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Vol. 2, No. 3    March 2021
               This is a story about a close encounter I had a half-century ago with a young man who'd become a big movie star.
            Or maybe – probably – he didn't. I really have no way of knowing, because I can't remember his name or much of anything else about him. He was one of those people we all encounter in our lives; folks we meet and visit with and like, and then our circumstances change, time passes, and they fade like roadside phantoms in memory's rear-view mirror. I used to spend all kinds of time obsessing about this sort of thing, wondering where old near-girlfriends and short-term pals had gone, what they were doing, how I'd never see them again.
            I don't think so much about that anymore. But I do occasionally think of this guy.
            It was 1971, and he and I were both living, very temporarily, with hundreds of other Naval Reservists in a big block of four-story concrete buildings – as I recall them – on the Navy base in San Diego. We'd all enlisted in the old Viet Nam-era 2X6 program, which meant that we'd agreed to do two years of active duty and three years of monthly drills – one year of them before we went full-time, the other two after we were discharged and once again living our otherwise civilian lives. (I know that's only five years – for the final year of the six, you were inactive, which meant you were through with drills.)

Officially becoming a petty officer, January ’73, with USS NEW ORLEANS Captain Robert Carius. 
           Because all us Reservists started a year's worth of those once-a-month weekend drills as soon as we signed up, we were theoretically more than raw recruits when we were sent to boot camp. So, instead of the multi-week period regular Navy enlistees had to endure, we had a mere two weeks as boots, followed by another two weeks aboard a ship where we had cruise mates to show us the ropes. Those of us who made it through that fun-filled month were sent back home to continue with our regular drills until orders came for us to begin the two years we owed to Uncle Sam.
            (A digression: In February of '71, several months before I landed in San Diego, I'd flown from Tulsa to Chicago's O'Hare to go to my boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. The two seats next to me were taken by a kid, wearing a sailor suit that looked uncannily like mine, and his young mother. He kept pulling at my sleeve, saying, “MY sailor suit,” until we got airborne, and then he threw up on me.  After my two weeks as a boot, at a facility where the wind chills off Lake Michigan hit 40 below, I was sent with the rest of our group to New Orleans, where it was 80 above. Colds and seasickness pretty much ran neck-and-neck for the No. 1 malady during our two weeks of shipboard duty on the USS PUTNAM, a World War II-era destroyer. My cruise mate's name was Lou Payton; I later named the protagonist in my first novel after him.)

Graduating class of Naval Reservists, w/our Company Commander (the Navy’s version of a drill instructor), Mr. Bowie. I think I’m the guy under the “A” in “GREAT,” three rows down. 
           So here I was in late '71, living in concrete housing on the base in San Diego, sleeping in a three-tiered bunk and waiting to ship out. We Reservists were there to be issued the rest of our Navy clothing allotment, get all of our vaccinations, and, ultimately, receive our orders, which came in manila envelopes that magically appeared on our beds. One of my many inoculations – I think it was for bubonic plague – kept me in my bunk with a raging fever for a day or so. But I didn't miss much. If we weren't getting shots or clothes, or eating in the mess hall, we mostly had spare time;  for many of us, a good chunk of it was spent at the nearby enlisted-men's club, drinking and passing the days by getting to know one another, if only for a short period.  
            I don't know exactly where I met this guy. It could've been over a beer, or a meal, or even out in the gray concrete yard, where I spent considerable time reading vintage paperbacks I'd picked up at a collectors' bookstore in downtown San Diego. I do remember that we were drawn to each other because we considered ourselves fellow artists. By this time, I'd sold three comic-book scripts to EERIE Magazine and had a couple of other little publishing credits. His bailiwick, on the other hand, was acting, and he had some credits, too, mostly in dinner theater back in his hometown of Dallas – triumphant roles which, to hear him tell it, virtually assured him success in the movies. 
            Like most of the rest of us, he bitched about having a couple of years of his life ripped away from him by the government. With him, however, it seemed to be less a complaint than an obsession.
            “Wooley, I can't leave NOW,” he'd tell me. “I've got my career ahead of me. I've got a lot of momentum. I can't just walk away for two years.”
                 The thing about him I recall most is our last conversation. “You know, I've heard that if you pee in your bunk, they'll discharge you,” he told me. “You think that's true? That bed-wetters get out?”
            I said I didn't know, but it seemed like a pretty extreme thing to try. 
            “Oh, I'd do it in a minute if I thought it'd get me a ticket back home,” he returned. “You think it would? I'm going to be in the movies. I'd do anything to get back to my acting career.”
            It was only a few days later that I was out in the courtyard, reading, when I heard a voice from far away calling my name. I looked up and across the concrete span and saw a hand, waving out of a window up on the building's fourth story. That was the floor reserved for all the guys who'd washed out for various reasons – physical, psychological, or otherwise – and were getting prematurely discharged and returned to their lives as civilians.
            As I watched, a face appeared with the waving hand. And even at that distance, I could see the broad smile.
            “Wooley!” he shouted triumphantly. “I DID it.”
             And then he was gone.
            I never saw him again, unless it was on a movie or TV screen. And the hell of it is, even if I HAVE seen him, I'll never know it.

           I've written before in this space about my longtime chum and frequent co-conspirator Barry Friedman, a veteran standup comic, actor, and an astute and incisive writer/commentator. He got onto me last month because, in my newsletter piece about the movie DAN TURNER, HOLLYWOOD DETECTIVE, I didn't mention that he was in it.
            Well, he was. And he did a very good job playing a weasely gambler who ultimately gets the worst of a fight with the title character (played by Marc Singer), among other things. But that's not why I'm bringing him up now. It's because Balkan Press has released a couple of top-notch books by Barry: FOUR DAYS AND A YEAR LATER and THE JOKE WAS ON ME: A COMEDIAN'S MEMOIR.
            The first one has been out for a few months, but I want to note it here because it's one of the toughest and best things I've ever read about the unspeakable heartbreak of losing a child. At its center is Barry's 24-year-old son, Paul, who died in his own home of a drug overdose. During the course of the book, Barry lets us know about the myriad of ways Paul's relatives and friends respond as word gets out about his death, as the reactions begin among people brought together by this tragedy. In some cases, the mourners don't really even know one another, and Barry reports on their often-surrealistic interactions in the kind of clear-eyed, unhysterical manner that makes his anecdotes all the more harrowing. He doesn't cut the participants – even Paul – any slack, but he's every bit as hard on himself as he is on the wayward kids who likely contributed to Paul's demise, consciously or otherwise.  
            THE JOKE WAS ON ME is an extensive rewrite of his first book, ROAD COMIC, and while it retains the highly adult sexual content and language of the latter, it's infused with a wisdom and understanding that reflects the 20 years since the latter memoir came out. I wouldn't say Barry hasn't actually MELLOWED in those two decades, but he's reached an understanding with himself that underpins the new work in good and satisfying ways.
            I can't recommend either of them highly enough. Get 'em online or from your favorite bookstore.
         This month, the Oklahoma Center for the Book released its list of finalists for the Oklahoma Book Award. And, by golly, our TWENTIETH-CENTURY HONKY-TONK: THE AMAZING UNAUTHORIZED STORY OF THE CAIN'S BALLROOM'S FIRST 75 YEARS made the cut; we're one of four books in the final round of the non-fiction category.
            It's the first nomination for my TCHT co-writer, Brett Bingham. It's my fourth – three for non-fiction and one for fiction (for my 2000 novel DARK WITHIN, from HAWK Publishing Group). I have yet to win, but, as Alexander Pope famously wrote, hope springs eternal in the human breast. Or, to borrow Samuel Johnson's line about second marriages, thinking I might win this time represents the triumph of hope over experience.
            Still, my thanks to the folks at the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Speaking for both Brett and myself, we're honored.
        Remembering that 21-year-old Oklahoma Book Award nomination for DARK WITHIN led me to my archives, where I discovered I had a few more copies than I needed. These are all hardcover, in dust jackets, and I can sign them and personalize them if you wish. DARK WITHIN is a kind of technological horror story, having to do with gleaming metallic boxes that start showing up in the yards, barns, and gardens of a particular area of rural Oklahoma. Inside each of them is a character who promises to pay his hosts $100 a week to park one of those boxes on their property.
            That's the setup. Of course, the question of what's IN those coffin-like boxes eventually becomes paramount to our protagonist, setting the wheels in motion for a slam-bang, terror-filled confrontation. At least, that's the way I remember it.
            Through the end of March and throughout the month of April – or until my limited stock runs out – if you order any book from my website, you can get a copy of DARK WITHIN thrown in for five bucks.  Just add to your cart and I'll pick up the extra postage.
      Michael H. Price, Joey Hambrick and I just completed our latest FORGOTTEN HORRORS PODCAST, spotlighting the 1945 Republic Pictures spooker VAMPIRE'S GHOST. Written by one of my favorite pulp writers turned movie scripters, John K. Butler, with Leigh Brackett (apparently her first screen credit), it offers several new twists on an old theme, with character actor John Abbott playing a member of the undead who shows up in a African town as a nightclub owner. Pick it up wherever you get your favorite `casts, and let us know what you think on the FORGOTTEN HORRORS PODCAST Facebook page.  We're always happy to hear from you.
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