Friday, November 18, 2016

COMIC BOOK REVIEW BY BILL SHUTE! JUNGLE JIM #23 (Charlton Comics, April 1969)

Between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I was kind of lost. I worked part-time at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds tending to horses, digging post holes, and being a general go-fer, but I was not yet old enough for a real job. I was also not old enough to drive, although even if I had been, I had no money for a car or car insurance, and my parents were always savvy enough to not let me ever use their car for anything. I spent most of my time “hanging out” and engaged in various disreputable activities. I had a cousin on my father’s side, someone I saw maybe twice a year, who was in his 20’s and whose girlfriend had some connections in Western Nebraska. My cousin was aware of some of my extra-curricular activities, and mentioned to my parents that he knew a family who ran a hog farm and horse ranch over there and that these folks could use a teenager like me for a few months during the summer. They would feed me and house me and also pay me much more than I was making at the Fairgrounds, as it was full-time work. It was in the middle of nowhere, relatively speaking, so I would be free from bad influences, or so he claimed.

My parents went for it, and then presented the deal to me, with my cousin there to “close the sale,” as they say. I had no objection to it. I sometimes listened to a radio station from Lexington, Nebraska (which I could pick up after the low-wattage daytime-only AM stations in Colorado had gone off the air for the night) in my room late at night and before sunrise, so I knew the general area from that, and indeed, I’d listened to the morning agriculture report every weekday at 5:00 a.m. when I’d get up during the school year. My father worked the night shift at the King Soopers grocery warehouse in West Denver, and he got off at 5:00 a.m. and would get home at about 5:20. I would have a cup of de-caf coffee and some toast waiting for him every morning, and while I was in the kitchen making it, from 5-5:20, I’d listen to that agriculture report on KRVN, from Lexington, Nebraska. I would chat with my father for 10-15 minutes as he ate, and then he’d go to bed after a long night’s work, and I’d get ready to head off for high school.

This hog farm was about 20 miles west of Lexington and employed about eight boys ranging from 14-17 for various periods during the summer. I was scheduled to go there for ten weeks and was sent a Greyhound bus ticket. My mother made me some salami sandwiches and gave me some cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, I brought five changes of clothes (we had access to a washer/dryer, I was told), toiletries to last ten weeks, a portable radio and some extra batteries, and a book of James T. Farrell’s short stories. After my mother checked my bag before I left, I slipped in two packs of unfiltered Lucky Strike cigarettes.

The family who ran the place, Mr. and Mrs. Raney, were certainly nice enough. This was no exploitation of adolescent labor, but it was hard work. However, the Raneys got up earlier and worked harder and longer than any of us did, so I could not complain, and when any of us faced an unruly hog or a crazed stallion, they were the first to come over and help us.

They had many barns, and one of them had half of it divided up to create what resembled individual sleeping areas for each of the boys, kind of like a room, but with a six-foot-high divider between myself and the next guy on each side. If you could get past having hogs on the other side of the barn and not having a lot of privacy, it worked out fine. We each had a light and an electric outlet too. I’d slept in worse than the bunk I was provided with, and the straw on the dirt ground was good for atmosphere. Of course, with nothing to do most nights, we wound up sneaking smokes, looking at issues of PENTHOUSE that some of the other guys had brought, playing cards, and the like. Also, after Thursday’s and Friday’s work was over, after the sun went down, our work supervisor, the Raneys’ son-in-law, Eddie, would discreetly give us each a can of some cheap beer, the kind with Milwaukee in the title, and we had to drink those in one of the outlying buildings on the property where the welding was done. Eddie knew we appreciated that gesture and that we would not turn him in for doing this----if we wanted to continue getting the beer, that is----so the beer continued each week throughout the summer

We also got a trip to Lexington, the “big city” to us, Saturday afternoons. Some of the guys would blow their money each week, but I tried to save as much as I could, and would buy only a pack of cigarettes per week and maybe a comic book or two. We also were taken to the occasional rodeo and country music concert in town. The acts booked at the Lexington Armory tended to be old-school country singers whose careers had faded to some extent but who still had large rural followings, and this kind of artist would still get their singles played on stations like the one in Lexington, singles that never rose above #30 on the country charts. I remember seeing artists like Bob Luman and Faron Young there on Saturday nights as we drank Fanta Orange soda and ate Moon Pies.

One Saturday, after I’d been there a week or two, I went into the drug store on the main street and bought a Cherry Coke, made in the old soda fountain way, with real cherry syrup stirred in, and enjoyed it while I perused the comic book rack. In terms of pages for the money, the best buy seemed to be a TARZAN FAMILY GIANT from DC, which cost 50 cents, and which featured a whole grab-bag of Edgar Rice Burroughs creations: Tarzan, Korak the Son of Tarzan, John Carter the Warlord of Mars, Pellucidar, etc. That looked exciting, and it was certainly better than the various comics featuring costumed super-heroes, which other than the occasional Batman or Spider Man, were not really to my taste. I paid for it with two quarters, rolled it up and put it in my back pocket, and headed over to the truck for the trip back to the farm. Eddie asked me what I’d bought, and I proudly showed him my TARZAN FAMILY GIANT. He smiled and told me, “do you like that kind of thing? My little brother is in the service now, stationed in Greenland, and he left a bunch of comic books. I’m not sure what they are, but they aren’t doing him any good up there, so I’m sure he’d love for you to have them. Next time I’m at the house where he lived, I’ll find them for you.”

Sure enough, four or five days later, he gave me about ten random comic books, the most interesting of which was a run of six straight Charlton JUNGLE JIM comics from 1969-70, which would have been four or five years old at that time. Each night, I would go behind the sow barn on the northern edge of the property, where there was a spotlight trained on the ground to keep away any would-be hog thieves, and I’d sit and read one of the JUNGLE JIM comics a few times and have a Lucky Strike or two. After that, I’d head over toward the edge of the property, near the dried-up creek, in the dark and illuminated only by moonlight, fire up another Lucky, and just look toward the western horizon. I would imagine all the exotic places in the world that I’d read about in comic books, knowing full well that something like Jungle Jim existed in some kind of composite make-believe world that mixed together imprecise details from various continents and from comic book writers’ imaginations, fueled by old movies and serials, writers who’d never been east of Hoboken. I would see the random light here and there, maybe a fourth-hand reflection of some truck on the state highway headed toward Wyoming, and I’d hear distant sounds which could not really be identified, but which could become virtually anything in my imagination. Then I’d gradually start to fade and wander back to the barn where we stayed, and only a few of the guys would still be up, playing cards or talking about make-believe romantic encounters. I’d put on my radio low, listen to Garner Ted Armstrong pontificating about world affairs and Bible prophecy, and fall asleep eventually to dreams of Midwestern life and the corn-fed local girls I’d seen in town and at the concerts at the Armory who seemed so different from the ones back home. I’d never meet them in school, of course, as I’d be back in my old stomping grounds in Colorado when the school year began, but I dreamed about having my own Nebraska spread with hogs and horses, the kind that Johnny Mack Brown would always talk about retiring to in one of his westerns I’d watch Saturday mornings back home.

Since then, now more than 40 years ago, I’ve lived through what seems to be four or five lifetimes, I’ve moved to other states such as Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas, I’ve seen a lot of good people chewed up and spat out by life, and I’ve seen a lot of sleazeballs and scumbags and hypocrites thrive and somehow get the prizes that society has to offer. Every once in a while, I’ll see someone my age, someone who probably has had a similar trajectory through life as I have had, and we’ll look into each other’s eyes, male or female, and we’ll each know that that person too has looked into the void and come live day-to-day, enjoy the small pleasures, and listen to the silence of a rural summer night. Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.

As I hold in my hands and read through JUNGLE JIM #23, which has somehow made it through the decades with me, I see a no-BS man who gets the job done, who doesn’t talk unless he has something to say, a man who respects others’ space and who can fit chameleon-like into whatever culture life brings him into. The comic books’ Jungle Jim is not as affable and charming as Johnny Weissmuller was in the dozens of films devoted to the character, but that just makes the comic book Jim more like a real person and less like a movie star. I’m resting on my front porch after dark now (though I no longer smoke), here in 2016, figuring out when I’m going to pick up my grandson tomorrow after work for an outing at the park with Grandpa Bill, and the hushed late-night vibe brings me back to that hog farm in Western Nebraska, imagining Jungle Jim making his way up some non-existent river in some non-existent frontier which mixes cultural and geographical elements from three different continents. Tomorrow morning I’ll be up again for work at 5 a.m., though I’m no longer working in the hog barn, at least not literally. It’s easier to put up with the bullshit of daily life when you know that Jungle Jim is out there somewhere. Maybe I’ll meet him someday at that Colonial Trading Post on the other side. 

This comic cost 12 cents when it was new, and that’s about 3 pages per cent. That kind of value is long are most family is Jungle Jim in modern culture. I read where someone was talking about bringing back Jungle Jim, but that won’t work as he’ll be eviscerated by political correctness, and his “backstory” will be “re-imagined” by artistes with MFA’s who’ve sat through too many Tarantino films and binge-watched too many Netflix and HBO series. Maybe Jim can be allowed to quietly retire in Florida, and we can get together at a dog track over a beer and a pizza slice. He won’t say much, but his eyes will speak volumes, as will the respectful way he treats the counter help and maintenance workers at the track. He might tip me off to a good quinella in the fifth race--he knows what to look for in an animal.

Those who know don’t speak, and those who speak don’t know.

1 comment:

GL said...

That was absolutely wonderful, thank you.