I was six, maybe, when my teenaged cousin Dave showed me two magic tricks: A crying quarter, and fixing a broken matchstick with magic.
I was hooked. Later in the day I wheedled the secrets out of him, and went in search of more secrets of magic.
I was in the Cub Scouts, so was a Boy’s Life subscriber. This was great, since my parents paid for the subscription and didn’t take it out of my weekly twenty five cent allowance. In fact, they never made me buy my own books. If I remember correctly, and I probably don’t because that was a really long time ago, a quarter would buy two comic books or five candy bars.
I wasn’t buying comic books. After Superman and Batman taught me to read, I left them behind after first grade. I liked reading. So I bought magic. And candy bars.
I read every word of everything I saw with words on it; that’s probably some sort of disorder, I don’t know. Anyway, I read every word of those magazines, including the classified ads in the back.
And there I found the magic. Catalogs of magic tricks, all for free. “Just tear this page out and print your name and address and mail it to us for your free catalog!”
There weren’t many at all, but more than one. I sent for them all. Probably cost half a week’s allowance for the stamps, which were a lot cheaper then.
A few tricks in the catalogs were under a dollar, but not many. I collected all the magic I could afford at a quarter a week, read instructions, and practiced.
I got pretty good—good enough for the younger neighborhood kids, anyway. I held magic shows every week, charging a penny a ticket. Remember, back then you could get a gumball for a penny and a candy bar was a nickle. A McDonald’s hamburger was fifteen cents.
I usually earned more money from my Saturday magic shows than my allowance. I plowed it all back into more magic.
And I read. I read four biographies of Eric Weiss, who was more famously known as Harry Houdini. I still have a paperback titled Classic Secrets of Magic, not about Houdini, all these years later.
Then there was seventh grade. I was always sort of famous in school for the nerdy stuff I dreamed up and brought in, like my Dufus Detector in the sixth grade.
I think I really pissed my grade school teachers off.
At any rate, at the beginning of the seventh grade a kid in phys ed tried to bully me, while I tried to ignore the moron. Now, I was never either large or heavy. This kid was at least three inches taller than me, and more than fifty pounds heavier. I was fast, though. I can’t run fast because how my legs are, but I could catch a fly in midair back then.
Now I can only catch elderly flies.
But one day in the locker room, the would-be bully slapped me.
That was a huge mistake. I flew into a blind rage and punched him square in the nose three times as hard as I could before he realized I’d even moved. He screamed like a girl, whirled around doubled over with his face in both hands. I jumped on top of him and kept pummeling until a gym teacher pulled me off the crying, bleeding boy.
I got a swat for that. A very light swat with the only pain being the pain of having the incident on my school record.
The other kid got eighteen swats; you could hear them through the door. The other kids probably thought it was magic that someone my size could beat and bloody someone his size. Nobody tried to bully me after that!
When the talent contest came along a month later I showed them some real magic.
Each act was to last no more than fifteen minutes. When my fifteen minutes were up, the audience screamed for more, and faculty brought me back out for an encore.
Several more times. My “fifteen minutes” was forty five minutes or more long.
The next day a teacher approached me, saying a lot of kids had asked that a magic club be founded; I’d made magic cool. I found out how cool in the first meeting, where there must have been a hundred kids packed into a large classroom, mostly boys.
I wonder why so few girls and women are drawn to becoming magicians? Is it because male magicians are known as wizards and female magicians are known as witches?
I showed them how to do three or four simple tricks, and said that everyone was to practice them and bring a new trick to share at the next meeting.
When the next meeting came, nobody had any tricks, nor had they practiced the ones I’d taught them. I resigned my teaching position right then and there.
My David Copperfield-styled magic evolved into Jimmy Page and Leonardo DaVinci magic; I learned ukulele and guitar, and started drawing, painting, and hacking electronic hardware.
Back then, “hacking” had to do with taking a machine and changing it so it would do something it was never designed to do, like taking a broken ten dollar transistor radio and a buck’s worth of parts to make a guitar fuzzbox like the ones selling in music stores for hundreds of dollars. Now, that’s magic! I’m reminded of Arthur C Clarke’s “third law”: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Decades later, my then-four year old great nephew asked my sister how computers work. She just smiled, shrugged, and said “it’s magic.”
Clarke was right. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indeed indistinguishable from magic.
I know how computers work. I know how magic tricks work. I can usually figure out how one is done. But then I was in the air force, stationed in Thailand.
Not one of you will believe what I have to say next, and I can't blame you. The only “rational”, western explanation would be the cigar I was smoking.
The pot over there came wrapped around bamboo sticks, maybe eight or ten inches long, and tied up with hemp thread. It was four dollars for twenty sticks, factory sealed in plastic. Each stick was perhaps a quarter ounce or nearly so. This was incredibly potent stuff; in fact, one of the GI’s pastimes was getting a new guy who thought he was a super doper, and seeing how many bong hits it took to make him pass out. Most passed out on the second hit. Few made it as far as four without amphetamines. Er, there were some super amphetamines there, too.
Now, you could carefully take the hemp thread off, and roll it up in the leaf of a certain species of banana plant, and when you were ready to smoke it, pull out the bamboo stick. It made a wonderfully tasting smoke. It would also fuck you up.
One morning, after I had visited some Thai friends in a tiny village in the middle of a jungle, I stood by the dirt road (all the roads outside Bangkok, as far as I know, were dirt then) waiting for the bhat bus to come by, smoking my cigar. This far out it could have been a several hour wait, so I set myself for some patient waiting (and full of speed). I'd look down the road one way, then the other. And back. And look at the clouds. And into the greenery of the jungle, perhaps twenty or thirty yards on either side of the road.
I should explain what a bhat bus was: a Japanese pickup truck with benches in the bed and a canopy over it.
I looked right, behind, left, right again, and a fat priest in his fluorescent orange robe was standing next to me. “Hello, er, sawat dee,” I said, and politely did the little bow they do there. He just smiled bigger than before, and bowed back. I thought I heard a bhat bus so I looked—yes, there was one in the distance. I started to say “yep, there's one”—but as I turned to speak to him, he wasn't there any more. He had been standing next to me for fifteen minutes, and now that there was a bhat bus coming he was gone.
The driver, who spoke English, motioned me into the passenger seat of the bus, and I got in. I told him wait a minute, I thought there was a priest that wanted a ride, too, and described him. His eyes got wide. “You've been blessed! He's special. Very few have ever met him.”
Hmmpft. OOOkayy... right... Of course, I didn't say that out loud. I did wonder how a guy wearing a bright orange robe could have snuck up on me surrounded by green, and snuck away in the blink of an eye.
So he's driving, and I'm looking out the window, and I look toward the driver, and there sits the priest between us! The driver saw him at the same time, and almost wrecked the pickup. He slid to a stop and made me get in the back.
I started researching the Tarot, astrology, witchcraft, Buddhism, and every other religion, cult, and whatever I could get information about after that.
I even read the self described “Beast of the Revelation” Aleister Crowley’s thousand page “autiohagography”. That was one incredibly weird and evil book full of hedonism. Crowley’s law was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.” He called it “The Law of Thelema”; I’ve forgotten who or what Thelema was. It’s a disturbing book.
But the fat Buddhist guy in the orange robes really freaked me out.
I finally came to the conclusion that hey, that guy made Copperfield look like an amateur. I wonder what the trick was?