A Butterfly Flaps Its Wings & I Find a Book

It’s been a very busy week. I’m currently in the air, headed to the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop, I tried to cram the day job into a three day week, and I received my first tuition bill for the grad school adventure.

So, yeah, just a little crazy. That level of stress and distraction led me to forget my son’s lunchbox on the counter. And that threw off my carefully scheduled day because I had to get it to him before lunch or risk being a cautionary tale for forgetful dads everywhere. (He selfishly forced his son eat school snacks and water instead of going out of his way to bring the nutritious lunch his wife made. Shun him. Shun. Him.)

Since I had to be out of the house at lunch time anyway (I work from home), I decided to treat myself to a sandwich. It so happens that the sandwich shop is next door to a used bookstore. How could any bibliophile resist the siren call of aged parchment and dust mites? How?

I perused the shelves for craft books to support that grad school thing (no luck), and then took a turn through the kid’s section. That’s where I saw it, and a long overdue reunion happened, right there in the stacks behind self-help and adjacent to biography. Cue the chorus of angels.

I moved to Cape Cod at the beginning of third grade. The transition was rough, but not horrible. Nobody enjoys being the new kid, and I missed my old friends and my old school. But this new school had one incredibly cool thing my old school didn’t – hallways lined with books that anyone could borrow. A bonus library of sorts. Right there in the hall. I faked more than a few trips to the bathroom in pursuit of those stories. Even then I loved reading, seeking refuge and escape in stories of great adventures. And there was this one book…

Yes, there was this one book about a kid with a pet dolphin who lived with his scientist parents in an undersea lab. He spent his days swimming free in the warm Caribbean waters accompanied, and kept safe, by his dolphin buddy. A fierce, intelligent pet without peer. As I write this, I realize the pet dolphin may have been a big part of why I escaped into this particular story. My pet, a dog named Max, didn’t adjust well to our move. He unlearned his house training and got mean (he bit me twice). No longer boy’s best friend, Max was shipped off to the local animal shelter, leaving me just a little bit more alone.

Now here’s the thing. I’ve remembered everything about that book for decades, except, of course, the title and the author. But I recognized the cover when I saw it, and may have let out a little, audible gasp. I reached for it, feeling transported to a hallway in a small school a couple of decades in the past. Seeing in my mind’s eye, the hands of a lonely boy reaching with me. My past, my present, interwoven in a momentary fold of time.

Have you ever experienced that feeling? Long form déjà vu. A glitch in the matrix. A sense memory freed from the subconscious. The lingering, feathery touch of the eternal now. One with the universe.

Books can do that.

Secret Under the Sea, by Gordon R. Dickson.
Reunited at last!

The book? It’s not a classic. You’ve probably never heard of it, although it spawned two sequels (thank you, Internet). It’s a simple “sci-fi boys adventure” book in a style popular at the time of its writing. But the author! The author is a notable science fiction writer, who’s novels and collections of short stories I devoured throughout middle school and into college. That was the greatest surprise to me. This formative book, authorship long forgot, was penned by someone that was at one time a favorite. Were my tastes formed by this book, or already in place at the age of seven?

The book is Secret under the Sea by Gordon R. Dickson. Never heard of it, right?

But maybe you’ve heard of Mr. Dickson. He authored a pair of notable series, The Childe Cycle, and Dragon Knight.

In a mad-dash of a week, a moment of serendipity brought me great joy, reconnecting me with a favorite of childhood. A missing piece of my personal literary history revealed brought clarity to a host of reading choices made since.

All because I forgot my son’s lunchbox. A butterfly flaps its wings.

Sometimes it’s the little things.


  1. Lynda Shoup says:

    A beautiful post, Jim. As I read it I realized that I had somewhat the same kind of feeling during Month of Poetry last year. Not identical, to be sure, but I felt a reconnecting with a part of myself.

    Glad you found that book and with it, a piece of yourself.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks Lynda. This one was so sensitive and introspective I kind of feel the need to write something about gaseous bodily functions to balance my karma. 😉

  2. Adam Rex talked about that very thing at his keynote at the Rocky Mtn SCBWI conference – being sent to a time warp back to childhood upon seeing a beloved book on a shelf.

    THAT is the magic of middle grade books in particular!

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