Friday, February 28, 2014

Tom Meets a Hero

Tom Johnson published some of my earliest work, in his series of pulp magazines, and we've been friends and occasional collaborators ever since. I first communicated with Tom by mail. You remember mail: you would write or type a letter, then fold it up and put it in an envelope, slap a stamp on it and drop it in a mail box. Days or weeks later, you'd get a reply. So 20th century! We did our collaboration on SHADOWHAWKE: FIRST FLIGHT by mail; I'd write a chapter, send it to him, he'd write the next one, send it back, and so on. 

I recently guest-blogged on Tom's The Pulp Den, and he's been kind enough to return the favor. Without more ado, here's a stirring story from yesteryear, of Tom and that great Western hero, Lash LaRue.  


I Meet a Hero

When we moved from Ohio Street some time in 1950, my dad bought a small mobile home (8 X 28 foot), which he set up behind a lumberyard on Broad Street between 6th and 7th Streets. This was a new world for me. I was half a block from the Boys Club, and across the street from the Wichita Falls Memorial Auditorium. The mobile home was small, and didn't have a bathroom, but it was probably as big as the little apartment we lived in on Ohio Street for three years. There was a storage room in the big house, which had a bathroom for our use, a step above an outhouse. We had to take baths in a washtub.

The Boys Club in Background

 I joined the Boys Club and it became a home-away-from-home for me. It had a library and a workshop where I learned to make things on machines, a gym with lots of activities, and the employees saw to it that we had things to do every day. On Saturdays, they provided a buss to take kids to the Tower theater for the Saturday Matinee, but I never went. Across the street from the Boys Club was an orphanage with a fenced-in playground. I felt sad for the children inside, for they would stand at the fence and watch us playing outside, and were unable to join us. A block and a half from me was 8th Street Park - those further up the road called it 9th Street Park. It covered the whole block and had slides, swings, and merry-go-rounds; in later years, it was given the official name of Bellevue Park, the swings and slides removed, and million-dollar architecture was added. Ugly.


 Me with Clinic in Background

The lumberyard had a wooden trailer parked in front with wood scraps for the neighborhood, and National Geographic magazines tossed inside, free for the kids. It was some benefactor's way of seeing that children had something educational to read. The free scraps of lumber were a novelty also. Try going to a lumberyard today and asking for free scraps! A medical clinic was across the alley

My little world had suddenly changed from sidewalks and winos, theaters and five & dimes, to parks, playgrounds, and the Boys Club. Here, too, I had many kids my own age to play with. I didn't miss Ohio Street, nor did I ever go back. I would visit Indiana Street once in a while, but for some reason I was afraid to venture back to where I had spent three years of my life.

The Memorial Auditorium was open during the weekdays, and I had the run of the place, often helping out the office workers when they needed someone to run an errand. It wasn't all concrete and parking lot at the time, either. There were large grassy areas on both sides of the building, and these became the local children's playground in summer and winter. We would ride our bikes down the hill in the summer, and slide cardboard boxes down it in the winter. No one said anything to us. I did catch a black widow and her babies in a glass jar once and showed it to the janiter, who quickly washed the spiders down a drain and warned me not to play with spiders. I still play with spiders and bugs today, however. My sisters and their boyfriends also set pallets on the grass and made out when they could get rid of me. Usually that cost their boyfriends a dime or quarter. I would still run home and tell my mother that they were kissing their boyfriends!


My Sister and Friend On Auditorium Lawn

 Something else about the Memorial Auditorium, they brought shows to town. I'm sure they charged for them, but I was always given a free pass. We only lived in the mobile home about a year, and when my dad couldn't make payments on it, we had to move. So the time would be around 1951 when one of my heroes came to town. I was given a pass for the show that night, and onstage was Lash LaRue and Al "Fuzzy" St. John, western stars I had watched at the picture shows downtown on many Saturdays. Lash would pop that 15-foot long bullwhip, and Fuzzy would roll a cigarette with one hand, then they would put on a mock fistfight for our entertainment. I sat in wonderment, as only an eleven-year-old boy could throughout the show. Then when it was all over, Lash and Fuzzy visited with the audience, and spoke with us. I even got a pat on the head from Lash LaRue!

Me Playing Cowboy

 However, there is sadness even in such glorious times as this. Much later, I learned that in 1951 the B Westerns were dying, and all of the western stars were making the rounds trying to promote interest in a dying entertainment industry. Their contracts were up in 1951 and '52, and the studios were not renewing them. Westerns were growing up, and TV was taking the place of the Saturday Matinees. Cowboy stars like Lash LaRue were drifting away, their careers finished.

About ten years after his last movie, the police found a man passed out in the gutter and threw him in the drunk tank to sleep it off. Someone at the station recognized him and notified the newspapers. The next day, the headlines read, "Cowboy movie star, Lash LaRue, arrested for public intoxication!" What could have been the final nail in his coffin actually revived his career to a small degree. TV networks heard about the arrest, and it wasn't long before Lash LaRue was making special appearances on network television. Conventions also started asking him to appear as Guest of Honor. Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson hired him in a bit part for their television remake of "Stagecoach". He died in obscurity at age 80 in 1996.

They looked so much alike that Lash LaRue could have passed for Humphrey Bogart's twin. The likeness was often a curse for Lash, as people would often mistake him for Bogart. He enjoyed telling one story at conventions that went something like this: One day an actress he worked with asked him:

"Are you related to Humphrey Bogart?"

"I don't think so," he replied.

"Hmm," the actress continued. "Did your mother by chance meet Bogart before you were conceived?"

When I met Lash LaRue in 1951, he was a giant. Perhaps his only claim to fame, besides his resemblance to Bogart, was that of a B Western movie star. But for kids growing up in the 1940s and '50s, our heroes were bigger than life. They were the good guys that we needed. The fathers we didn't have. They brought justice to the West, and gave us someone to emulate when we grew up. And that wasn't a bad thing.

 BTW, I too also had the honor and pleasure of meeting and shaking Lash LaRue's hand; he retired to Gaffney, SC, and I met him in the early 80s—over 30 years after Tom's first meeting with a hero.

Here's the incomparable Lash LaRue:



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