ESCAPING TO IMAGINARY WORLDS
by Dennis Greene
In 1952, when I was an undersized, under-aged, socially inept eight -year–old, my family relocated from a working class neighborhood in Queens, New York, to one of the most disadvantaged school districts in New Bedford, Massachusetts. For the next seven years I tried to find my place in this unwelcoming new world, and when the struggle got me down, I escaped to the amazing worlds created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, E.E.”Doc” Smith and all the other extraordinary science fiction and fantasy writers of the early and mid-twentieth century. Many of these books were out of print in the 1950s, but I searched the glass-floored stacks of the New Bedford Free Public Library to obtain transport to these imaginary worlds. These flights of fantasy turned a potentially lonely and unhappy period of my childhood into a time I look back on with fond nostalgia.
I recall a time in tenth grade when it seemed the arc of my adolescence was finally on the upswing. I had a bunch of new basketball playing friends, and I was one of the better players. We played every afternoon in Buttonwood Park or in the Dartmouth High gym. I had finally experienced a growth spurt, and my jump shot had improved to the point where I was confident I would be selected to play on the JV team. All the other guys striving for places told me I was a sure bet to make it. On the Friday when the team roster was posted, the whole bunch of us crowded in front of the bulletin board to see the list. I ran my eyes over the list several times quickly, then a few more times very slowly; then I just stared at it with a sick, empty feeling in my gut. I didn’t make the team. The names of several much weaker players were on the list, but no matter how long I stared, mine was not.
I was devastated. After staring at the list for an eternity, I fled for home without saying a word to anyone. I made myself a ham, Swiss cheese and tomato sandwich on seeded light rye with mayo and retreated to my room. There, I spent the weekend re-reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Princess of Mars and doing lots of sleeping. I emerged on Sunday evening, still pissed off and disappointed but ready to again face the world. That quick trip to Barsoom to be with John Carter, Tars Tarkas and the incomparable Deija Thoris helped me get through a tough few days.
Like many disappointments, failing to make the team turned out to be a good thing. After moping around the house for a week or two, my mom and dad had had enough. One way or another, they convinced me to fill my time doing other stuff while all my Dartmouth friends practiced basketball. I grudgingly took their advice, and during that tenth-grade basketball season, I tried out and got a role in a high school play, joined a co-ed bowling team at the Jewish Community Center, and there met a group of guys who invited me to play on their church league basketball team. We won the New England Championship, and I acquired a new group of wonderful friends, including several girls. If I had made the JV team, I would have missed all that.
The following year, I did make the JV team, and my senior year I was a starter on the worst varsity basketball team in Dartmouth High’s history. The coach was not impressed with the basketball ability of our collection of short, slow, honor society members, as we compiled a losing 6 and 9 record, but in later years, he referred to us as the “smartest” group he ever coached. So everything did turn out fine.
Fifty-seven years later, on Nov. 9, 2016, I woke up and tuned in to the election results to learn that Donald Trump was our President-elect. I stared at the television with the same blank stare I had used in 1959 to peruse that JV basketball roster, but again, the result did not change. Again, I made myself a ham, Swiss cheese and tomato sandwich on light rye with mayo and retreated to my bedroom. This time I re-read a collection of Poul Anderson’s Polytechnic League stories about the heroic intergalactic traders Nicholas van Rijn and David Fayaden. I emerged a few days later, ready to face the world we live in. I still believe that speculative literature can be a remedy for depression and despair if the right works are selected and the reader is able to escape to that other world and let his or her imagination embrace the epic scope and optimistic outlook of these heroic adventures. So if you are ever feeling down, just pick up a copy of Dune or Game of Thrones and go on an adventure.
Dennis Greene joined BOLLI a year ago and for the past two semesters has begun to acquire a liberal education. He spent his early years in and around New Bedford, Massachusetts as a reclusive bookworm, avid Boy Scout, high school basketball player and thespian. After graduating Dartmouth High School, Dennis obtained a vocational education studying engineering, business administration and law. He then spent over four decades as an engineer, lawyer, husband, father of two daughters, and pop culture devotee. He now lives in Wellesley where he is writing a coming of age memoir, trying to improve his golf game, attending courses at BOLLI and taking frequent naps.
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