard in my life as I did with this school.  I didn't have a choice, I had nowhere else to go.

After graduation in April 1989, I was offered a summer teaching internship at CCAC-North Allegheny, and when I excitedly told my parents, my dad asked "How much are they paying you?"  When I told him, he said "you could've stuck around here and made more than that."  I didn’t care—I had an education now, and I LOVED that instructor job.  During the tail-end of it in August, I was offered an unpaid internship with a small company, Omega Systems. 

(And when my dad asked how much THAT paid, and I said zero, I could feel his eyes rolling over the phone.) 

It was a tough couple of months--I worked as a programmer during the day and a couple of part-time jobs (K-Mart & Eat n' Park) at night.  I even sold my plasma!

March 1989; Dad & me, in the shabby digs I shared with my roommate Bill

On October 30, 1989 (the day before my birthday) Omega Systems informed me my internship was over and they wanted to offer me a position.  They said they’d pay me 20K to start, but if I kept doing such good work I could expect a nice bonus at the end of the year.  I calmly responded that it sounded fair, but inside I was jumping for joy.

They gave me a work contract and a 'starting bonus' check of $3400 for the work I’d done during my internship (which allowed me to pay back a personal loan, buy dress clothes, a couple suits, furniture and rent for my own apartment).  I promptly made copies of both to send to my parents.

My mom called me two days later.  "My God Doug—you really did it, honey!  Your dad is in shock, we've never been prouder!”  

And for the first time that decade, I felt like I was finally somebody again.