By Mike Lunsford
TERRE HAUTE — The comic books in Wilbur Hickman’s grocery store always sat in a spinning, white-metal rack that was tapered like a Christmas tree, and no less inviting than one. The rack stood just a few feet inside the glass doors that led into Wilbur’s Rosedale IGA when I was a kid, and it was a monument to boyhood temptation at 12 cents a copy.
I used to spin and read and spin and gawk and spin and peruse the comics on that stand, the grating squeak of its ungreased pedestal undoubtedly annoying the ladies who manned the nearby checkout stations. The rack was just about my only access to comic books when I was 10 or 11 and still going to the grocery with my mother in hopes of getting a box of candy cigarettes (there was no stigma about those then), a Zero bar, or red paraffin lips in exchange for helping with the overstuffed paper sacks laden with cereal boxes, canned goods and milk cartons.
Those were the days when Peter, Paul and Mary were “Blowin’ in the Wind” and the war in Vietnam was raging, of Lyndon Johnson and Walter Cronkite, and which my Great Uncle Bill summed up by saying that our country was “going to hell in a hand basket.” My older brother wore a leather jacket and listened to Bob Dylan on his 8-track tape player, my sister was into knee socks and horn-rimmed glasses, and I undoubtedly sported a pair of skinned knees and a flat top haircut.
The sound of Hickman’s still resonates in my head — the cha-ching of the brown, push-button cash registers, the ringing of a rotary dial telephone in the background, the whirring of the huge open refrigerated cases filled with turkeys and head-sized hams.
But, as much I wanted it, reward for my labors never came in the form of a single comic book. They were just too expensive in those days when Mom’s budget allowed for only bubble gum at a penny a piece or an orange sherbet push-up for a nickel. I’m certain, as well, that at some point she had read an article in “The Reader’s Digest” or “Good Housekeeping” that suggested that comic books were paving the road to juvenile delinquency, and that my next step would be “Mad Magazine,” then “Rolling Stone.”
Perhaps she feared that those weird tales would be the first step to my moving to Haight-Ashbury to take up dope smoking and free love, but I doubt it. It’s more likely that she knew that one thing led to another; every issue I wanted was also stuffed with advertisements for Daisy Air Rifles, replica hand grenades, and, horrors above all, the tactless and suggestive X-ray glasses. I still remember full-page ads for something called the Junior Sales Club of America, which offered me “terrific prizes or cash profits.” I think enrollment came with a free membership card…
I was actually into the tamest of comic books; Wilbur seemed to stock only the most conservative issues. There were no underground comics in his store — I doubt if there was a single copy in the whole county. The “Comics Code Authority” was still wielding its power in those days, so Mom really had nothing to worry about, although I still feel her reasoning was more economic than parental authority. She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, buy potato chips or Pepsi for us, either.
For me, it was the Green Lantern, as far as action heroes were concerned, although Batman and Superman (the 1950s George Reeves series was re-run on Channel 4 about every day) were always in consideration, had I been able to scrounge together the dime and two pennies to actually buy one.
I often picked up and thumbed through copies of “Our Army at War,” a World War II-influenced series that reminded me of Vic Morrow and “Combat,” which we regularly tuned into on the television. I also rarely passed up a copy of “Sad Sack,” another military-oriented comic, but mostly because its anti-hero was adept at avoiding work detail.
I tried just about every tactic in my arsenal to get Mom to buy a comic book for me. I even began asking for the “Classics Illustrated” that Wilbur kept in stock. Far from Archie and Jughead, they were comic book versions of real classic literature — a forerunner of today’s best graphic novels. How could Mom say no to an autobiography of Ben Franklin, or H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”?
“You can get the books at the library and make the pictures up in your head,” she said. Besides, they went for 35 cents a copy, so my chances were both slim and none. When your mom says no to “The Call of the Wild” and “The Last of Mohicans,” “Iron Man,” “Lois Lane” and “Captain America” didn’t stand a chance.
A few weekends ago I went to an auction, and on one table sat about 10 stacks of old comic books. They are not uncommon sights, as collectors who know about vintage comics come to explore for rare finds or to complete a set or just to buy and sell. I waited for the pile I most wanted, and for a reasonable $4, I picked up a few nice copies of “Batman,” “Roy Rogers” and “Blondie,” all issued in the summer of 1957 (they cost just a dime then). Every comic on the table was published before I was old enough to read, but thumbing through worn comic books was something I was used to; my cousin, Roger, kept a stack of his favorites in his bedroom closet, and I often headed to that sacred spot whenever I went over to his house to play.
I guess it didn’t really matter to me that much what comic book I got my hands on in those days. They weren’t an obsession with me, like, for instance, my box of plastic soldiers, but they were something I couldn’t quite get, so I wanted them all the more.
Now, I can afford a few comic books, but I’d rather have Superman help me fight the scourge of thinning hair and aching joints than save Metropolis from thugs or keep the earth from veering into the sun. One thing is certain: I sure wish times were as uncomplicated for us as they seemed to be when I was spinning that creaky, white rack at the IGA, no matter how the cashiers felt about it.
Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@
aol.com, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He will be presenting “The Writing Life: Stories From Home…” from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the ISU College of Business, 11th Floor Conference Room, on Feb. 25 as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Visit Mike’s Web page at mikelunsford.com.