Sunday, September 27, 2009

"The Madhouse Murder Mystery"--and a personal story of tragedy

Friday night, I left on an annual business trip. That is, to say, what I tell "the missus" each September 25th.

In truth, I withhold a dark secret of my past. It troubles me so that I don't know exactly what to do. Thus, I feel now is the time to "put my cards on the table" in this safety-zone.

I trust you will not judge me, dear reader. If you do, I beseech you to look deep into your heart, and dwell on past experiences of your life. Perhaps you will understand why I have made certain choices.

Dorrie is my second wife. Ours is, by and large, a marriage of convenience. I met Dorrie in 1991, while en route to an underwriters' seminar in Minneapolis. She was a desk clerk for TWA's Minneapolis outlet. It was a case of "like at first sight."

We courted via letters and long distance calls (this was in the very early 1990s, before the Internet would have facilitated such a long-distance romance).

Within six months, I'd offered a marriage proposal.

Neither of us harbored any illusions. We each wanted the same thing: a person with whom we could agreeably share the ins and outs of our daily routine existence. A companion, someone to fill the deadly emptying silences that can haunt a bachelor house or apartment.

We were wed, in a simple courthouse ceremony, in March of 1992. I had purchased our current residence a few years earlier. At that time, The Pantheon had its place of pride in the room that is now my study.

I am genuinely fond of Dorrie. Altho' I dearly wish she would accept my panelological side, she is, by and large, kind-spirited, generous, intelligent and, in so many ways, a calming influence on my life.

Each year, on September 25, I pack my bags and head to the "Tri-States Insurance Adjusters Guild Seminar." Don't bother to look that up on "Goggle"-- it is a fiction. It disguises a journey I feel I must make, on each September 25th, for the remainder of my days.

On that day, I drive 282 miles, to visit the cemetery where my first wife and my only son rest the eternal sleep.

Dorrie knows nothing of this. To her knowledge, I am a late bloomer--a man who was caught up in his career (and "hobby") to the exclusion of domestic life and romance. My life, before Dorrie, was simply spent alone, absorbed in work and panelology.

If only I could tell her... but I fear she would not understand, nor respond properly. We have been together for 17 years now. It is far too late, I fear, to spring such a huge piece of my past history upon her lap.

I met my first wife, Marilou, at a comic-book convention in New York City. The year: 1970. I was 24, and already deep into the realms of paneolology. Those, my friends, were the golden days of this pursuit. At this "con," for less than 50 dollars, I acquired significant runs of The Bouncer, Blue Circle Comics, Star-Spangled Comics (which feature the stunning humor-adventure of "Penniless Palmer"), and a few tantalizing odds and ends--including the very comic magazine I feature today's offering from.

Marilou was that rarest of things--a female panelologist. Her realms of devotion were in the archiving of romance, "cartoon critter" comics, 1950s humor and horror titles, and, as many were besotten of at the time, the comics of the "Marvel Age."

Friends, it was like a romantic motion picture. In the cramped, sweaty rooms of this convention, amidst pudgy, seizing hands, crowded about musty piles of vintage treasures, Marilou and myself kept crossing paths.

Each time, we both smiled, acknowledged one another, and asked simple questions:

"What are you looking for?"

"Is that your foot?"

"May I see that issue of Super-Mystery Comics when you're done with it?"

And so on. Innocent requests, made with mutual respect.

With each meeting, aspects of Marilou's charms began to dawn upon me. 'Til that time, my attempts in the "dating world" had been just that--attempts. They had always ended in failure and unpleasantness for me.

For one thing, the time and expense required of obtaining and sustaining a "steady date" were enormous, even back then. I chuckle now in remembrance of how little an "evening out" cost, circa 1967. But when that same money could just as easily be put towards a towering stack of panelological gems from a quarter-century earlier, the latter most frequently won out.

None of the women in my life could embrace or understand my panelological needs. One deluded woman took it upon herself to "surprise me." Obtaining the spare key to my apartment, she quite innocently elected to hurl my panelological archives into the alleyway.

Neatly tied with twine, 29 large bundles of my treasures just barely escaped the onslaught of the garbage truck. I had to literally throw myself upon the bundles (careful not to further damage them) until I could communicate with the sanitation crew.

For a five-dollar tip, one gentleman of the "garbage force" helped me return the precious booklets to my rooms. Thankfully, none of them were harmed, save a few torn covers.

Needless to say, that burgeoning romance died cold that day.

My fate was sealed when, unable to sleep, I had left my room in the YMCA, where I lodged for the convention weekend, with a small but potent stack of panelological "finds."

I located an all-night drug store with a luncheonette. They say New York is "the city that doesn't rest," and, friends, this is indeed true.

Over a favorite late-night combo of mine--a "patty melt" sandwich and a chocolate malted--I pondered the contents of an early 1939 issue of Amazing Mystery Funnies--the very item from which today's "special treat" is reproduced.

I'd just taken a sip of the cold malted, and was guiding the warm sandwich half to my mouth when I heard her voice: "Mind some company, mister?"

'Twas Marilou. She had purchased the same snack combination as had I! Kismet! Fate! She, too, held a stack of vintage comics--assorted Young Romance issues. I instantly recognized the solid handiwork of Jack Kirby and Joseph Simon.

"Did you know that the creator of 'Tuk the Cave Boy' and 'Solar Legion' was responsible for those romance comics?" I said, fighting back a stammer.

Her eyes widened. "Really? I thought the artist was just copying Jack Kirby." She sat down and perused one of the covers. "By George, you're right! You have a good eye."

"I, madam, am a panelologist." We shook hands and exchanged introductions. Marilou lived in Winston-Salem, where she worked as an elementary school art teacher. At the time, I was at the start of my first career--the assistant manager of a popular bowling alley in Dothan, Alabama.

We stayed up past dawn, walking the streets of The Big Apple, talking about panelology, life, philosophy, music--the usual topics borne of a new romance.

Over breakfast at a pancake house, I silently realized that I was smitten with this young woman--and that she and I were destined to live as one.

It would be three years before that realization became reality. Those years were consumed with meetings at comic conventions, constant letters, phone calls and panelological "care packages." I scoured the backwaters of the Southeast for key missing issues of the sundry titles she sought.

Marilou, in turn, coaxed some exceptional needs from my want-list. She had a knack for finding superb examples of these missing issues. She also located "upgrades" for several titles of interest to me.

At a Wonder-Con in 1973, I finally "popped the question," over the warbling harmonies of a barbershop quartet, singing in a Stuckey's pizzeria. I can't recall what it was I said, but I'll never forget Marilou's smiling rejoinder: "What took you so long, you big goof?"

Our wedding took place that November. It was a proud moment for my parents, and, I assume, for hers as well. Though we both wanted a panelological-themed wedding, we submitted to our elders' wishes for a more conventional ceremony.

Friends, we spent our wedding night reading from a significant run of Sensation Comics--a title we co-collected--that I unearthed in a barn-like junk shop I discovered, en route to the church.

I admit I arrived at my wedding dishevelled, sweaty and dusty. Yet proud! For the piddling sum of $45, I had acquired 93 issues of Sensation, all in sterling condition.

Oh, ours was not a chaste union--not by any means! We'd both agreed that love could be expressed just as easily through the shared joy of comic magazines as through the involved, oft-exhausting coupling of human bodies.

But such coupling did occur--and often. We rented a ranch house in St. Louis, Missouri--a convenient mid-point 'twixt her folks and mine. Here was housed our remarkable twin archive of panelology. It was a truly happy home. And, just as in the Fats Domino classic "My Blue Heaven," baby soon made three.

Marilou gave birth to a bouncing baby boy on January 23, 1975. We named him Jacob, in honor of Jack Kirby, whose birth name was Jacob Kurtzberg. The tot's middle name, Austin, honored my father. This continued a tradition. My middle name, James, was the name of my father's father.

Jacob grew up steeped in panelology. His was a healthy mixture of athletics and comic magazines. Marilou was a superb mother, and a vivacious wife. Together, we edited and produced a popular fan-zine you may have heard of: Panelologist's Pride.

It seemed that my life's dreams had magically coalesced. Hobby and househould joined as one. Truly, it was my personal blue heaven.

Then came the day of September 26, 1981. A day I shall never forget.

On the evening of September 25th, I was the keynote speaker at a small comic-con in Pennsylvania.

Marilou couldn't attend until the next day--a Saturday--due to the obligations of her teaching work.

I drove to Allentown alone on the morning of the 25th. I'd just received a bonus from work, and was champing at the bit to fill some holes on my want-list.

The night before, my presentation-- a slide-show (remember the Kodak Carousel?) on my pet theme--super-heroes without secret identities-- was fondly received by a small but buoyant crowd.

I awoke the next morn with the "contact high" of recognition and acclaim. I was sad Marilou couldn't see it, nor Jacob--he loved to see his "old man" take center stage.

While I dawdled over an omelet, Marilou and Jacob were well on their way to Allentown's Ramada Inn, home of this panelological gatherum. I anticipated a day at the dealer tables, haggling over needed diamonds for my archives--my wife and child by my side.

It was on a winding stretch of Highway 309, outside of Center Valley, that events conspired to permanently alter my life.

Incident #1: a farmer, in an attempt to neaten a slaughterhouse, accidentally severed a telephone wire. This shorted out the system for the entire Center Valley. For 14 hours, the area was without telephone access.

Incident #2: an ancient pick-up truck, laden with 20 50-gallon canisters of fresh butter, left a local dairy farm, to its intended destination of a "farmer's market" in nearby Coopersburg.

Incident #3: a group of amateur ornithologists, in search of the elusive yellow-throated Vireo, had parked their Volkswagen van on the shoulder of Highway 309. They neglected to note that some signage blocked the view of their parked van to oncoming motorists.

Here is what happened: the dairy farmer sneezed at a crucial bend in the road. He lost control of his truck, due to its poorly repaired brakes.

The truck collided with the Volkswagen van. On impact, the flimsy latch of the truck's back door flew open. The large containers of fresh butter spilled out on Highway 309. The farmer received serious head concussions; the ornithologists were so deeply absorbed in their pursuit that they did not hear the accident, nor know of it 'til returning to their vehicle, which had, by then, been impounded.

The farmer revived and staggered toward a nearby farmhouse, in order to report the accident. Of course, the news could not reach authorities. There was no telephone service.

Close to 1,000 gallons of butter coated Highway 309. The road was a bright golden death-trap.

At approximately 10:26 AM--as I was inquiring as to the price of a needed issue of More Fun Comics--my dear Marilou, and darling boy Jacob, traveling over the speed limit to attend the convention--took that same blind curve and skidded, at 70 MPH, across a vast thick field of butter.

Butter-such a pleasure when applied to hot corn on the cob! So enjoyable on a fresh slice of toasted whole-wheat bread! Who would ever consider it an agent of death?

Yet, on that morning, it took the lives to two precious souls. Marilou could not control the car--she had no traction, due to the extensive spread of butter on the smooth blacktop of the pavement. She, Jacob, and our Dodge Dart, burst into flames as they struck a thick old-growth tree on the left side of the highway.

The coroner ruled that their death was instant, and painless. It was of meager comfort to me, when the news awaited me on my return to St. Louis.

At the con, I'd wondered where Marilou and Jacob were. They had missed out on a lot of fun. I even had a surprise for them. I purchased a large lot of assorted "cartoon critter" comics from the 1940s and '50s, certain that several holes in Marilou's "want list" might be filled from this heap of pulp-paper.

Marilou was never to see those comic magazines--nor any other.

I was left with a gaping maw in my life. Panelology kept me going through several dark years. I retained my spirit of collecting--perhaps to overzealousness--as a balm for the unspeakable pain each new day brought to my world.

I quit my job, after the insurance settlement arrived, and spent three years as a vagabond. Living in motels and motor courts! Scouring rummage sales and antique stores and attics for rare treasures! Doing it all for the memory of Marilou.

I finally sold the St. Louis house, and transferred the future contents of The Pantheon to dry storage. As my coffers began to deplete, I revived an old career option--insurance adjustment--and took two years of community college courses. I was certified, and obtained the position I still hold today by 1989.

Marilou and Jacob are buried, side by side, in a secluded cemetery in St. Louis. I wish the groundskeepers would take better care of the place. My first task, upon approaching the final resting place of my first family, is to pull up weeds and remove soft-drink cans and Fritos sacks and such from the stones.

Then, on bended knee, I perform an annual ritual. I place, in a sealed Mylar bag, with archival backing board, one selection from Marilou's holdings in a special slide-down slot affixed to her headstone.

Jacob enjoyed tales of the unearthly and unfathomable. Upon his stone is rested a vintage horror or "sci-fi" comic magazine that he had found and collected in his short time on this earth.

I paid a stone mason handsomely to engrave Marilou's name in the same "font" as used on the logo of Young Romance; Jacob's name is sculpted in the style of the EC "New Trend" titles he so enjoyed. (Like myself, he was an early reader.)

It is obvious that someone--perhaps a lonely wandering panelologist--comes and removes these admittedly valuable comic magazines after my visit. So be it. But, for a time, my first family is reunited with an artifact of our great shared passion.

I compose these words at the office, where I sit alone. To Dorrie's knowledge, I am at the closing day of the conference, and perhaps just now checking out of my hotel room, the sooner to make the trip homeward.

Someday, Dorrie. Someday I shall tell you. I hope I have not waited too long. I hope my story shall not be a burden, when and if it is told.

In honor of Marilou, I present today the very story I perused, over the patty melt sandwich, when my dear first wife and I began our enchanted time together.

Fittingly, this is a morbid, somewhat primitive story, filled with dread and rife with graveyard imagery. I shall forego my usual "post mortem" comments. I feel that this sinister tale speaks for itself.

One quick note: as with the "Mister Midnite" tale posted here recently, this macabre short story is published in limited hues. Several pages offer a stunning use of mere black and white--the better to render the growing sense of mounting horror evoked in its unforgettable pages.

Until our next meeting, friends, I bid you "adeiu." I hope you understand me, and do not condemn or criticize me.

And worry not: I shall be home soon, eating one of Dorrie's rib-sticking meals, and content that I do, indeed, have someone to turn to in life's darkest hour.


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  3. Mason,

    I tried posting some comments earlier, but reconsidered some of my hasty thoughts and withdrew them.

    I was very sorry to hear your sad story.

    You seem like a nice guy. I don't entirely understand where you're coming from, but your tastes don't seem any worse than most comics fans I've met... in fact they are more interesting than many.

    Hang in there!

  4. Dear James,

    Your kind regards are humbly accepted--and appreciated.

    Tragedy is an ingredient in the recipe of life, is it not? The best we can hope for, in our existence, is to get a "balanced diet" of the best--and worst--life has to offer.

    I have drunk deep from each well, and am still a reasoning able-bodied man, at age 63.

    I am glad that you deem my presentations "more interesting than many!" Do you know a young fellow named Prescott? Perhaps he lives in your neighborhood. He shares our enthusiasm--and then some!--for the wonderworlds of panelology.

    James, if I might present a special story just for your enjoyment, you have but to inquire. You are a true member of the Pantheon.