Tom Swift and his Long Time Fan
Once upon a time there was a little book store in Schaumburg called Kevin’s Book Exchange. Run by “Kevin”, a heavyset guy with an Amish looking beard and a friendly smile, the place was literally packed with books of every shape and size. He charged half the cover price and I spent an awful lot of my allowance on the oldest copies of novels I could find among the homemade shelving and stacks that overflowed from every corner and along every aisle.
It was there I discovered a set of hardcover books bound in bright yellow. TOM SWIFT. I’d never heard of him, but my dad had. He read Tom Swift’s adventures when he was a boy. The books were from the fifties and half the cover price was well within my reach, so I picked up the first book and was hooked. Over the next year or so, whenever I had a spare dollar or two, I would find my way to Kevin’s Book Exchange and pick up another episode. It didn’t take long to figure out there was a formula. Usually, the book would open with Tom working on his latest dazzling new invention. His best friend Bud would exclaim, “Good Night!” (he was always exclaiming this). Along the way, Tom usually met up with a villainous sort. I can say this because – generally – he turned out to be the villain (subtlety not a strong point of the Tom Swift books). As Tom worked long hours to refine his invention, he usually had time to fall into mortal peril, suffer through half a dozen “terrific explosions” and have a picnic lunch with his girlfriend Phyllis. However, everything always worked out right in the end. I didn’t mind the repetition. I knew Tom and Bud would somehow survive being buried alive or avoid the river of lava, the gunmen threatening them would be foiled or the hack who had stolen Tom’s plans would be hoisted upon his own petard. I was a good enough reader to blow through Tom Swift and his Atomic Whatchamacalit in an hour or two. It was like reading a television series. I read 27 episodes of Tom Swift Jr. and while he continued on to deal with The Mystery Comet, it wasn’t on the list of books on the back cover. Perhaps it was promised, but never written.
When I talked to my dad about the various inventions Tom Swift was working on, he had no idea what I was talking about. Instead of Atomic Earth Blasters and Diving Seacopters, he remembered Electric Rifles and a Motor-Cycle. It turned out I was reading the Tom Swift Jr. books of his childhood, but he had read the Tom Swift Sr. books from the turn of the twentieth century. I found one of these and tried to read it, but I think too much time had passed. I could still read the books from the fifties and understand Tom’s actions. The Cold War was still on and it didn’t take a genius to figure out who the “Brungarians” were supposed to be. In the old series, it was interesting to hear about Tom “who – months ago – had helped Teddy Roosevelt dig the Panama Canal”. However, the way his negro manservant talked and the way Jewish people were depicted… it just made me feel uncomfortable.
Once the Tom Swift Jr. supply petered out, I discovered Victor Appleton had moved on to a new generation. I had to forego Kevin’s comfortable corner store for the surgically clean Walden Books at the mall. Tom Swift now lived in a mammoth space habitat. He flew to the moons of Jupiter. Eventually he reverse-engineered a star drive and went out into the galaxy with his politically correct group of friends. These books also followed a pattern and they also ended in the same way all the other Tom Swift books ended: a promise of adventure in the next exciting book. Stay tuned! I was in eighth grade when the latest Tom Swift series wrapped up with a promise of Chaos on Earth. Again, the actual book was nowhere to be found. All good things must come to an end.
Over time, I discovered I hadn’t read all of the Tom Swift Jr. books. He had continued on to deal with not only the Mystery Comet, but also the Captive Planetoid. I found a copy of episode 28 at a used book sale in Skokie and episode 29 courtesy of Amazon.com. According to the Internet, the Tom Swift Jr. series numbered 33. Meka found a copy of one of these for me – Tom Swift and the Galaxy Ghosts – in digital format and I read it eagerly in one sitting.
It seemed the “new” Tom Swift books from the 1980′s had indeed ended before Chaos on Earth. Tom’s publisher had gone out of business in 1984. However, I was perusing Wikipedia the other day and found out the archives of the Strathemeyer Syndicate have been placed in the New York Public Library. I did a little research and discovered this includes all of the Tom Swift books including two that were never published: Chaos on Earth and Micro World. While I don’t think I can justify a trip to the Big Apple on the grounds of Tom Swift alone, I’m sure I’ll go there someday. And when I do, I’ll plan some time to rummage through a couple of boxes of archival materials in the library and – finally – catch up with the latest Tom Swift adventures.