Tuesday, March 31, 2009

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Last Friday night I had the opportunity to see She Wore a Yellow Ribbon at a film forum ran by the Long Beach School for Adults. Generally I enjoy going to the film forum when I can, because they show classics on the 'big screen' (actually an auditorium). In addition to the movie, you get to see trailers for the next week's film, a cartoon from the 1930s, and sometimes a Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges short before the feature. Presently we are following a serial (those who went to the movies in the 1930s and 1940s will remember these - when you went to the movies on a Saturday, they would have not only a double feature but a serial as well.) The serial that we've been watching for the past seven or eight weeks is "Jungle Girl," based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. You get all of this for the huge fee of one American dollar.

Now, "Jungle Girl" is a treat unto itself. But last Friday night we were also treated to a wonderful showing of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon . As I watched it, two elements stood out that I, I'm ashamed to say, have taken for granted up until now. One is John Wayne; the other is Monument Valley and its role in the Western movie.

Now most of us have taken the John Wayne movies for granted and some people even consider him a cliche, an icon of an America that's long passed. Yellow Ribbon isn't necessarily one of Wayne's best pictures; many people think of The Shootist or True Grit or Red River (one of my favorites) and on and on. But I thoroughly enjoyed this film, for it reintroduced me to Wayne in a way that makes me want to revisit his movies. There are many that I haven't even seen.

I read somewhere that his role in this movie -- a Calvary captain on the verge of retiring who is forced to take two women along on his final detail -- was his favorite. And it shows. He's easy to watch here: fresh, not affected in any way, able to just have some fun with it. He was only 42 when he made this movie, but he plays a man close to retirement. And he does it very well. He is very convincing as a 60 year old.

Wayne is just one of an outstanding cast: a very young Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Victor McLaglen, Harry Carey jr. and John Agar. They are all complimented by the talents and power of the extraordinary director John Ford, the cinematographer Winton C. Hoch (who won an Academy Award for his work on this), and last, but certainly not least, the magnificent Monument Valley. Actors, directors, crew and landscape are all balanced perfectly. Oh yes, and the tradition of the Cavalry and that song -- that wonderful song -- are additions that create a perfect tribute to the Western genre.

Seeing the Monument Valley on the big screen was the other thing that made watching this movie an extraordinary event. Because this is probably one of the few times, if not the ONLY time, that I have seen the Monument Valley, in a Western, on the big screen. Yes, I know - there have been plenty of other movies that have shown the Valley: Thelma and Louise; Forrest Gump first come to mind. But they aren't Westerns. And, as we all know, the Monument Valley was MADE for Westerns.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, a time when the Western was fading from the movie houses and most could only be seen on television. So my only experience with Monument Valley has been for the most part from a 20" screen. Other exposure has been from photgraphs or from books about John Ford and the history of the Western. And it now can even be the wallpaper on my computer screen. But last Friday, seeing it in a Western, as large as life with the exception of being there in person, was a revelation.

The colors are striking, but so is the vastness of the valley, which plays tricks on your eyes because you don't know how big it is except for a few fleeting moments. These soldiers live, eat, fight, love and die without never leaving the valley. You get sucked in to their small world, but the mountains are always there.

I almost wept when a large herd of buffalo filled the screen. Two characters sit atop their horses and watch in wonder as the herd flows by. I remember when they were even more plentiful, one of them says wistfully. Those were the days, the other sighs. How prophetic.

Any review of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in print will no doubt talk about the landscape. One story is how the cinematographer wanted to stop shooting one day when a thunderstorm rolled in. This was a Calvary picture, and there was plenty of metal on the uniforms, saddles, and bridles, not to mention the camera equipment. Lightning could make things quite electrifying, so to speak. No way, John Ford told him. We continue the shoot. And they did, to the serious consternation of the crew. They shot through lightning and thunder, and actual lightning can be seen in some of the scenes.

It was shot in 1949, before the anti-hero became popular and before gratuitious violence became a staple of Westerns in the 1960s. Yes, it's nostalgic and sentimental and Indians are treated no more than like movie props in this. But for me, it was a big wake-up call. Don't take Wayne, Monument Valley or the Western for granted. They are special unto themselves; combined, they make for one damn incredible movie.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A cure for my Monday morning: photos from the garden

Here's some photos from the secret garden this morning. I've been taking photos first thing in the morning before work, because it's been wonderfully overcast. But this takes some doing - I am inherently lazy and I also don't like to change my schedule.

I love the lop-eared bunny. Short of having a live bunny (Xena would love that), a fake one works pretty well for photos. I got this one at Big Lots for $6.99.

A yellow finch (I think) is one of many that visit the bird feeder on the other side of the fence.

I was worried about the pink rose bush below. I wasn't sure if it was going to get enough sun. Judging from this bloom, I think it should be okay.

And of course Annie has to get into the act. Her favorite position here: with her rear end plastered next to my leg, wanting a butt scratch.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dream City - Big Little Books Hit the Big Time

Rarely are Big Little Books mentioned in mainstream media or in books, much less as a centerpoint of a novel. Now Brendan Short has made these tiny novelties of the Great Depression the holy grail for the protagonist of his novel "Dream City."

For those of you who aren't familiar with Big Little Books, these were small (3 5/8" X 4 1/2") hardcover books geared towards young audiences in the 1930s. Besides their small size, the other standard feature was that each page of text was paired with an accompanying illustration on the opposite page. They were many times reprints of stories that had originally been published in pulp fiction magazines. Popular pulp, comic, radio and movie characters were features in Big Little Book stories, ranging from Tom Mix, cowboy hero of the 1920s, to Dick Tracy to Buck Rogers to Shirley Temple. Big Little Books were published by the Whitman Company; other companies soon followed with their own lines. The Saalfield Company reprinted at least 5 of my grandfather's Wild West Weekly stories under their own books that were, confusingly called Little Big Books. Two of them are shown here. The Golden Age of the production of Big Little Books was from 1932 to 1938, although they were sporadically produced in different formats up until the 1970s.

Short's protagonist, Michael, grows up in the Great Depression. He's unlucky from the beginning: his father is a petty criminal beholden to a local gangster and his mother is a very unhappy woman who regrets her marriage and is drawn to a local religious group and its leader. Finding herself pregnant but desperate to get out of her situation, she attempts to abort her baby and dies. This is not a spoiler alert - this happens very early in the book and is one of the reasons why Michael spends most of the rest of his life looking for his mother, through the avenue of Big Little Books.

Michael continues to collect, survives a harrowing childhood living with his father and eventually leaves. He drifts in and out of other peoples lives, develops some pretty seamy habits. Short expands on Michael's life by interweaving his life with others who drift in and out of his life, such as a man who originally worked for the Whitman Company, writing letters to the many young fans of Big Little Books who think their heroes are living at the Whitman headquarters. All of the characters deal with disappointments in their lives in various ways that I found compelling, but sometimes their motivations and their interactions with each other were less than believable. Still, all in all, I found it to be a good read and for the most part could not put it down.

If you want to know more about Big Little Books and other companies' publications of the same type of reading, go to Larry Lowery's website. Lowery wrote a comprehensive index of Big Little Books back in 1980 and it can be purchased from his site. There are plenty of other sites as well to get more information.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Los Angeles Pulp and Paperback Show, some family photos and a secret garden

Phew - been really busy lately...family in town and then friends in town and then this week it's taxes, blah, blah, blah.

First: an announcement for pulpsters: this Sunday, (the 29th), is the annual Los Angeles Pulp and Paperback show in Mission Hills. For those of you interested, it's from 9 AM to 4 PM and is at the Guest House Inn, 10621 Sepulveda Blvd which is right where the 405 frwy and the 118 frwy intersect. This show has taken place every year since the mid 1980s. This will be my first year at the show and I plan on posting a report afterwards. I've been looking for issues of ADVENTURE from the 1920s and 1930s - I hope to find some there.

I had a great time with my family - my sisters Linda and Becky, and my mom who just celebrated her 81st birthday - when they came down a few weeks ago and stayed for four days. We are all antique and flea market nutcases, so we spent the first day here at the Long Beach Flea Market, which is the third Sunday of every month and a fabulous time, every time. People have always told me about the Rose Bowl flea market, but honestly, I've never had the desire to go - why should I, when I can go to the Long Beach show which is roughly 5 minutes from my house?

We also spent some time with my aunt Pat (who is my grandfather's daughter and has collected almost the entire Wild West Weekly issues that have his stories) and we spent some time in Orange, which is full of antique shops and had lunch at Watson's Drug Store. Here's a photo of us: me on the left, Pat, my mom, Linda and Becky. Becky and I had a great time rooting through the old fashioned candy they sold - remembers candy cigarettes and the bubble gum cigars? Those are probably why I started smoking when I was 12 years old, and why I have had thousands of dollars of dental work as an adult. I still have a sweet tooth. At least I quit smoking.

During all the craziness of the past few weeks, I did get a chance to read a novel, Dream City, by Brendan Short, that was published last fall. Big Little Books play a large role in this book. I plan on posting a review tomorrow, when I have more time to devote more time to it.

I've also been busy with a fun little project at the house I'm now renting. The owners, who lived in this house prior to me moving in this January, had built a dog run in the back yard. As you will see, it was fully enclosed by a tall wooden fence, with only a few holes drilled in so the poor dogs could look out while they were penned in. While I won't go into that part of the story, I will show you what it looked like when I moved in. It was nothing but mud, weeds, petrified dog poop, a few abandoned dog crates and a couple of tarps.
But I did notice that the space had a certain feeling to it - I couldn't pin any words to it, but it just felt like a nice little enclosure, despite the dog poop, and that it could be turned into something special. So I've decided to turn it into a secret garden. I have just planted some small plants for now, some bulbs that my friend Kris gave me, three roses that my aunt gave me, and other things that I see along the way. I don't want to spend a lot of money - this house is a rental, after all, and times are tough anyway - but I'm hoping that by summer this will be a really special little hideaway. Oh, and my sisters found a cute little bistro table and chair set at - where else - the Long Beach Flea Market. Here's what it looks like as of yesterday. I took this in the middle of the day, so pardon the glare. I'll post other photos as the year progresses.

I'll finish with a photo of my sister Becky and me with the wonderful quilt that my sister Linda made for me.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Samuel H. Nickels: prolific pulp fiction writer and creator of Wild West Weekly's "Hungry and Rusty"

Recently I received an email from a woman named Sue Appleberry, who told me that her grandfather was Samuel H. Nickels, who had been a pulp fiction writer during the Great Depression and a regular contributor to Wild West Weekly. I looked up her grandfather and found that he was the author of the “Hungry and Rusty” stories that ran for almost the entire duration of the magazine. Mr. Nickels wrote the Hungry and Rusty stories under his own name. In addition he wrote under other pseudonyms that were “house” pen names owned by Wild West Weekly. I looked on Larry Estep’s WWW CD and counted a total of 234 stories attributed to Nickels. He also wrote the Billy the Kid stories attributed to Kent Bennett.

Sue and her family were kind enough to send this short memoir that her grandfather wrote. In addition, Sue has some recollections of her grandfather and her mother’s role in his pulp writing career; those are posted after Mr. Nickels' story.

I found Mr. Nickels’ story very interesting. Like other pulp writers, Mr. Nickels had a very wide and varied past and fell into pulp writing almost by accident. Makes for great reading. Here it is, unedited and in its entirety. This is a long post, so grab that cup of cocoa, sit in your favorite chair, and enjoy a good story.

P.S. Sue is looking to rebuild her family's collection of Wild West Weekly's that include her grandfather's stories. If you know where she can obtain some, please post it in the comments. Thanks.

(1883 – 1950)

I was born January 19, 1883 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, then the heart of Kentucky’s moonshine and feud belt. I am of old Colonial Scotch-Irish ancestry, so I guess you’d say my nationality was de-cidely American.

Well, since the stork wished me on my unfortunate parents back in that little Blue Ridge Mountain village so many hectic years ago, I’ve been a great many places and into a little of everything. I’ve been everything from cornetist and band leader with a circus to a plain ornery cowpuncher. I’ve been saw filer in a sawmill, black-smith, tinner, carpenter, farmer, worked on a steamboat, been a traveling salesman for wholesale clothing house, trapper, amateur lightweight boxer – darn it, I’ve even beat a bass drum and played the zamora for a hootchee-coochee dancer in a side show and been end-man in a minstrel, doubling in brass on the street.

I’ve been in New Mexico twenty-four years, living practically all of that time on a ranch in Lincoln County. This is why I confine my writing entirely to western stories. I’ve been away from the East so long that I am really more of a Western man than an Easterner. I’ve been here so long and have associated only with ranch people so many years I can’t even think as an Easterner any more.

I started writing many, many years ago, but never made any attempt to sell my stuff. Until about ten or twelve years ago, the thought of my making a business of writing never entered my head. I have written every since I was a boy in knee trousers, but did so entirely for my own amusement and, the pleasure I derived from it. When alone on the ranch I would take a pencil and paper and write story after story, work them over and polish them, then burn them. Like most cowboys will sit down of an evening to play solitaire, or smoke or read, I would pass away my idle moments writing a story. But I only wrote them for the stove.

The turn came when I was pretty badly hurt roping a wild steer from a green horse on the side of Tucson Mountain near Carrizozo. I was laid up for a long, long time. A cowboy amigo was sitting by my bed talking to me one afternoon when Carl Elmo Freeman drove past in a new car. The cowboy waved at Freeman, then laughed and turned back to me. “These shinny new cars don’t give a hoot who drives them, do they?” he chuckled. I said, “Who was that hombre?” “Why that was Doc Freeman,” he replied. “He’s a writer. He writes stories for magazines. I seen a story by him in the Country Gentlemen just a few days ago.”

Well, for a moment I was thunderstruck. I stared at my amigo without hardly seeing him. I was thinking of the stacks of stories I had burned up. At least it had begun to filter through my thick head that people sold that sort of stuff – that editors actually paid money for it – and people read it. Gosh!

I hardly knew when that cowboy left me. When he forked his horse and rode away, I had my wife bring me a tablet and pencil. Right there in bed, propped up by pillows and a cob pipe fogging between my teeth, Samuel H. Nickels went to work. And did I work! I’ll say I did! With a wife and three tiny children to think of, who wouldn’t? Of course, my wife was teaching a little country school, but who ever heard of a school teacher having any money? Besides, it was near vacation time. Darn it, I had to help. I had to write something that would sell.

I wrote story after story, and got my wife to copy them off at night with pen and ink, and that’s the way I sent them out. I had no typewriter, and didn’t even know I needed such a tool. No, but believe it or not, poor old Al Sessions read my first miserable yarn and wrote me a long letter about it, telling me to keep right on. Well, he needn’t have told me that. The Devil himself couldn’t have stopped me. I always had written with never a thought of profit, and I’d keep it up whether I ever sold anything or not. You can’t stop a guy like that – unless you shoot ‘im.

Well, I kept plugging away, sending out dud after dud, and getting letters from editors everywhere – not just rejection slips. (I got plenty of those, too.) This went on for about a year, then the doctors let me get out of bed. I spent that summer in Las Vegas while my wife was attending the Normal there. My wife got a job teaching in the Carrizozo school that winter, so we moved to town early in the fall.

It was there that I finally became acquainted with Carl Elmo Freeman. My wife went out to see his wife about some Eastern Star business, and I tagged along. While the women folks were talking, I confessed to the Doctor that I was “plumb took down with a bad spell o’ writin’.” That I maybe had all the symptoms, includin’ the itch to write, but without any of the success that should accompany it.

Freeman at once took me in hand. He told me for the love of Pete to get a typewriter. He then read some of my stuff and made suggestions. In short, he started me on the right road. And I will pause here to state that I’ll never forget him for it. I’ll say that he is certainly one prince of a fine fellow, and I only wish that more of the writing fraternity of New Mexico could know him as I do.

Well, my wife and I skimped and bought an old second-hand typewriter. I started taking a course in writing from the Author & Journalist of Denver, and I worked hard all winter, but sold nothing. Oh, I got plenty of letters of encouragement, but no checks.I even got a nice letter from The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, and Liberty wrote No that they had just bought a story by another author that was very much like the one I sent them, and that they would have used mine were the two not so close together. I ran my old typewriter until long past midnight that night.

That summer, the wife went up to attend the Normal at Vegas alone. I stayed at home, looked after the children and wrote, wrote, wrote. One day, I got a story back from Ronald Oliphant of Wild West Weekly, and with it came a long letter suggesting certain changes on the last few pages. I made those changes and had the story back in the mail that night. A week went by, and then the unbelievable happened. I had a nice check from Street & Smith. Hooray! The ice was broken!

Maybe I didn’t need that money! Yes, I needed it badly, but I didn’t cash it. No, sir! I wanted the little wife to see it. I didn’t even let her know I had it until she came home, then I presented it to her. Yes, and woman-like, she had to take a good cry over it.

Since then, I’ve sold to Ace-High Magazine, Adventure, Wild West Weekly, Triple-X Western, High Spot, Excitement, etc. I have been running the “Hungry and Rusty” series in Wild West Weekly for a long, long time. The stories of Billy the Kid in the same publication under the nom de plume of Kent Bennett are also mine. Others of mine appear in Wild West under the house nom de plumes of Nels Anderson and Philip F. Doors. [note from LP: the correct names are Nelse Anderson and Philip F. Deere.]

I have been thinking of bringing out those stories of Billy the Kid in book form one of these days, and I may do the same with the “Hungry and Rusty” yarns. I already have enough of both on hand to fill a few volumes, and still retain my book rights on them.

I have about stopped cow punching. I am so busy with my writing that I seldom every get on a horse any more. We have a ranch and cattle on the west side of Carrizozo Mountain near Carrizozo, but I keep men employed to do my riding. I merely oversee things and help some at branding time.

Here are some of Sue’s recollections of her grandfather:

Sam Nickels left Ft. Thomas / Covington, Kentucky for his health. He had one bad bout of pneumonia after another -- the last one the doctor diagnosed as typhoid pneumonia and by that time he only had half lung to get by on. Later on, he would lose his hearing and develop what doctors told him was tuberculosis of the spine and spent much of his time in severe pain. He did, however, outlive the same doctors who told him he had only 6 months to live by about 30 years. And it didn’t stop him from being a prolific writer.

Sam Nickels took the train to Tularosa, NM, where he "rented" a cabin from an Uncle whose last name was Horsely. He began his life in the west with a great sense of adventure; as an avid hunter, his evening meals consisted of whatever game he brought home that day. I don’t know how long he lived there, but he soon began to fit into the local community and earned money by various means, including metalworking.

We have some other early Sam Nickels history, but it's in storage. However, many of the stories he wrote were based on the history he absorbed during the time he was a "traveling salesman" in New Mexico. He traveled by wagon to many of the little country stores in the New Mexico Mountains with samples of the material the storekeepers could use for selecting in their clothing purchases. Because there were few if any hotels in the little villages, he stayed in the homes of the local people, many of whom did not speak English. His hosts usually sat around after the evening meal and told stories to entertain their guest. Many of these were tales about Billy the Kid, as the Hispanics were great friends of Billy.

Now, when Sam Nickels started out, he didn’t speak Spanish -- it's not a popular language in the Kentucky / Virginia / Ohio area. However, he soon became fluent in it and used the information that was so generously shared with him in his stories and was considered the foremost expert on this outlaw for quite some time. He was one of the most talented men ever known – he was very artistic, played almost every instrument available, taught music lessons when he wasn't writing stories, and made little chairs for his grandchildren and told them stories of Ali Baba, Peter Rabbit and other fairy tales. The census lady who came to my door in Phoenix in 1983 had taken trumpet lessons from him.

Now Sam’s wife, Bernice, is an unsung heroine in this adventure – she and Sam had 3 children, William Henderson, Marjorie Elaine and Dorothy Louise, my Mother. She not only taught school to many children, sometimes all 8 grades, made Christmas stockings for each child’s brothers and sisters every year, walked to school when the roads were closed by bad weather, washed her own family’s clothes on a scrub board and went to summer school to get her college degree, but she did everything she possibly could to help her husband achieve his dreams. …. When I was about 12 years old I was really excited when I found copies of some of the old stories on the back porch. As I showed my “treasures” to my Grandmother, she said, “If it weren’t for me he would never have published any of them.”

“He wouldn't ?” I asked. “No”, she said, “You have no idea how discouraged he used to get. I really had to work to make him see how talented he was. I often had to keep after him not to give up.” With all her other work, both at home and at school, until my Mother was able to type, she also copied all of his stories by hand or typed them so he could send them to the publishers. Not many wives could or would do this.

But one of the favorite legends in our family is the time Sam thought his wife was an intruder. To give you a little background information, their house was very close to the railroad. The trains usually slowed down enough near the road to their house so men riding the rails would jump off and walk up to the house for a meal. So my Grandfather usually had a gun nearby, because my Grandfather is deaf and hampered by the damage to his spine, not to mention the fact that he was born in the Appalachians, where guns were always in the house and used when necessary. The following incident is my personal recollection from what my Grandmother told me.

My Grandmother milked the cow and fed the chickens and the horses every evening, and came back into the kitchen at the front of the house to put the milk into the refrigerator. Well, for reasons, that I can no longer recall, on this particular evening she changed her nightly routine. Not only did she come back to the house much later than usual when it was almost dark, but she came in the back to the living room. On the other side of the living room my Grandfather was resting in their bedroom, totally unaware that she was not in the kitchen.

As she opened the door, the doorstep vibrated and the pail on the bucket rattled. As she stepped into the room, she noticed a piece of paper on the floor, and leaned over to pick it up. Just as she did, there was a loud bang and a bullet whizzed past her head – right in front of her eyes! She shrieked and dropped the milk bucket; milk went everywhere!

When her heart started beating again, she hollered at her husband to see if he was okay. When he said he was, she flew through the bedroom door to find out what in the world was the matter with him. He, of course, was just as upset. He thought she was in the kitchen and a stranger was trying to get in the back door.

Total damage for the evening a bullet hole in a mirror frame, a large, large hole in the wall behind it, spilt milk and a good case of nerves for my Grandmother and the shakes for my Grandfather. They patched the wall and hung a picture over it. If she had stepped inside the door and been a half an inch closer that bullet wouldn’t have missed. Sam was a crack shot, wall or no wall, so it’s lucky he had a neat little wife. But Sam also had a mad wife on his hands for a few minutes that night.

But, all in all, the two of them were an amazing couple. My mother and my aunt used to laugh about the fact that they were thirty years ahead of their time. Their dad stayed home with the kids and their mom went to work.

Mr. Nickels’ essay and Sue Appleberry’s recollections are posted here with Sue’s permission.
If you have any questions regarding Mr. Nickels’ career as a pulp writer, please post them as a comment here. Thanks.