In this story from June 1991, the science fiction author shares how an encounter with a sideshow performer convinced him to embrace the gifts God had given him: A passion and a talent for writing.
Posted in , Aug 21, 2019
The longer I live the more I see how God often touches our lives through other people. I’ll never forget that magical autumn afternoon when He used Mr. Electrico to touch mine. It happened when I was 12, in my hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, on Lake Michigan’s shore.
It was the kind of golden September day when farewell summer touched the land while the autumn wind promised winter. It was also the day when the Dill Brothers Combined Traveling Shows came to town.
To me the Dill Brothers Shows might well have come from Katmandu, the other side of the moon or the outer rings of Saturn. As soon as their gasoline generators coughed awake and the calliope’s chords drifted over the seared fields I dashed headlong toward this faded and patched canvas wonderland.
I ran so hard I tasted iron, and my heart exploded as I arrived at the sideshow where I stared openmouthed at Mr. Electrico. A towering hawk-nosed figure with a fiery stare that put out your eyes, he spoke in tones I felt proclaimed God’s truth. With a flourish of his black cape, he ensconced himself in a wondrous electric chair, and an assistant threw a switch and proclaimed, “Here go ten million volts of pure fire, ten million volts of electricity into the flesh of Mr. Electrico!”
As the current surged through his body, his white hair billowed into a bright halo, his body seemed to glow and incandescent fire danced at his fingertips. I watched mesmerized as he picked up a silver sword, leaned down and with it touched me on both shoulders, then the tip of my nose. The electricity surged through me, making my hair stand on end. He shouted, ”Live forever!”
I fell back stunned. His words brimmed my ears like a divine command. I did not know that the electricity used in such performances was of low amperage and harmless, but I did know that something incredible was happening to me.
The next day, even while attending an uncle’s funeral, I could not forget Mr. Electrico. As our car headed home for the family’s post-funeral wake, to my parent’s consternation I leaped out and raced down the hill to the carnival. I carried with me a ball-in-vase trick I had ordered through the mail from Johnson Smith & Co. as an excuse to see Mr. Electrico. I had to find out just how to “Live forever!” How did it fit with what I’d learned Sundays at my Baptist church? I sensed that we could live on with God after we died, but Mr. Electrico’s proclamation indicated something different.
I found him wandering thoughtfully among the tents. He seemed happy to see me and offered to introduce me to his fellow performers. Before we entered he slapped the side of the faded tent with his cane and cried, “Clean up your language!”
The sideshow folks “cleaned up their language” and he ushered me in and introduced me to the Skeleton Man, the Fat Woman, the Illustrated Man and the Bearded Lady. Then we walked out to the sandy shore of Lake Michigan, where we sat on a log. He talked his small philosophies and let me talk my big ones.
It was a long conversation that lasted until the lake horizon melted into dusk. What were my goals? What was the meaning of my life? As we talked, I discovered he had been a Presbyterian minister. As I was to learn, he was still ministering.
He spoke of how important it was for us to be true to what we had been given to do in life. And on that log I began to realize just what he meant by “Live forever!” He wasn’t referring to salvation. His emphasis was on the word live. He was saying that this life too was sacred and must be lived to the fullest. Each day, each hour was precious. Each of us must make the most of every moment to use the gifts God had given us.
As I listened to Mr. Electrico, I realized that a few years before I had almost discarded the gift God had given me. At age nine the call of distant planets had excited my imagination. I had carefully cut out Buck Rogers comic strips from our local newspaper. But when the kids in school learned about it they made fun of me. I tore them up in embarrassment. A month later I burst into tears and wondered why I was crying. Who had died? Me! For I had listened to those fools who couldn’t understand my gift or my need for the influence of Buck Rogers in shaping my future. I went back to collecting him. I was made whole again.
Something happened to me as Mr. Electrico and I talked through that warm autumn afternoon. His blazing sword had truly fired my imagination, to make me fully realize what my calling in life was.
Though I had done some writing, after my encounter with Mr. Electrico I began to write faithfully every day. I asked for and got a Simplex toy typewriter from my parents for Christmas. It took hours to compose a single paragraph on the machine, dialing letters on a rubber disc and pressing them one by one against the paper. But I wrote all of my first stories with the wondrous gift.
Since that one bright afternoon with Mr. Electrico I have never stopped writing. Thus I celebrate the gift God has given me. I believe each of us has such a talent to put to work to find ourselves and in the finding help others. Some ignore their talents, some let friends talk them out of their gifts as not being “practical.” Sadly, too many forgo their inherent genetic ability in the mindless pursuit of money.
I’ll never forget the taxi driver I once met in New York; he took great joy in celebrating his gift. He was a joy to ride with because he madly loved his cab. It must have been 30 years old but he kept it polished so that it blazed. When we reached our destination, he jumped out to lift the hood and proudly display its motor. It was all silver-chromed; he had burnished every part by hand. As the engine purred between us like a huge contented cat, I looked up at him to see a delighted, fulfilled man.
He knew how to live. Somewhere, long ago, he had met his Mr. Electrico!
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