The story of how I ended up in California could start any number of places, but the point of no return would have to be The Sunshine Factory.
Growing up, I was a good kid, I think—a really good kid who followed the rules with an earnestness bordering on desperation. I got up on my own and got dressed, I made my own breakfast, I walked straight to school, I was a reasonable student, I came directly home from school and quietly watched TV until it was time for bed. I had no interest in sports or in running around breaking things, like so many other boys in my neighborhood. I took very good care of what few toys I had. I did not want to hurt bugs.
At maybe ten years old, I one time tried to walk out of a store with a purple gum ball, bulging stupidly out from the side of my white, tight gym shorts. I got called out seconds later by the aunt who was with me. “That’s not like you!” she said, and yeah, she was right. I could not explain why my hand had reached out for that gum ball, and as much as anything bothers a ten-year-old, it bothered me. I still feel a little guilty about it today.
I never again tried my hand at shoplifting, though as I stepped through from twelve to thirteen years old, other little rebellions began to streak out through my character, deep vibrations which could not be denied.
In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, I filmed a season of a locally produced children’s television show called “The Sunshine Factory.” I’m extremely glad to report that as far as I know it was only minimally broadcast, though some later seasons saw syndication. They even bundled up a few shows for the home-video market, some of which later showed up on YouTube where you can see for yourself how awful it was.
The show, in brief: an over-genial couple — imagine Ned and Maude Flanders from The Simpsons, nearly ten years early — ran a hardware store that served as the gateway to a brightly lit and wonderful world, a supernatural factory from which joy and sunshine was generated and sent out into the world. Ten or so implausibly cheery pre-teens hung out down there with the Flanders-like couple and the obligatory puppets, dressed uniformly in blue pants and red shirts. Each episode explored different emotional and social issues through little skits and dramas and songs.
I know it sounds dumb. I knew it was awful at the time—and when a seventh-grader, even a super-precocious one, thinks your show is poorly written, then maybe you have a problem. In my defense, there were mitigating factors as to why I was involved. For example, it paid decent money, especially on the scale of a twelve-year-old. And as a kid who for years had been saddled with a cringe-inducing speech impediment, except when singing or when reciting phrases or lines I’d previously memorized, those brief moments of praise for doing what seemed to come naturally to everyone else — speaking clearly — were delicious. If nothing else, it forced me to work very hard on my memory. As long as I had my lines down, I was as fluid as anyone ever was. But reality was always hovering over me, and I knew it: One step off the line, and it was crash-and-burn. The mockery of other children had pushed me past the point of tears too many times. As long as I knew my lines, everything could be okay.
The show was produced by the Southern Baptist Radio & TV Commission out of their Fort Worth offices. This was in the early 1980s, when evangelical Christianity was swelling forward into the new media world. The larger churches were acquiring satellite uplinks, and cable television was sweeping the nation—you were no longer stuck with three major network channels alongside a few local stations showing reruns. You could have tens of channels showing a wide range of crappy content.
I remember when cable arrived at a friend’s house. We watched for hours as the most amazing images flashed past. His father had attempted suicide, and was expected to spend the rest of his life being cared for in a hospital. His mother seemed to enjoy the narcotic of cable television. We disappeared into the screen, too, when we could. The Southern Baptists had seen kids do this as well and they wanted a foot in that door. So they funded the production of a small line-up of shows, including children’s programming.
Working on the show, we didn’t spend all our time filming and rehearsing. We spent a lot of time, most of our time, sitting around waiting to film. We were allowed to talk with one another, though we couldn’t get too loud given that we were basically crashing out in the air-conditioned, stubbily carpeted lobby of their home office. Myself, I mostly read comics. Then in the quiet times, when the fewest eyes seemed to be upon us, I explored.
Most hallways fed into open and well-populated shared office areas, so there weren’t a lot of options to pursue or much room to claim that you’d gotten lost once you were caught opening doors and sticking your head into closets. Tucked into the pages of a comic book was a sheet of graph paper on which I’d begun to draw a map of the place, like I’d seen the kids at summer camp do while playing a new game they called Dungeons & Dragons. After pacing out the lengths and widths of the central areas I drew in all the doors and windows on the map, though that was all the detail I got. It didn’t look quite like an adventurer’s dungeon but it didn’t feel right to embroider a real place by drawing in imaginary creatures. The only real monster I faced was boredom.
That’s how I discovered another medium into which the Southern Baptists hoped to expand. Poking my head into one office area while one of its double doors were open, I found a computer. No one seemed to be using it, so naturally, I thought, they should totally let me at it. The machine was definitely on, fan whirring, though its monitor was off. Since it was situated in a room where a bunch of people were always busily working, which ruled out a stealthy approach, I did what I thought was the smart thing. I walked straight in and asked a grown-up for permission.
Oh, no, no, no, he explained. It was the show’s Ned Flanders, with whom I felt I had the best relationship. He was a super nice guy. Oh, he thought it was neat when I told him I wanted to buy a computer someday—what big ideas—and he seemed surprised to hear that I had even taken some classes on programming the summer before, but no, I still couldn’t use theirs, because even though the computer looked like it was asleep, it was actually doing something important.
It was running what he called a bulletin-board system.
You see, they had attached a modem, which is a box that lets you hook a computer up to a phone line. Once connected, the computer could run a program that let it recognize and pick up calls, which then allowed the remote computer calling in to read files stored on the computer in the office, like notes left by other callers or text files sorted by title or subject. Some bulletin board systems even had little games you could play online, against a computer or with other people. Can you believe that?
Theirs didn’t have any games, though. Theirs was a private system for coordinating across different offices and other important things. But if I was interested, when I saved up all my pennies and got a computer and a modem — with what I felt was an unexpectedly mean spirit, he laughed at the likelihood of this actually happening — then in the back pages of our local computer-interest magazine was a list of as many as fifteen or so public bulletin-board systems. I could try calling some of them, maybe.
Okay, I thought, I’m interested. I tried to respond, hoping to change his mind or at least to extend the conversation, but I couldn’t. It was my speech impediment, lovely creature that it remains today. I hadn’t said anything for so long that getting that motor running again was quite a lot of work—worse, I didn’t have any lines ready at hand to get me started. I felt my face flushing as I nodded, looking down while something quite the opposite of sunshine and joy began growing in the factory of my heart. Turning away, I caught only a quick glimpse of a phone number, taped to one side of the bulky computer monitor. But my memory was good.
I went back to the other kids, opened my comic book, and on my secret map I drew a dot in the office where their computer sat. “Treasure,” I wrote beside it, also noting the phone number.