A lad of letters

With their cellphones, computers, tablets, and whatalls-electronic, kids today have access to almost ever piece of information there is, or ever was.

And as far as I’m concerned, more’s the pity. Face it: Information, of and by itself, means nothing. There’s wrong information, hateful information, unsupported information, and probably for the most part, dumbass information.

So the more information you have, the more you have to work to validate it. At least that’s what you should do if you actually want to know if what you found is true. If you don’t care, it simplifies everything, including your world-view and critical thinking skills.

But the increase in confusion and dumbing-down aside, what most concerns me about young peeps and their info overload is it leaves nothing to their imaginations. Oh, poor souls!

It’s the exact opposite of my experience as a kid. Access to information, of any ilk, was a tedious, frustrating, and all-too-often fruitless pursuit. If I wanted to find out something, I had to have it either in my hot little hands or my living room. Maybe there was a TV or radio program I could find that’d help me, but if not, then my only option was book or magazine. And given our library’s small holdings, I couldn’t find out much — no matter how hard I tried.

This lack of access to information media, and information itself, had one great benefit: It led me to discovering The Mother Lode of Fascinating Things — the men’s magazines.

Mags, mags, and mags …

Lest you jump to false conclusions, there were men’s magazines…and there were men’s magazines. Essentially, they could be divided into three categories — the nudie mags, the naughty mags, and the adventure mags.

The nudie mags, among which Playboy was the most famous, were inaccessible. No store would’ve sold a kid one, and even if they had, I didn’t have either the money or chutzpah to try it.

The naughty mags didn’t have nudity, but they had hints of it, a la diaphanous gowns, low-cut blouses, short skirts, and the like. They also had jokes that probably were considered dirty then, but now would be thought of as either cute or silly. They were, at best, risque. Certainly, you’ll hear and see far worse on prime time TV today. No matter — I couldn’t get those magazines either.

Then there was my stock in trade, the adventure magazines. Though less expensive and far less verboten than the other men’s mags, I still had the devil’s own time getting a hold of them. If I had the money, sugar freak that I was, I instead squandered it on an Altamont hot fudge sundae.

And beyond that, I didn’t have the nerve to buy one. It wasn’t that they were bad, themselves, but they were reserved for adults, and adult men at that. The lines were clearly drawn back in them days — not only did kids have no access to men’s worlds; the thought that we might didn’t even occur to us. Looking back, I can’t remember one time a man told me to mind my own business, simply because I never said anything that would’ve intruded on it.

So if I didn’t have the silver or the brass to buy them, how did I ever read them? Oh, I had my stealthy ways, I assure you.

Scores from the sacred stash

First, there were the barber shops. Keep in mind, back then barbershops were an exclusively male domain. The air was redolent with equal parts bay rum, cigarette smoke, and heady conversation about sports, politics and local gossip and lore. And better yet for me, the magazine racks were full of periodicals, some of the adventure mags.

Because I got haircuts on Saturday and was a late riser, I had a long wait before my clipping. This gave me all the time I wanted to pore over whatever they had. The selection varied, based on whatever they scrounged from the smokeshops and drug stores, but they had names like Bold!, Men in Combat, Real Action, Wildcat, Escape to Adventure, and so on.

The second way I got to read the mags is through friends. Since the adventure mags weren’t considered obscene, fathers were sloppy about keeping track of them. Their sons, to the contrary, knew exactly where they were. Thus inevitably someone snagged one from his old man’s stash and passed it around to privileged friends. It didn’t happen very often, but at least often enough to keep us abreast on life raft survivals, polar bear maulings, head-hunting tribes, Himalayan ascents and the like. Each mag also kept the hope alive there’d be another one — hopefully sometime soon.

Now a vital point: Maybe those mags weren’t the literary equivalent of The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, or Saturday Review, but the writing was excellent nonetheless. And it had to be, since it was all submitted by freelancers. The magazines paid well back then, so the competition was fierce, and only the best stuff got accepted. And in case you didn’t know, a lot of those freelancers later became famous writers, who’d written for the mags wrote under pen names.

One other fabulous thing about the men’s mags was their illustrations. I know there’s a snobbishness among painters toward what they call “illustrators.” But the fact is the cover artists were highly skilled. They were also highly individualized, and when their fans (who still exist) saw a cover or an illustration for an article, they immediately knew it was by A Leslie Ross, John Culler, Art Crockett or one of the other big hitters.

For all the magazines I read, I can remember none of the articles. I only remember they were a lot more fascinating (and often better-written) than the stuff I had to read in school. One experience is still emblazoned in my memory.

I was I ninth grade and had to read Great Expectations. I started it a bunch of times, but never could get past the first page or two. I don’t know if it was the dated expression, the setting, the characters and their dialogue, or what. I only know we had a Monday deadline, we’d had a couple weeks to read it, during which I hadn’t even looked at it. The Sunday before it was due, I locked myself in my room and started reading.

Taking only one break for dinner, it took me the whole afternoon and a good part of the night to get through it. And when I got done I’d felt that rather than having had a fine, classical literary experience, I’d undergone Lingchi, the ancient Chinese torture popularly known to the West as The Death of a Thousand Cuts.

It did leave a lasting impression, however: In the six decades since then, although I’ve tried to read a bunch of Dickens’ works, I’ve never gotten through one.

On the other hand, whenever I’ve managed to get a hold of one of those old adventure mags, I’ve read it cover to cover, repeatedly, and with undying delight.


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