by Richard Sala
When I was twelve, our family moved from a bustling Midwestern city to a relatively small town in the Southwest. It’s never much fun to move away from friends and neighbors you’ve known your whole life in the first place -- but to make matters worse, we moved in the middle of a school year. So not only was I the “new kid”, but I was plopped right down in the middle of classes that had already been in progress for months.
I stood out with my pale complexion in a sea of tanned faces. And it wasn’t as if I’d merely moved to a nearby town where things were changed but still recognizable. This was a completely different environment and culture.
It had been November when we left our old town, but in our new town it was still summer. Instead of 100-year-old house we’d lived in, filled with nooks and crannies and all kinds of strange and antique details, our new house was a year old with no personality whatsoever (yes, places can have personalities - but they take time to develop, just like people!). But I’m not saying one place was better than the other. They were just – different. Instead of Oak trees there were Saguaro cacti. Instead of squirrels, there were lizards. Instead of suits and ties, the teachers wore short-sleeved shirts, bolo ties and cowboy boots. Instead of nearby museums cluttered with dinosaur skeletons and mummies, there were modern galleries with paintings of grizzled, horse-ridin’ cowpokes or Indian squaws, usually with a little papoose on their shoulder. Instead of nights filled with the sounds of whooshing buses, snippets of music and distant train whistles, the nights were filled with – silence.
Ah, the nights. The sky was so big. And with no high buildings or the bright lights of bustling night time activity to obscure the view, you could see so many stars – millions and millions – in a sky so huge you felt as if you might suddenly fall upwards into it… Even before we’d moved, I loved to read and get lost in my imagination. Now, instead of watching TV after dinner, I’d go outside, into the quiet, peaceful dark of our street and go for walks around the neighborhood. You could see lights on in the windows or the glow of TVs in the dark. Sometimes the warm desert winds would stir the bushes. Or headlights from a lone car would create giant moving shadows across the fences that enclosed every house on our block. Occasionally something might fly by above my head, black against the night sky. Was it a bat? Or some sort of nocturnal night bird? It was all very mysterious. And that’s what I loved. That’s when I fell in love with mystery and with imagination.
I’d imagine all kinds of things – usually based on whatever books or comics I had been reading or movies I’d seen. Maybe those glows were not TV screens – maybe a mad scientist lived there and was conducting secret experiments. Or maybe it was an alien, disguised as a human, contacting his home planet by interplanetary video-phone. And maybe that house at the end of the street with the one lighted window – perhaps there was a meeting of a secret society, a masked gang gathered around ancient maps, plotting ghastly deeds. I’d imagine dark avengers or cat burglars creeping up the sides of the houses, sprinting across the rooftops…
Then, eventually, I’d realize I had better get home – often to face the “don’t ever wander off without telling anybody where you’re going!” lecture. Which is, of course, good advice, but the pull of the night was irresistible and a much-needed cure for the confusions and humiliations of the daytime where I was just that pale new kid. Those night walks ended eventually. I made friends and became less of a loner. I was no longer “new”, but the memories of having once been “new” never really leave you.
Now, as a writer, looking back, I realize how important those days were – and especially those nights. I love writing mysteries and thrillers, ghost stories and horror stories – stories about the night and mad scientists and aliens and dark avengers and cat burglars and even “new kids.” In a way, all the stories I’ve ever written, including CAT BURGLAR BLACK – and all the drawings I’ve ever done – are an attempt to recapture the magical way I felt, just letting my mind wander and my imagination go nuts as I strolled along in the dark.