Life-Altering Trip to the
I had planned to take my column this month away from the direction of telling tales of my adventures from long ago. Based on the very positive feedback that I received from readers of my previous columns at last month's Kansas City and Pittsburgh conventions, however, in this month's column I'm going to tell you yet another story of a near death experience that I had as a very young comics dealer. This story isn't going to have very much at all to do with comics, but it is one that I think you'll find quite chilling.
As those of you who read this column already are aware, I opened my very first comics shop in the back room of a science fiction bookstore that was located in the renovated basement of an old bank building in downtown Boulder, Colorado. That store barely broke even on a cash basis during its first year of operation, but I did manage to achieve some measure of success due to the fact that my staff and I were gradually able to build quite a nice inventory of back issues through adroit purchasing and trading. As has almost always been the case for all comics dealers with a single fixed location, however, I was unable to capitalize on the growth in my inventory. While I had a great many wonderful back issues in stock by the summer of 1975, the small audience of comics collectors I was serving in Boulder either didn't have an interest in certain issues, or didn't have the financial means to purchase them. That left me with no option for increasing my cash flow but to try and sell my back issues at conventions.
I began the convention season of 1975 with very high hopes. I had, after all, just managed to trade my old 1963 Chevy Impala for a wonderful 1969 Chevy Sportsvan Deluxe. With all the added room that I had in my new van, I was able to carry far more inventory, and by stacking my chicken boxes filled with comics neatly across the back, I also had a very comfortable sleeping spot for those times when I didn't want to pay for a hotel room.
Right from the beginning, the van caused me some problems. Within 50 miles of leaving Denver, for example, I had a flat tire. It turns out that the sleazy car dealer who sold me the van had put cheap recapped tires all around. When I put a lot of weight in the van, and then drove at high speeds across hot asphalt roads, the tires began disintegrating. Then the fuel pump went out on me just as I reached Dallas, my first destination on this long road trip. In the end, however, I survived all the early mishaps of my van without any greater discomfort than simple annoyance. It did cost me about $250 at a K-Mart in Austin to replace all the recaps with new tires, but I had done fairly well at the Dallas convention, so it wasn't that big of a deal.
I had quite a few adventures during the remainder of that trip (which included stops in Dallas, Houston, and New York), but I'm going to fast forward to the beginning of August, and my life-altering trip to the 1975 San Diego Comic-con. That trip began mundanely enough, but soon became quite complicated, mostly because the owner of the science fiction bookstore decided that she wanted to ride along with me to San Diego. She had purchased her own table at the show, and thus needed to bring her own inventory along. That put me in a real dilemma, as I was hopeless when it came to sorting out what to bring to a show, and what to leave behind. In the end, I overloaded my little van very badly, retaining almost all of my inventory, while layering the very heavy bookstore inventory on top of my own. Suffice it to say, we were going to ride very heavy, as my van was loaded darn near to the ceiling (we actually did have some wire racks that touched the ceiling...). Complicating matters even further was that I had promised not only to transport the bookstore owner to the convention, but also my hard-working manager at the time, Steven Swink. Steve was willing to sit in the back, however, on a bench seat completely surrounded by boxes, so it seemed like everything was going to work out OK.
The trip began badly, as we were late leaving due to all the careful loading that was required to make everything fit. Once on the road, however, we began to make pretty good time as I stayed at about 10 MPH over the speed limit. At about 3 in the afternoon we began to approach Santa Fe, New Mexico. In those days, the Interstate highway had yet to be completed through Santa Fe. That meant a tortuously slow drive through the middle of town. Seeking a way around that logjam, I pulled out my trusty Rand McNally, and checked for an alternate route. There was only one way to get from I-25 to I-40 without going through Santa Fe. It was a little road marked on the map in blue that required us to pull off I-25 about 40 miles north of Santa Fe, and then connect up with I-40 about 30 miles east of Albuquerque. At first glance, it seemed just perfect.
The trouble with maps is they can really mislead you. Earlier that summer, while traveling through Texas, I had driven on several roads that my atlas had shown in blue color. They were all very nice two-lane black topped roads. To my extreme dismay, however, I discovered about 10 miles into my short cut that a blue road in New Mexico is vastly more primitive than in oil-rich Texas. The little road in New Mexico started off as black top, but turned to dirt after about five miles. I asked my companions at that point if we should turn back, but they agreed with me when I said that I thought that the road was tolerable. That radically changed, however, as the road began to have a washboard surface. We hated that incessant vibration, but wished that we had it back when the gravel disappeared from the road entirely, and we suddenly found ourselves driving the van in deep ruts on a grass covered track in the middle of nowhere. Our misery finally ended after about two hours, when we finally connected with I-40. We had not gained any time at all with that nightmare drive, and in fact had probably taken longer than if we had just gone through the center of Santa Fe. Sigh...
Once we were back on the Interstate, we thought we had it made. Hah! Guess again. Within 10 miles of getting back on the freeway we had a blowout at 75 mph. I was driving, and I had a heck of a time keeping control of that heavily loaded van riding on three tires and a steel rim. Blessedly, however, the tire that blew was in the rear. That allowed me to gradually ease to the side of the road. Then we had to unload nearly half of the van to change the tire. That became complicated, too, as we discovered that while we had a spare, the blowout had ruined our rim. So at the next truck stop we had to purchase both a tire, and a rim.
By the time we got done with all that nonsense it was dark, so I let Steve take over the driving. He got us through to Gallup, New Mexico, right on the New Mexico/Arizona border. It was now nearly midnight, so I once again took over the driving from Steve, and headed us out on I-40 into the lonesome desert of the Navajo nation. Less than half an hour into that drive, disaster struck with no warning. Another tire blew out at high speed. This time, however, it was my left front tire. Given the speed at which we were traveling, and the immense weight we had piled in the van, it was all that I could do to keep the van going straight. I keep pumping on the brakes to slow us down, but it seemed to do no good at all. Then, completely without warning, the road made a sharp turn to the right. While I had been pretty successful at keeping the van going straight, the lack of a front left tire made it impossible for me to turn the van to the right. In an almost surreal gentle movement I felt the van slip off of the left side of the Interstate, and into the sandy median. By then I was standing on the brake, with my head touching the ceiling of the van, holding the steering wheel in a death grip. Nothing I was doing seemed to be doing a darn bit of good, however, as that massive weight simply would not slow down.
The scariest remembrance I have of that ride through the middle of the Interstate was feeling the van start to slip over on to just the left two wheels. For just a second there I was certain that we were going to drop onto into the dirt on my side of the van. Had that terrible event occurred, I'm certain that we would have all died. Through the pitch black of that terrible night, however, I saw the damndest thing happen. I was actually able to balance the van on the two left wheels (one only a rim...), until we hit the pavement of the other two lanes of I-40. We then dropped back down on to all four wheels, and cut through the oncoming traffic, just missing being hit by a monstrous eighteen wheeler that came roaring out of the dark. Once over the other side of those lanes of the Interstate we slide down the embankment into a barbwire fence, which acted like an immense spring, and finally stopped us.
While I was terrified during that epic ride, just imagine how my passengers felt. Steve had been asleep, lying across the back seat. When we hit the barbwire, the weight of the books in the back section of the van bent the back of the seat over to such an extent that Steve was nearly crushed. Neither Steve, nor the bookstore owner, had any control of events during that trip in the pitch black of the Arizona desert. Ironically, however, I am convinced that it is only because of the bookstore owner being along with us on that trip that we are all alive today. You see the bookstore owner was very overweight. In point of fact, she weighed about 400 lbs. When we went through the middle of the Interstate on the left two wheels, her weight in the passenger seat acted as a counter balance, much like yachtsmen leaning out to offset a strong wind. I'm sure her weight wouldn't have kept us upright indefinitely, but for just the few seconds that it took us to go from the pavement on one side of the Interstate over to the other side, it was enough. Strange, but true.
Once we all scrambled out of the van in one piece, we had the state patrol show up after they received a call from the trucker that we terrified as we cut in front of him. They couldn't believe that we had survived our ride through the median. It turns out that we hit the only spot where the median is sand. Everywhere else along that stretch of road it is a jumble of volcanic rock. Just the week prior, a young couple in a sportscar had died very near to where we went through. I've looked in the general area in the daylight a couple of times since, and I still can't believe that we lived.
Amazingly, we actually drove away from that accident. The state patrolman told me that if the tow truck could pull us out and that if we could drive away, he wouldn't give me a ticket for overloading the van. Well, the tow truck had to pop up onto just its rear wheels, while simultaneously operating his hydraulic winch and driving forward, but he got us out. We then spent the night sleeping in the van in the parking lot of the Gallup bus station.
The next morning my companions agreed that I was going to leave behind some of the weight that had gotten us into so much trouble. With great regret I left all of my 1950's and 1960's Dell, Gold Key, Charlton, Archie, and Harvey back issues behind at a storage facility in Gallup. Those dozen boxes dropped about 600 lbs. from our load, so the van ran much better after that decrease in weight. We still ruined the two front tires on the van on the trip into San Diego, however, as the kingpins had been bent during that hellish ride, which completely screwed our alignment. I really didn't care about that additional cost, however, as I was just so grateful to still be alive. The convention that year had an especially great feel for me as my entire worldview was so strongly colored by the fact that I had essentially survived what should have been sure death.
To this day, when the going gets tough, I can't help but think back and reflect about all the wonderful things in my life that would never have been if I would have died that night. Who, for example, would have rescued the Edgar Church comics from the landfill? The Church heirs were already throwing out his art files when I got there, so I doubt if the comics would have lasted another week. Had those wonderful books never entered the comics market, what might have happened? It is a lot to think about on many, many levels.
As a postscript to this story, it turns out that I had been riding on dangerous tires all along. I had asked the K-Mart staff in Austin to put four-ply tires on my van. Upon my return to Boulder, when a friend of mine who was a mechanic checked the last remaining tire of that batch of four, he discovered that they had instead given me far inferior two-ply tires. There was no way those tires could handle the weight I had put in the van, much less absorb the abuse of driving over that dreadful short cut road. I contacted K-Mart, provided receipts, and they paid to repair my van, and for four new 4-ply tires. A reasonable outcome to a very scary story. Even as I finish writing this column, I am shaking from the remembrance of that awful ride in the dark. Don't ever let anyone tell you that being a comics dealer is a life without risks...
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