February 28, 2015

ESSAY: "WESTERN PULPS AND SIMILAR MAGAZINES OF DEPRESSION HUNGERS" BY TOM SHEEHAN

Sheehan served with 31st Infantry, Korea 1951 and graduated from Boston College, 1956. Poetry books include Ah, Devon Unbowed; The Saugus Book; Reflections from Vinegar Hill; and This Rare Earth & Other Flights. Korean Echoes nominated for Distinguished Military Award and The Westering, 2012, nominated  National Book Award, and 26 Pushcart nominations.




Western Pulps and Similar Magazines of Depression Hungers

In my early years, in the 1930s, the Depression in full swing, my adventurous spirit, hunger and thirst for new things at a full gallop, pulp magazines stuffed much of the void. They filled the empty spaces and often the empty stomachs waiting on a late meal of canned salmon, peas and a white sauce I remember to this day, or a meal of a quart of real oven-baked beans and a loaf of brown bread from a converted garage building just down the street on Charlestown’s Bunker Hill Ave, and all the lamb kidneys I could buy at a corner market with change from a dollar.  


Often that simple meal fed the early five of us.


As for satisfying my reading needs, I particularly loved G-8 and His Battle Aces, Nippy and Bull, Doc Savage and his crew, Lamont Cranston as The Shadow and any pulp westerns I could get my hands on, barter for, even those with the covers torn off, or had the title stripped so they could not be put back on another shelf, to be sold as new. The covers were glorious paintings of cowboys in full gear and riding horses with wild eyes, their guns drawn and firing away, their lassos working a whirling magic, or running ahead of a cattle stampede or Indians chasing them to cover. The west was dynamic, a real place that hung out there on the edge of the rest of the country.


There was therefore a gastronomical and a literary connection for me where I lived less than 200 yards from history itself, Old Ironsides in Charlestown, MA Navy Yard, my father in the Marine Corps across the street from our cold water flat in a three-decker building on Bunker Hill Ave, and uphill from us stood the Bunker Hill Monument. Often he served as charge of quarters aboard that floating piece of history still making the rounds for us in their yearly turn-abouts.  And many of those times were spent in my carriage when he baby-sat me while my mother shopped or completed other errands; peace times have special perks.


I seemed hungry much of the time those days, for those late meals, and for the accompanying adventures that reading pulp magazines brought to me, my mind exploding for the next few years, until girls intruded in their special way, a football felt comfortable in my hands, or a line drive into left field could be hauled in with a sprint and a sure glove.


Often when I select a name for a character in one of my stories, I feel some unique but unknown connection persuading me in a choice of names from a distant past aboard a fictional horse at a lope, trot or gallop across a pulpy page of print, or some character from Doc Savage or The Shadow, in a deliberate manner, making his name or the names of cohorts echo in the back of my head.


I always welcome such intrusions, calling to be repeated.


For a time they were real for me, and I try to make such characters real again, weaving them to do their thing in late stories I write, westerns, thrillers, or folk tales breaking out of the mind.


With over 370 cowboy stories committed to one Internet site alone, characters come to me looking to be named: I have uncovered Caleb Bonner, Mexico George, Lakota Betty, Otto Pilsner, Tobin Rally, Yardley Doyle McKee, Big Jack Tuppence (Coin of the Realm), Clay Hartung, Bad-Boy Goode, Bruce Danby (Pony Express rider), Doc Hannah, Falcon Eddie, Gregory Tolliver the Tascosa Gunsmith, Mrs. Binnie Minn of Shangri-La, No-Hugs Calhoun, Plumbeck the Fiddler, Will Halfloaf the Bumbler, and Crackbak Mellon-Mellon. I feel there’s an adventure coming up attached to a character’s name.


I call it romance of the language, the demand of phonetics playing at my ear, the sounds calling to be repeated from the reading past.


Memory knows yet the reading niches I had; to be alone, on a rooftop with the pigeon coops, in a cellar with the dust of coal in the air from a recent delivery, or in a portion of a hallway where the tenants were off working, all of them, all making their way to today’s  computer at my command.


In those delicious hours, the cowboys came and went, G-8 flew in and out, Doc Savage did his thing, and I reaped all the rewards of their good deeds. Those characters and their good deeds are still with me: they fed a huge hunger in me, a banquet for the Depression's bereft, all the parts of me growing, my appetite getting prodigious. .


In the lightning flash of a good, caring old lady of the books, found in another story, I was soon sitting in Marleah Graves' second grade class at the Cliftondale School (now named in her honor), far from the west and the inner city store shelves of pulp magazines loaded with adventure, the written word, and the dynamics of colored covers. But, in short order, this most affable and informative creature flung wide open all doors for imagination and memory that, at least to this very point, maintain a sense of grace, an awareness of belonging, and a grasp at their edges; one might call it true hunger.


It’s ever pay-back time for me, thirsts assuaged, a new course continually being served to the hungers I own up to, scratch for, parcel out in knifed pieces, delight in at extraordinary times.


~Tom Sheehan

1 comment:

  1. Fun to read this. Tom clearly describes what is was like then. I was born in 1940, the last year of the depression babies. So, my memory had not kicked in yet, but a few things well up into the 40s displayed depression era lives. I remember a few. Thanks, Tom

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