Control click heading above to hear episode from November 19, 1940 which involves Yamilton's Department Store seen at far right middle in the aerial view. Go to the
for many more episodes.
At left on wagon is Mr. Gumpox, mentioned by Ray Bradbury in his introduction to The Small House Half-Way Up In the Next Block: Paul Rhymer's Vic and Sade
(McGraw-Hill, 1972), in which Bradbury reflected on the mood of middle-class midwest America with its Sunday papers, tire swings and dime stores:
If this introduction were done out of mere Nostalgia, forget it. I would like to believe I am writing it for better reasons than that; solid and incontrovertible reasons having to do with human beings, a certain time and place, and that elusive thing called Creativity.
Paul Rhymer, like his mysterious Mr. Gumpox and his horse, passed through the alleys of our lives a long time ago. Because he worked in a field that was mostly garbage we figured that he, like Mr. Gumpox, must be a garbageman. Often, no one bothered to look in his wagon to see what it was he was gathering from the backyards of our time and living in that strange year 1932 and on up into the Forties.
In truth, Paul Rhymer was a junk collector, which is a far step up from garbage. He collected bits and pieces of mediocrity from all our commonplace occupations, all our inane conversations, all our bored afternoons and long evenings when all we could think of to do was trot down to the YMCA to watch the Fat Men Play Handball.
In my time and my town, Waukegan, Illinois, not so very far away from where Paul Rhymer was born, it was going down to the train station to watch the newer and yet newer trains roar through without stopping. Or that miraculous day when the dirigibles Akron or Macon actually flew over our lake, signifying a future we could hardly comprehend.
I was born in that little house half-way up in the next block. I am Rush Gook. My Mom and Dad were first relatives to Vic and Sade. I called my father Gov'. Which is neither here nor there, for I am writing this Introduction not because of saccharine sentiment but because of positive identification. Paul Rhymer got us dead-on in his sights but, good man that he was, didn't shoot us dead. Instead, he celebrated our incredible simplicities, our dull, long days that were made bearable through love. The things that my Mom and Dad and brother Skip threw away, he saved. String, old clocks fixed to the point of ruin, tire-swings out of trees. But, most of all, conversations more brilliant in their pointlessness, circling around nothing, than anything written since by Pinter or Beckett.
In all this, of course, Paul Rhymer and his ouija-board were helped out by his wondrous alter-ego Uncle Fletcher. We all had an Uncle Fletcher or someone like him hidden away in the woodwork of our childhood, an aunt or grandpa, who spoke riddles and wisdom or sublime nonsense, sometimes all in one breath. And perhaps we love Uncle Fletcher above all the other live and kicking creatures in Vic and Sade, because he glided through life, only half-hearing, half-seeing what went on around him. Amazing man, one felt he could have gone through the San Francisco earthquake and emerged with a tale of someone in East Cairo, Ill., aged 97, married a woman 101, adopted a son aged 75, later died. How can you resist a man like that? Each of us envied his half-deafness, his ability to shape Reality to his dream. We all felt that when death finally tapped Uncle Fletcher, mortality would be confounded and put off, too.
If I'm not careful, this Introduction will run three times longer than it should be. For suddenly, in writing it, my favorite moments come back as clear as bells ringing across a valley on a bright spring morn. I have known Bill Idelson, who enacted the role of Rush Gook, as a good warm friend for some ten years now. I never cease to love hearing him talk, for while our ages are close, his voice is still the bright young voice of Rush.
One night not so long ago, Rush, or Bill as I call him, said that one of his favorite old Vic and Sade shows was one where Rush and Vic sang some crazy song about flowers. I stunned Bill by immediately reciting: "Would that these pale hands chrysanthemums might gather,/Would that o'er green fields these tender feet might glide." Which are, of course, the first lines from that sappy song sung more than thirty years ago by father and son on the radio show.
Now, before you accuse me of falling into the very sentiment and nostalgia I warned myself against at the start of this essay, let me make some strong points.
Middle-class America, as it existed in the 1930s was dramatized lovingly and forever by Paul Rhymer.
The reason for this book is twofold, as must be the reason for this Introduction. To say that middle-class America once was. But to say, just as strongly, middle-class America, with all its virtues, still is.
We have gone through a rough time of wars and depressions and technologies, but the world of Vic and Sade has not vanished from the world. It has changed somewhat, yes, because of the impact of television, films, radio, the computer and the jet-stream plane. But a helluva lot of America still lives in small towns, and even those who have moved into the city have brought with them, genetically or otherwise, the temperament of Vic and Sade.
The little people are still little and still making-do day by day in small ways anywhere and everywhere. You might not see them taking that fast four-hour-jet from L.A. to New York, but drive across the country, stop at any crossroads, idle through any town on a hot summer day, and there they are, in the breezeways, listening to baseball games, that lazy man's sport that takes forever to wind up and pitch, swatting away the flies, talking to the dogs, drinking the venerable Nehis or Orange Crushes, calling to one another across the eternal noons. Mr. Gumpox may be driving a truck these days, instead of philosophizing with his horse, but here he comes. The Thimble Club is still meeting. The Fat Men are still down at the Y swatting those handballs for the benefit of eight-year-old boys. The dime store is still a magical place for ten-year-olds to wander with free time. Alleys are still great places to find all the stuff that dumb older people are stupid enough to throw away; my own children teach me this.
In fact, of course, you don't have to go to small towns to rediscover Vic and Sade's world. It's all over Los Angeles or San Francisco or even dire and dread New York.
You want me to prove it? Easy as pie.
Think of the last weekend you spent with your family and the one before that and the one before that.
Let me describe my own, here in Los Angeles in the late spring of 1972. Big city stuff? Not on your nutmeg-scraper:
Sunday morning. Everyone slept late. Got up. Went out and brought in the Sunday papers. Read the comics first.
Just as we did in 1924 and 1929 and 1934 and 1940!
Laid around the house; just as we did in 1926 and 1933 and 1941.
Some of the kids went bicycling. Just as we did in 1922 and 1938 and 1947.
Talked to the neighbors over the back fence, just as we did in 1930 and...
Went to the beach for a swim, just as we used to do in 1934...
Came home and read some more of the big Sunday paper. Remember 1936?
Fried some hamburgers and hot dogs, 1923.
Ate them. 1924.
Took a nap. 1925.
Went to a movie. 1926.
Came home and listened to radio. 1927. Played some records. 1928. Went over to actually sit in neighbors' living room to talk and have one, just one, beer. 1929.
I think I have ground the point into the dust.
Everything has changed but nothing has changed.
Our lives are full of Big Things. But more full of small ones. Our lives peak only on occasion. The rest of the time we are buttoning and unbuttoning and buttoning again, as my artist friend Streeter Blair once said.
It is all the little things, the so-called junky things, that Paul Rhymer has an eye and an ear for. He traps them, keeps them like ants in a jar, and lets them out in the light later, glorified by his ability to pick just the right ants from the universal picnic. God A'Mercy, we all cry, never saw such ants before. But we have. We did see them. We were there. The picnic was ours. And it still is.
All of which adds up to this. There is no cause for nostalgia save the good and life-enhancing nostalgia for the present. That can only be good. Glancing through this book, we can take a long and loving glance not at our Past, to hell with that, but at what goes on this very splendid moment at the heart of our families Here and Now. Paul Rhymer says, in the aggregate, finally, we are Good. Not always right, no, not always happy, no, but essentially Good. Which is a nice new-fashioned message to receive in a time when we have begun to doubt our senses, sanity and any possible sane future.
Well, I've been loitering out here in the alley behind the Small House. I must finish and go to eat in that kitchen where peanut butter and plain bread and fresh cold milk are the food of the gods.
Let me make my point a final time:
Vic and Sade and Rush and Uncle Fletcher are not dead, nor gone, nor buried.
They are here. They are us.
We celebrate ourselves, as Walt Whitman almost said.
Thus the title of this essay: Proust had the gift of recall for the Past. Paul Rhymer's talent was: Remembrance of Things Present.
We travel way around the world, most of us, simply to find and see Green Peach, Wisconsin, clear. We travel in Time to imitate the words of the old Al Jolson song, arrive Back In Your Own Backyard.
We can imagine that Rush Gook, grown up, did not necessarily stay on in that small town and join the kitchenware company like his Gov'. We can see him commute to the Big City. But now, late in time, an interesting thing is happening. We have noted, in a 40-year period, the pell-mell rush to Metropolis. Now we shall watch as the tide rolls back the other way. Rush Gook, finally, will retreat from jam-packed apartment high-rise Manhattan and water his roots again in Orchard Grove. He will have two children. Their names: Vic and Sade. They will grow up in that small town way out beyond the city, to which, of course, they will occasionally make visit in 1999.
But on Sunday mornings they will sleep late. They will get sick on sour cherries picked too soon and too low from the ripening tree. They will jump hopscotch. Baseball radio will laze the peachfuzz in their corporate ears. And once a month or twice a week they may just actually walk-instead-of-ride down to the Butler House Hotel and sit in the view bay window and give grandiose, pontifical orders for simple foods.
And the world will not End after all.
So say I.
So say the inhabitants of that Small House Half-Way Up in the Next Block.
Turn the page.
Live in the Present.
Six blocks away from Palms, California.
May 20th, 1972
Hugh Chenoweth illustrated Paul Rhymer's 1939 Ruth and Roxy
comic strip. Chenoweth, who did the Polly Pippin
comic strip in the early 1940s, died in 1946 at the age of 42. The Vic and Sade
comic strip ad above was drawn by Creig Flessel and John Streibel.