There was never a time in my life when I was not in love with books and reading. It started with children's books. I obsessively collected Golden Books, and I moved on from there. I read a lot of comics in the early days. I enjoyed Harvey Comics quite a bit in my youngest reading years: Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Little Lotta, Wendy the Good Little Witch, and of course my favorite, Hot Stuff the Little Devil.

From there I went on to Archie comics. I wasn't quite ready for real books yet. I loved the world of Archie. It was a clean, colorful, funny place where things made sense. I used to pretend that I was friends with the whole gang. All-American Good Guy Archie Andrews. Narcissistic Reggie Mantle. Jughead, who may have been gay, which didn't occur to me at the time. Vampish Veronica and girl-next-door Betty. Loveable lunk Big Moose. Dilton Doily, boy genius.

I enjoyed the entire line of Archie comics, but my favorite was Archie at Riverdale High. These stories centered upon the high school Archie and his pals attended. More serious issues were touched upon in this comic than the other Archie imprints.

There was one that stuck with me. Archie and the gang were getting ready to graduate. They prepared and there was a ceremony. Archie sang a song about his loyalty to Riverdale High, and how it would never waver.

I remember being devastated. Archie graduate and enter the dreaded real world? It sounded terrible. I saw the adults in my orbit, and few, if any, seemed happy. They appeared to be constantly faced with insurmountable problems. Troubles that mount up over the years and break down a person's spirit. They all seemed to have lost their sense of magic and imagination.

At the end of the strip where Archie and his friends graduate, readers were told that every year Archie begins twelfth grade, and at the end of each year he returns to the same grade and does it all over again. That was enormously comforting to me. How I wished, longed, for such a fate to be mine.

Here's something I have never written about. I didn't graduate from high school. I wanted to. I wanted to go to college. I was scared. Scared of everything.

My father and my mother hated each other, and the animosity embittered their lives. The easiest target to unload their frustration on was, of course, me. I was always the weird kid. The shy one. The odd boy who didn't like sports. I liked monsters and rocket ships, and of course rock and roll. I was more comfortable around books than other people.

I was constantly told I was stupid. That I was ugly. That I was a rotten kid who wouldn't amount to anything. You get told that often enough, you believe it. You get these things long enough, you rebel.

I desperately needed help, but I didn't know how to get it. Mom and Dad were no option. At one point I met with a guidance counselor. Things were different in those days. He spoke to me harshly and told me that I better start taking my schoolwork seriously. Again, I was scared, and deep inside I didn't believe I deserved help.

So I ran away. I left home at age sixteen, and went to work dumping oysters. Just about the lowest job imaginable. With all the potential I had, I was working in nasty conditions, for starvation wages.

I'm not asking for sympathy. Plenty of people had it worse than me. Looking back, some of the blame was mine. Or can you really blame any of this kind of shit on a defenseless kid?

I hung on. I clawed my way up to a living wage. I had no help whatsoever. No parents to fall back on, no handouts. What I had was brains and determination. If I got an opportunity, I gave it my all.

Years have passed by. Along the way people would sometimes ask if I got through high school. It was a source of great shame for me.

You know what? I'm not ashamed any more. Yes, I could have done better. I could have gotten a GED. I almost did a few times, but something always got in the way. Maybe a misguided kind of stubborn pride.

Here I am, many years later. I work for the Navy. The job I do benefits the environment and helps others in the world. The term, defense, covers a lot of ground. I make a good salary. In fact, I am pretty much at the top of the blue collar game.

Yet I often feel like a stranger in a strange land. I don't really fit in the industrial world. I'm mostly aloof. I go to my car and read at lunch instead of socializing with the others. At the same time I feel out of sync with people who have college degrees.

I have regrets. I sometimes wish things had gone differently. My soul aches when I think about missing the college experience, and all the things it would have gained me.

I also think about what I have. I finally met the woman I should have always been with. She's a librarian. I have a position of respect in a tough working world. Being a toolmaker is no easy thing. I'm well read, and I even have a book out. My wife and I live in a beautiful home filled with books, cats, and love. Over the pandemic I cleared an wooded area in the back of our property and made our own little park. We have a DVD projector and we plan to build a wooden screen to watch classic horror movies in our own little outdoor theater.

I still like monsters, rocket ships, and rock and roll. The things in my past shaped me and helped me through the hard times. As with any other older adult, there have been some extremely hard times.

Archie comics gave me indelible instincts about being a good citizen. Robert Heinlein, my favorite boyhood writer, taught me about duty and honor. Classic monster movies gave me empathy for those who are different than me. Frank Zappa showed me I could be completely serious and absolutely irreverent at the same time.

Last night I dreamed about Archie Andrews. In the dream I was young, and I was at school with the Riverdale gang. My whole life was ahead of me again. Maybe this time I would get it right.

I woke up, disoriented as you do after a particularly intense dream. I thought about it this morning, and I realize that I have gotten it right. I have a lot of things to be grateful for, but as I look back over the long years, I think I am most thankful for my abiding love of books. Books shaped my personality. Books helped me through the hardest days. Books were the common ground my wife Clara and I had in the beginning.

This has not been my first reflective look back at Archie. I've thought about the old comics a lot over the years. At one point I picked up an omnibus paperback and tried to revisit them. I'm afraid it didn't work out very well. Some things are meant for, and only for, young minds. That's all right. The things I learned from Archie have stayed with me all through this crazy comic horror show of a life.

Written by Mark Sieber

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