As I related at the end of last month's column, I left the 1974 HoustonCon with a very sore back that resulted from the deep cut inflicted upon me by the panhandler who slashed me with a pocket knife on the sidewalk outside of the con hotel. The one lesson that I learned from that experience was to always try to avoid going outside of a comics convention still wearing my dealer's badge. You see, I was told after the fact that a local TV station had aired a typical segment on the convention the night before I was attacked, focusing on the "Gosh Wow! Old comics sell for big bucks!" theme. I believe that my assailant somehow heard that news, and thus was particularly angered by unwillingness to give him a quarter. That's about the only reason that I can think of for why someone would cut me down the back for such a trivial amount of money.
After HoustonCon, my next destination (after a quick stop back in Colorado) was the 1974 San Diego Comic-Con. As I drove across the 1,000 miles of lonely desert between Denver and San Diego in my old 1963 Chevy Impala sedan, I was really quite excited. I had reason to believe that the San Diego show was going to be particularly profitable for me, as I had managed to strike a deal with Dennis Wakabyashi and Jim Allen, the owners of Middle Earth Publishing, to represent their products at the convention. Since they had just released the long-anticipated Barry Smith "Two-Penny" portfolio, I knew I was going to be able to sell a slew of them. My commission for each item sold for Middle Earth was $4 out of the $10 retail price, so my potential for success at this show was quite good.
Before I go on with my own tale, however, I want to mention that the 1974 San Diego Comic-Con was a fantastic step forwards from the 1973 event. Fueling this improvement was the move from the intensely crowded Harbor Island hotel of the previous year, into the spacious El Cortez Hotel and Convention Center. I will always remember the El Cortez as the ultimate in positive environments for comics conventions, as it combined a wonderful little convention center on one side of the street with a beautiful and intimate landmark hotel on the other. My fondest memories of the El Cortez involve listening to Roz Kirby each year calling out to Jack on Sunday mornings from their balcony overlooking the secluded interior pool area, trying to get him to help her check out. Jack really did mean well when he told her that he'd be right there, but somehow he could never bring himself to leave the crowds of adoring fans who clustered around him in that remarkably pleasant poolside environment. "Jaaaack, when are you coming up?" was a cry heard throughout every Sunday morning.
The little convention hall was also wonderful, with about 20,000 square feet of exhibit area. That size pales in comparison to the 700,000+ square feet that the convention presently occupies in the immense new San Diego Convention Center, but it sure was a quantum leap forward from the tiny rooms we used in the hotel on Harbor Island. I had two tables against the back wall, which allowed me plenty of room to display all of my comics, while also putting together a very nice exhibit of the Middle Earth portfolios on the wall behind the booth.
My one concern at the convention was the specter of potentially dangerous competition on the horizon. The "Big Dogs" among the dealers at the 1974 SDCC were Steve and Bill Shanes, the owners of Pacific Comics. By the Summer of 1974 they already had opened several (4?) retail comics shops in the San Diego, and they had a sign up behind their massive ten-table display projecting that they would open stores in several other California cities by the end of 1975. This played right into my paranoia, as I was already terrified that someone would open a comics specialty store in my hometown of Boulder before I could raise the working capital to open my own shop.
It was that fear that drove me to hustle for sales at that convention more vigorously than I had ever done at any previous convention. My frantic efforts paid off handsomely, as I sold approximately $4,000 in Middle Earth portfolios at that show (netting $1,600 in commissions), plus about $2,000 of my own material. After paying all of my expenses, I earned about $2,500 from exhibiting at that one show. That's more than I had ever generated in income in an entire year prior to that point. My relentless pursuit of sales did have one amusing side effect, however, as I believe that I ended up being one of the models for the crazed comics dealer that Marvel writer Mike Friedrich wrote into his story in IRON MAN #72. That idiot comics seller wouldn't leave the dealer's room at the San Diego Comics Convention, even though the battle between the Unicorn and Iron Man had set the room on fire...
While the 1974 San Diego Comic-Con was the scene of my greatest financial success to that point in time, my enjoyment of that show was tempered my yet another life-threatening event. On the Sunday evening of the convention I was taken out for a celebratory dinner by Dennis Wakabyashi, one of the co-owners of Middle Earth. We had a great dinner at a Japanese restaurant on Harbor Blvd. After the dinner, Dennis and I indulged in a desert that wasn't on the menu. One that Maggie won't let me tell you about because it isn't PC. It is critical to my telling of the story, however, so I will merely say that it was designed to enhance our after-dinner perceptions. It certainly made the beginning of my evening afterwards more enjoyable, as I spent a couple of hours engaged in a wonderful conversation in the romantic sky lounge on the top floor of the El Cortez with a young lady who was reputed to have made several remarkably saucy films.
My amorous conversation came to naught, however, when I suddenly started feeling very ill. Within fifteen minutes I found myself both throwing up and having uncontrollable diarrhea. For those of you who have similar counter-culture background to mine, I think you can easily understand how my "dessert" made this debilitating turn of events an excruciatingly bad experience. Nor did my symptoms go away overnight, as I continued to be ill about every 30 minutes until dawn. I was as sick that night as I have ever been in my life.
When Monday morning finally rolled around, I was still incredibly ill, but I had no choice but to head for the dealer's room. You see, that was the strange year in which the convention continued until Monday morning. That extra day turned out to be a complete waste of time, as there was no business. It did allow me, however, some much-needed additional time in which to slowly load my remaining inventory into my old Chevy. I can only barely remember that day, as I was so sick that I thought I was going to pass out any minute. Making matters worse Dennis and Jim collected their sales receipts from me, and left immediately for a gambling adventure in Las Vegas. That left me completely alone in San Diego, running a temperature that I later found out was over 104 degrees.
To give you an idea of just how ill I was, even after reinvesting some of my earnings into additional products, I still had about $2,000 in cash left from my convention sales. Once I got my old car loaded, my first thought was that I needed to convert some of that cash into a money order made out to myself so that it couldn't be stolen if I passed out somewhere behind the wheel. I drove to the nearest bank I could find, and drove into their drive-up window. To my extreme dismay, however, the teller told me that I had to leave immediately. You see, I had driven into the drive-up backwards, and was blocking traffic as I tried to figure out in vain how to get to access to the deposit window...
Once I got my money order, I then drove to the Balboa Naval Hospital. My dad had just retired after 37 years in the Army two years before, and as an underage dependent (I was 19 at the time) attending college, I still had a military ID card, and nominal health benefits. When I got into the hospital they quickly had a Navy doctor check me out. He immediately tried to admit me into the hospital. In a very frustrating turn of events, however, he discovered that all the beds available for my class of dependents were already occupied. In the end, all he could do was to prescribe an extremely powerful anti-diarrhea compound. He then suggested that I go to a grocery store and load up on this new drink called Gatorade, which he said, would help replace the electrolytes I was losing. He then insisted that I find a cheap motel and hunker down, as there was no way that I should try and drive anywhere.
Taking the doctor's advice, I drove to Hotel Circle on I-8, and found a room for $30 a night. I had ten bottles of Gatorade and the pills the doctor had given me. I spent three days in that hotel completely in the dark, never rising except to have the dry heaves. On the fourth day, I finally felt well enough to go to the hotel coffee shop and eat some dry toast. I was so weak, however, that I decided that I simply had to go back to the hospital again. Even though it was only about a three-mile drive, I can still remember that drive back to the hospital as a nightmare. In the end, I did finally make it back up to Balboa, only to find out that they still had no available bed for me. The doctors at the hospital were so concerned about me, however, that they worked out a special arrangement for me to go home with two of the orderlies. I will be eternally grateful to those two kind men, as they took in a stranger, let me sleep on their couch, and fed me chicken soup until I was finally strong enough to try to make the 1,000 mile drive back to Colorado.
So what was wrong with me? The doctor told me he thought that I had amoebic dysentery. That was a disease that I had always believed was just in the third world tropics, but I guess it is also in Mexico. My best guess is that one of the workers at the Japanese restaurant was carrying the disease, and somehow passed it on to me in my food. I have to tell you that it was the worst illness I have ever experienced before that time, or since. To this day, I cannot pass by that little motel without recalling with dismay those three awful days spent alone, in the dark, thinking that I might die at any time.
To be continued...
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