Tuesday, March 27, 2018


When I was living in northern Oklahoma in the early 1980’s (during the period when I ran the INNER MYSTIQUE zine and label), I attended college and supported myself through various part-time jobs, usually juggling any two at one time. One summer my work-study job at the college was on hiatus, and the restaurant I worked at was shut down and the doors padlocked without prior notice to us employees (we all got stiffed two weeks pay too!), so I did what you should always do when you need work: tell EVERYONE you know, and hope that someone knows someone who needs someone somewhere. Most jobs are never advertised, and of course many people need someone for a few weeks or a month to fill in for an employee who’s out....or some private individual has a need for someone for a specific task and will pay you cash for that. In my case, I did not need permanent work, just something to help me get through the summer.

A lady who’d been in one of my classes, Terry--she worked at the college bookstore and was dating a German exchange student who was a friend of a friend--told me that her father needed someone to do about four weeks work in the town she was from, Shawnee, Oklahoma. He was the manager of a small loan company, and he’d purchased the space next door to their current office, but it was full of junk that needed to be moved, it needed to have new linoleum floors put in, it needed to be repainted, etc. He could not afford to hire actual licensed tradesmen to do those chores, and had mentioned to Terry about needing to find someone. He’d never acted on that, just kept the space empty, so Terry thought she’d kick him in the rear on this and get the ball rolling, and at the same time get me some work. She negotiated a generous amount of pay (pretty much triple the minimum wage and also a bonus if I got the work done in four weeks) for me with her Dad, PLUS they offered me a space to stay at and breakfast and dinner at their family home (and they’d provide me with a sack lunch every day). We covered up the front window of the space-to-be-fixed up so no one knew what work was being done, and since her Dad was in tight with the local officials, we were able to circumvent getting permits, which saved him even more money. I even had access to their family washer-dryer, so this was a win-win situation for me with no real expenses (back in Stillwater, I was paying 1/3 of a $100-a-month rent for a trashy apartment three of us shared, so being stuck with rent woes while out of town was not an issue).

I had an unlimited account at the local hardware store for the supplies I needed. The first week I just hauled out trash, got rid of old and useless furniture, and cleaned. The second week I stripped the old flooring and laid down new linoleum, and this also took me into week three. The second half of week three and all of week four was spent painting. I finished the Sunday night at the end of week four and told Terry’s Dad that I had a surprise for him when he came to work Monday morning-- a totally empty, but sparkling new-looking three-room office and bathroom and pantry. All he needed to do was have a professional paint a sign on the front window (you can’t have an amateur like me fake THAT and attract any business), lease some office furniture, get phone service set up, get a couple of window-unit air conditioners, and they were good to go.

Although I ate and slept at their family home, I did not really feel comfortable there just hanging out, so I would spend most evenings and all day on the weekends at the space I was refurbishing. The loan office next door closed at 5, and as in most small towns, the main street pretty much closes down by 6 p.m., so I had the place to myself. I’d brought a boom-box and about 100 cassettes with me, so I had non-stop music while I worked and each night/weekend. I also brought a box of cheap used comics I’d picked up in Tulsa earlier that Summer, on the same trip to Tulsa where I picked up some import LP’s at Starship Records: the amazing EVA label compilation albums of MOUSE AND THE TRAPS, THE OTHER HALF, and THE SEEDS (Bad Part Of Town), and the French EMI Pathe Marconi exact reissues of original Capitol albums by Gene Vincent and Imperial albums by Rick Nelson. I made cassettes of all of those and also had many many mix-cassettes of obscure 45’s from my collection as well as episodes of the YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR detective radio show, airchecks of Benny Goodman’s "CAMEL CARAVAN" shows, and some of Duke Ellington’s wartime Treasury Bond broadcasts.. When they would close down the loan office next door each night, I’d start consuming 8-ounce bottles of Pearl Cream Ale ($1.09 an eight-pack!), turn up the volume on my music, and dabble at work until the sun went down. After sundown, I’d read either old comic books or Henry Miller’s "ROSY CRUCIFIXION" trilogy, and then eventually head back out to their house about 10:30, where dinner would be waiting for me in the refrigerator and I could just re-heat it, wash it down with one or two or three of THEIR beers (they had Lowenbrau in their fridge, a few steps up from Pearl Cream Ale, and I’d hear in my mind with each one I drank the golden soulful tones of Arthur Prysock, crooning, “tonight is kind of special...let it be Lowebrau”), chat with the Dad and/or Terry for a while, and crash for the night. This was a fairly sweet gig, and though I would not want to have done it forever, there were a lot worse ways to spend four sweltering weeks in the Oklahoma summer, getting paid well, being fed and given a place to stay, having great music playing all day and most evenings, and being able to read at night in a spacious environment on the main drag of an old-time small town. When I wind up in the small towns of Oklahoma or North Texas or Kansas in my travels in recent years, I’m taken back to that period, and it reminds me how rich life can be when you have a purpose (getting this space fixed up in a four week period) and the few essentials you need (food, beer, a place to sleep), plus good music and something worthwhile to read that was your own and which you chose and had a hard copy of. Albums you would play over and over, books and comics that you’d read and re-read. They grew deeper with each play or reading, and you grew to understand and feel their construction, their textures, their nuances. It’s hard to explain to someone nowadays with zillions of tracks of music available immediately on a smart phone, along with 7000 TV and movie watching options at any time anywhere, the joy of being in a small-town office building on a Wednesday night after everyone else working on the main street had gone home, the floor stripped of its old covering and no furniture whatsoever, sitting on the floor and blasting Mouse And The Traps “Wicker Vine” and “13 O’Clock Theme For Psychotics” over and over again while drinking cheap Pearl Cream Ales and reading and re-reading a WYATT EARP comic book. Heck, I was pretty much IN the Old West myself back then. The buildings on that block probably dated back to the 1920’s if not before, and Oklahoma had only become a state in 1907. It did not take much of an imaginative leap to insert myself into some of the situations in this 1965 Charlton WYATT EARP comic book that I’d paid a nickel for.

Wyatt Earp (not to be confused with Chrysler/Dodge dealer Wyatt Arp in Seguin, Texas) is the kind of legendary name that can be used for any kind of heroic western character--the way any muscle-bound leading man in a sword and sandal movie can be called Hercules (or one of the mighty Sons of Hercules). The specifics of the real Wyatt are known to western historians and people who read True West magazine, but most others just want a good story, action, adventure, and escape. Coincidentally, 1965, the date of this comic, was the same year that the great Guy Madison played a character named Wyatt Earp in the Euro-western GUNMEN OF THE RIO GRANDE. That had as little to do with the real character as this comic book does, but it was just as satisfying and excellent in its own way.

In between the full-page ads (someone in the Charlton ad sales office should have gotten a bonus for the number of ads sold in this issue!), there are two six-page stories featuring Earp, one five-pager with Earp, one five-pager without Earp, a one-page comic about the history of Derringer pistols, a one-page comic called “The Train Robbers” (kind of like a western version of those Ellery Queen Minute Mysteries radio shows!), and of course, the expected two-page prose story, here an account of a college student (like me, “off for the summer”) who learned buffalo hunting from the Ogillallah Tribe. The non-Earp five-pager was called “Forgotten Past,” about a man who had been living in a small western town where he’d established a good reputation and was known and trusted by all and had found a place in the community--but who remembers nothing of his life prior to coming to the town. One day he sees an old Wanted poster, and the sketch of the criminal on it resembles himself in a vague way, and he wonders. As I sat on the floor of that half-refurbished Shawnee, Oklahoma, office, looking through the back door onto the alley and the mellow glow of a distant streetlight, I wondered what might happen if I decided to stay in Shawnee. Terry had told me at one time that I knew enough math and accounting to get a job with her father’s company, if I wanted to. She also told me that there were some local ladies who had jobs at businesses in town or at the electric co-operative to the North whom she’d be glad to introduce me to. I did not take her up on that while in Shawnee for this work because I was working twelve hours a day in the summer heat in an old non-air conditioned building, and no lady, no matter how lonely, would have wanted to be introduced to someone who stank the way I probably did--also, even if I’d cleaned myself up, I would be gone in a few weeks. However, if I worked at the Loan Office regularly and took up residence there, I’d be fresh-smelling, clean-shaven, a man with a respectable job charging working people who could not get funding from a legitimate bank usurious rates for small household loans--hey, if we weren’t doing it, someone else would be. Isn’t that the usual self-justifying excuse? I could have met some lady who’d get me to join the Methodist Church, become a respectable member of small-town Oklahoma society, and spend my days calling people at work who’d gotten behind on their payments for that new water-heater or refrigerator. I could forget my own somewhat sordid past, like the character in the “Forgotten Past” story....and create a new only-slightly sordid present and future!

In the words of the late great bluesman Otis Rush, “so many roads, so many trains to ride.” In terms of the roads of imagination, I’ve taken many a trip via cheap used Charlton Comics. At the top of the right-facing pages in this Wyatt Earp comic, it reads CHARLTON COMICS GIVE YOU MORE! That’s for damn sure, and for just a nickel in my case. Used comics....your best entertainment value! It’s the BTC way!

1 comment:

GL said...

A very pleasurable read, thanks.