When Newsletters Go Bad

(or “How I almost blew up Troop 68”)

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve loved how a good story can alter my consciousness. I was 12 years old when I realized that stories I authored could also alter the small world around me – though not necessarily in good way.s

It happened in Boy Scouts, when wrote a newsletter about the misadventures of Troop 68. My troopmates and I spent a lot of weekends camping in the woods of northern Ohio – a welcome escape from the grit of our Cleveland lives. I was a social outcast, so the chance to escape school and run free away from home was irresistible. The things I leaned amazed me, and simply demanded to be recorded – for example: the news that picnic tables were flammable, the discovery that whiskey burns your throat, and the wonder that our scoutmasters could drink so much of it, so long into the night.

Ours was not a troop of Eagle scouts. Our scoutmaster, Mr. Glassberg, was an Appalachian transplant with only a few last-ditch teeth left in his ever-smiling mouth. His chief talent was an ability to fart on command. We loved him for that, and for his utter lack of interest in supervising us once he and his hard-drinking brothers retreated to their tents with their bottles and cigarettes as soon as we set camp. Those were the days.

I called my newsletter “Glassberg’s Geese” – the name a loving tribute to our leader’s flatulent gifts (forgive me – I was 12). It was a two-page masterpiece, featuring a hand-drawn masthead, headlines written in magic marker and freehand sketches of a tent with a flock of geese. The highlight was the set of four or five stories I hammered out on my mom’s ancient Royal typewriter. No colorful detail was spared, nor were any names. My only goal was to make my friends laugh.

I managed to make a few copies at Horace Mann Junior High School and I gave them to my fellow scouts. And then something unusual happened. This juvenile artifact, this listing of misdeeds of my unpopular friends and me, became a weird hit. The concept of “going viral” did not yet exist, but this was as close to it as was then possible. (I can only thank my guardian angels that social media had not yet been invented, or I might never have seen eighth grade.)

Not long after I printed the newsletter, I watched in amazement during English class one day as a kid I wasn’t friends with handed a copy on to his buddy, stifling a snicker as he did. Copies were passed around the lunch room. People wanted more. But then, the inevitable happened: a teacher intercepted a copy.

I knew I was in for it when Mr. Sabala, the art teacher, asked me stay behind after class. He pulled a copy of Glassberg’s Geese from his pocket, unfolded it with solemn drama, and set it on the table before him. “What would this man say if he saw what you wrote here?” Mr. Sabala asked, pointing to one vivid description of one of Mr. Glassberg’s drinking buddies. “Are you proud of this? What, exactly, were you thinking?”

They were the type of questions adults ask that you dare not answer truthfully. I was thinking that my friends might like this, and boy, do they! Yet with no ready response, I could only stand in mute shame.

I was confused. Guilt consumed me, but I wasn’t sure what I was guilty of. I’d only written this ragged sheet for a bit of fun. It wasn’t until that moment that I even imagined the notion of seeing it through someone else’s eyes. Then, fear entered my bloodstream. I realized I could not control the hands that might pass these pages around, not just to Mr. Glassberg but also to my mother, and the mothers of my friends.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said, hanging my head as though I’d been caught kicking a dog. “I’m really sorry.”

“Listen, you have to be careful with something like this,” Mr. Sabala said. He was a young guy with sandy hair and a gentle face. It was years before I comprehended what a kind soul he truly was. He pointed to the page and said, “You’re a good writer and a good artist, Mario, but this could hurt somebody.”

To this day, I have no idea what Mr. Sabala did with that copy of Glassberg’s Geese. I only know that we never talked about it again, and no adult ever gave me hell about it. I also never published a second issue, or even dared think about such a thing for a long time. I understood that I’d had a brush with disaster.

Years before, as a young child, I once jammed a butter knife into a wall socket and learned in a jolting flash that innocuous plates on the side of a wall can disguise power beyond imagination. Electricity – ephemeral, invisible, and formless in nature – can either heat a house or burn it down. It’s all in how you deploy it. Much the same can be said of storytelling.