Tuesday, December 04, 2018


During my years in Stillwater, Oklahoma (1979-1985), I spent one year sharing the bottom floor of an older home in a quiet neighborhood with a guy from Alabama named Donnie Stackman. We were both part-time employees in the same academic department at the college we both attended, and we’d both lived together for the six months prior to that in the infamous $80 a month apartment with the hole through the wall into the alley, which I discussed in a previous piece here at BTC. I did not know Donnie prior to the hole-in-the-wall apartment, but we were both friends of the third person who lived there, Jonathan, a long-haired zen-calm kind of guy from Birmingham who’d been in the Marine Corps, who’d invited both of us to move in so he could split the rent three ways and cut expenses. Jonathan did not join us when we found this other house to rent--it was just Donnie and yours truly....at least at the start.

Above us, occupying the second floor, lived two male graduate students in Agriculture from Tanzania--sorry, but I don’t remember their actual names. Like a lot of people from Africa or Asia who lived in the US back in that period, they affected a “Western-sounding” nickname to assist the locals in referring to them, and because those were not their real names and half the time I referred to them by those real names, not the nicknames, I’m drawing a blank on names, though I can see them clearly in my mind’s eye. Both were slim, serious-minded men in their late 20’s. I don’t think they drank, but I do remember sharing some cigarettes with them on the back steps a number of times. They probably would not have had time to drink or to waste precious hours on anything non-essential, as they were doctoral students working on Ph.D.’s. One thing I found interesting about them was that their higher educations had both been in Eastern Bloc countries. Their undergraduate work in agriculture had been in East Germany, and they’d both earned master’s degrees in the Soviet Union (though at different universities). The Eastern Bloc was looking to curry favor with third-world countries, both for influence and for potential trading partners. And now these men were in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I’d always been interested in getting to know international students (learning about distant cultures through conversation is cheaper than traveling to the places themselves, and also you’re getting it straight from the core of the culture, not the tourist version--also, people in an unfamiliar foreign land appreciate locals who welcome them and show an interest in and respect for their culture), and not having known many folks who’d lived in communist countries (this was the early 80’s), I found their stories about life in East Germany and Russia fascinating. Donnie never really got to know these fellows, other than saying “hi” when they crossed paths, but I would chat with them for 15-30 minutes maybe twice a week, and they invited me up to their apartment to eat a few times, where they prepared an inexpensive dish made with potatoes and eggs and onions and tomatoes and chile peppers and, of course, some spices from the homeland that were unfamiliar to me but delicious....and potent. Though they lived above us, these guys rarely made any noise and spent late nights at the university library in advance scientific study. They both earned doctorates in Agriculture and went back to Tanzania, where I believe they were promised jobs with the government agriculture ministry.

I was never really close with my downstairs roommate Donnie. He had a kind of Grizzly Adams vibe to him----stocky, big blond-red beard, wore overalls, and affected a kind of folksy charm. We worked different hours, went to school at different times (I was a morning person--he was not), and stayed out of each other’s ways. We had an agreement where we’d split the kitchen and the refrigerator in half, one sink each, etc., and his side of the sink and his half of the refrigerator were always filthy. I wound up cleaning them up for him (which I’m sure he counted on!) because the stink of rotting onions in the fridge or the sight of bloated pieces of old bread floating in his sink was too much for me to take. Whenever he was out, I’d have the stereo on----probably playing PIL SECOND EDITION or one of the early Wire albums or a Chocolate Watchband album or one of Coltrane’s twelve Prestige albums over and over. He claimed to be into bluegrass, but he did not seem to know much about it. He’d sometimes listen to music with me and was the kind of guy who’d drink or smoke with me if I provided the supplies. I never knew him to buy a cigarette or beer of his own. He’d do without rather than spend a cent of his own on those things.

He would also go on crash diets from time to time.....or should I say starvation diets. He would literally starve himself for three or four days. After a few days of that, he would have some odd metallic odor coming out of his mouth. I asked him about this once because he mentioned that he was meeting a lady one night and I thought he should know that his breath was not good. He told me that he was diabetic and what I was smelling was ketones, and not to worry about it because he knew how to handle it. Unfortunately, as this unpleasant scent was not coming from his mouth but from somewhere deeper inside him, mouthwash and brushing would not have helped the breath problem. Who knows if he had any luck with the ladies that night.

When he did go off these fasts, he’d always hit some local watering hole during happy hour when they would have specials on pitchers of beer, and he’d choose a bar where people would know him, and he’d join a group who would, being the good sports that most happy hour drinkers are, invite him to join in. He’d usually stay until the last person left and/or the last drop of beer paid for by someone else had been consumed. I’m told he would also take the tip off the table, a tip left by those paying for the beer, and pocket it for himself. I used to hit a certain bar that served burgers and fried food on Fridays with a poet friend, who was also a friend of Donnie’s, and we’d get happy hour pitchers and cheap baskets of French fries and gravy and chat about life and literature and music and art for hours on end. Donnie would often crash these get-togethers and drink our beer and eat our fries and gravy. He was an entertaining guy always conscious of an audience, and as stated earlier, he played the colorful Southerner role to the hilt, so I doubt anyone ever minded his mooching, since he did provide entertainment value for the beer he drank and bar-food he pilfered.

One Wednesday--I think it was right before a holiday weekend, so he’d have a few days off work while the college was closed--he announced to me that he was going to Las Vegas for the weekend and would be back the next Tuesday. He did not drive, owned three shirts and three pants (and the shirts were all flannel checked shirts that were not great for those hundred-degree Oklahoma summers----I can’t imagine he would have worn those back in Alabama!), and was a tightwad all around, so I was quite surprised by this move.

However, nothing prepared me for what I experienced that next Tuesday when he came back home.....he introduced me to his new wife, Candace. Yes, he met someone in Vegas over the weekend and married her on the spot and brought her back to Stillwater, Oklahoma. She had one suitcase full of clothes, and she moved into his room with him (we had endless arguments after that about whether the rent should be split three ways, as I suggested, or two ways, as he suggested).

Candace struck me as the mature one in this duo----after all, it would be hard NOT to be----and she had the case-hardened toughness that you find in, say, waitresses in all-night diners, people who’d seen it all and were prepared to face any hassle and stare it down. She had experience as a speech pathologist (though that was not what she’d been working at most recently), so she was able to get a job at the college within a week of arriving in Stillwater. Like me, she was a morning person, and her new husband was not, so they were rarely home at the same time. He tended to work in the early evenings--she was getting off work when he was starting. The result of this was that I spent many more waking hours with his wife than he did! This lady who was married for two weeks or whatever was stuck at home with ME each evening, and although things were awkward for a while at the beginning because I never approved of her as a “new roommate,” I accepted reality rather quickly, and we would wind up playing Scrabble or discussing art or listening to Coltrane’s BLACK PEARLS album on Prestige, the kind of long-tracked jazz album full of bluesy jams you could play over and over and over, getting up every 20 minutes to flip the record. She was a very intelligent person, had held a number of interesting jobs, was quite well-read, and had a kind of jaded cynicism that I found admirable and fascinating. She was about ten years older than I was and about five years older than Donnie.

When we would spend a few evenings in a row hanging out together, we both sensed a kind of innate need to not get too close----after all, she was newly married and had moved across the country to live with this man, for better or worse. She’d put all her eggs in this basket. It was funny when I thought of how we would pretend not to know each other as well as we did whenever he was around. It was almost as if we were involved and hiding it, though we were not. Her relationship with her husband can be summed up in the following anecdote: when she got her first paycheck, she purchased an ice cream churn--she told me she loved to make homemade ice cream. When she first used it--after buying the cream and the salt and the ice and the caramel & butterscotch--she wound up serving this amazing ice cream to me and to the African guys, whom I invited down to join us as there was too much ice cream for the two of us to eat by ourselves. Her husband Donnie was working....or at a bar....or somewhere, probably mooching beer and fried mushrooms off someone.

Candace always referred to her husband by his last name--she would say, “hey Stackman,” if she had a question or wanted to tell him something. I NEVER heard her call him Donnie--or even refer to him by his first name when talking to some third party. Also, when they would be walking together (he affected a walking stick or cane which he did not need when out “on the town,” thinking it helped the Southern Gentleman persona) on the streets of Stillwater, which did not happen often, he’d be in some kind of detached zone in a personal fog. If she was turning a corner or having to stop somewhere, she’d tap Donnie and push him in the direction she wanted to go. It reminded me of someone walking a dog that had not been fully trained.

This old two-story home we rented the lower floor of was owned by a retired couple from the nearby town of Pawnee, who would come to town each month to pick up the rent money from us and from the African guys. It had the proverbial white picket fence around it and was at a corner on a tree-shaded neighborhood only about eight blocks from the campus but it seemed like it was miles away in terms of atmosphere, so it had a large lot. I volunteered to mow the lawn twice a month (they had an old push-mower in a shed behind the house) for a discount on the rent (although Donnie benefited from the discount too, he never offered to mow). It also had a large wrap-around covered porch. We took one side of it and half the front, and the African guys took the other side and the other half, though they rarely if ever used them because they were studying all the time.

There were three or four old rocking chairs out there (and this was the kind of area where they could be left out all the time and would never be stolen), and being at the corner there was often a breeze from one side or another, and being shaded, it always seemed ten degrees cooler than the yard. I spent a lot of time--when I was keeping apart from Candace--on that porch reading. And some of that reading was inevitably comic books, and many of those comic books were inevitably Charlton Comics. Back then, as I still do today, some 35 or 37 years later, I had a box where I would keep the new comics acquisitions, all gotten for a dime or at most a quarter at some used bookstore or junk store or in the garbage pile at a comics shop that treated Charlton product as if it had leprosy, and when I was bored, I’d work my way through a few, and then put them at the back of my stack.

They weren’t making many western movies in the early 80’s.....although I could still catch some obscure Monogram or PRC or Republic western in the middle of the night on UHF television, along with an occasional Italian western such as LEFT HANDED JOHNNY WEST starring Steve Reeves’s old pal from the sword and sandal film days, Mimmo Palmera (or as it was Anglicized in the credits, Dick Palmer), or Sergio Corbucci’s MINNESOTA CLAY with Cameron Mitchell as the blinded gunfighter who killed by sound....so western comics such as OUTLAWS OF THE WEST provided a cheap, action-filled fix with the wonderful stereotyped characters and situations that one could find in a Durango Kid movie, if they ever showed any of those, which they did not in early 80’s Oklahoma, but minus Smiley Burnette’s comedy and songs and with more violence and brutality. In the great tradition of Charlton’s waning days in the 80’s, the stories in this particular 1979 issue (which I probably acquired in 1981 or so for a dime) were all taken from 1959 Charlton western magazines and “re-purposed”. Did it REALLY matter in a western comic? I think not. All you need is an introduction like “Red Gruber’s huge ranch occupied the upper half of Bone Valley--he fought every owlhooter in Arizona to build the Three Bar brand--“ and lots of blazing pistols and stand-offs and fistfights in saloons and men on horseback shooting the guns out of the hands of other men on horseback, and you know you are getting what you have paid for. And with ten-cent used comics (which, in the case of the Charlton westerns, appeared to have never been read, with tightly creased spines), it did not take much to earn back that ten cents and satisfy me. In my eyes, terms like “owlhoots” and “varmints” and “ornery polecats” are like code-words among members of some secret society--I hear them, and whoever is using the terms is “in” as far as I’m concerned. We’re members of the same lodge and brothers.

That next summer, I moved on to my own solo garage apartment, where I lived for three years. Donnie left town, and I believe Candace went her own way to a different part of the country from where he went. I later heard that he had never actually gotten a divorce from a first wife up in Illinois, and I’m not sure how that situation wound up. Life brings you together with people you are friendly with but do not get close to, it forces you to interact with them, and then you stumble into your next situation. Only the yellowed Charlton Comics and the Prestige-label Coltrane albums survive to document that it was not all just a dream...


Spin Turlock said...

That's sort of like the time in Dec.95 , when I thought I got married to a missionary (pal of F.Mac's Jeremy Spencer) & ex cast member of "Hair". Turns out she had forgotten to divorce her husband, a major jingle studio owner on the Island of Chmorro, better known by its acronym: Government Under American Military. It all turned out for the best.

GL said...

Very nice piece Bill, thanks.