When I was small, some kindly people in my family read to me. Winnie the Pooh. Wind in the Willows with the irrepressible, irresponsible Toad of Toad Hall--I met some like him in advertising. Wild Animals I have known, Ernest Seton Thompson. The Jungle Book. And they took me to movies: Bambi, Fantasia, Snow White. Fantasia was psychedelic to my young brain--what a trip. I veered off into comics.
Comics and more comics. Mind-warping stuff. The Spirit, Vigilante, Air Boy, Green Lantern, The Shadow, the list is long and loathsome to those who would shape a boy's life. I did read Boy's Life, but only because I was absorbing everything in print. No TV back then. Just imagine. That's what we did: just imagine. And it was mind-stretching.
The closest thing to the internet was short wave radio and at night I could tune in foreign language stuff that sounded like ducks on a pond. I could get XERF Del Rio, Texas, hillbilly and gospel music. If you sent them an article of clothing with return postage and "blessing fee," they'd sanctify it, send it back. I couldn't afford it. My rabbit's foot key chain would have to carry me through the evil times. And my "if I should die before I wake" prayer which introduced a cruddy possibility that I hurriedly glossed over.
Now and then a kid at school would show us an "eight page bible," as pornographic comics were known then. These were slim, palm-sized affairs, on newsprint, horizontal, with panels that revealed a quick and luridly apocryphal story about Olive Oyl and Popeye, or Blondie and a plumber. But I was a comic connoisseur and knew the art was forgery. I missed the point, I was told.
Then I discovered pulp novels. They lay around the house on side tables or in the trash I'd take out to the backyard to burn. The covers attracted me. Colorful art depicted women in odd circumstances or men in fedoras firing flaming forty-fives. (it's where I learned alliteration, too) At first I was disappointed that the pages of these twenty-five-cent paperbacks were full of words and not pictures with word balloons, but the packed words transported me. The first of these books that I remember reading was Angels Camp.
The banner on the cover said "This savage novel may shock you--but you'll never forget it. Bantam Books Inc. believes its readers want to know the brutal truth about juvenile delinquents--and whether there is any hope for them." It was true. I never did forget it. And I did want to know if there was any hope for me.
Maybe my folks had bought it in hopes of learning how to deal with my coming teen years. More likely they'd plucked it from a wire carousel at a drugstore in a moment of boredom. An attractive woman seemed to be luring young criminals away from a work detail. Was she nuts?! These were criminals, young ones, true, but everyone knew juvenile delinquents were the scourge of the times. I would have to read this. I did. And a lot of other books.
Much of Angels Camp was puzzling. I read the word "causal" as "casual." The name Marijuano Brown made no sense to me at all so I asked about it. And what were goofballs? My alarmed folks asked where I had picked up such terms, plus a lot more questions. I kept later enigmas to myself.
And this sentence, "The G-Man asked me did I use narcotics and I asked him was it soap or hair oil, that sure was a wigger." (G-Man was Mr. Grozier, a counselor) Wigger had to remain on my puzzling list for a long time, as did "You're looking at the King Pachuco." And why the blonde lady wanted anything to do with these guys. (She did stuff with one of them in the woods, which I vaguely understood. I sure didn't ask my folks about that.) Many words sent me to the dictionary, a good thing. Wigger wasn't in there.
Anyway, I found this vintage book online, and ordered it. It's by Ray Morrison, a former probation officer in L.A. and, upon reading it again, over a half-century later, I found it to be pretty well-written. It was a bestseller, and enjoyed several printings. As did some of the other books I found around the house: Tobacco Road, Grapes of Wrath, Kiss Me Deadly, Twelve O'clock High, and dozens more.
I never stopped reading. And I started writing. Along the way I dreamed a lot. And posited "What if?" And I managed to stay out of prison. Though my aunt Mickey used to look at my hands and say, "Spatulate fingers. Definite sign of a criminal." But I applied two of those fat digits to the typewriter, then the keypad rather than more lucrative criminal enterprise. But who knows, I may hit it big yet.