At Long Last,
In last month's column, I related for you how I became seriously ill at the 1974 San Diego Comics Convention. As a result of that mysterious intestinal illness I lost nearly 20 pounds, and was forced to stay over in San Diego for over a week after the end of the convention. The last couple of evenings were spent at the apartment of two orderlies from the Balboa Naval Hospital, who took me in after the hospital was unable to admit me due to a lack of space. Those two kind men nursed me back on to my (wobbly) feet, and then helped me finally get on the road for the 1,000 mile drive back to my home in Colorado.
The gods must have been looking out for me during that time, as the events that followed led directly to the formation of my company, Mile High Comics, and my continuing participation in the comics world for the next 30 years. Those auspicious circumstances began during the evening of my first night on the road home. Despite still feeling quite weak, I was so determined to make it home that I drove until I reached Winslow, Arizona sometime after midnight. Since the high desert can be quite cold at night even during high summer, I rented a $10 a night motel room rather than sleep in my usual spot across the back dash of my old 1963 Chevy Impala. When I awoke the next morning, I discovered that I had picked up a small piece of sharp obsidian rock in one of my tires, and it was consequently completely flat. Worse yet, when I went to change the tire I found to my extreme dismay that the tire iron that my mother had provided when she loaned me the car didn't fit the lug nuts. If that tire had given out in the high desert I would have been alone and cold in the dark. That would be bad under any circumstances, but since I had just experienced such a debilitating illness I was particularly at risk for a relapse. Luck was with me, however, so I made it back to my home in Colorado.
My second bit of good fortune began as a disaster. Upon my return to Boulder, I took the time to visit the commander of my Army ROTC unit. As you may recall from the beginning of this story, in May of 1974 I took a one-year leave of absence from my University of Colorado ROTC company to try my hand at dealing comics for a living. While I was only three months into that experiment, my success at the three larger shows I attended during the summer of 1974 had convinced me that I definitely wanted to permanently abandon my ROTC scholarship. I was in for a shock, however, when my company commander informed me that I now had no choice but to continue with my Army career, as the strict rules my ROTC enlistment were that I could drop out (without any further obligation) until the end of my sophomore year. That's a critical variance from what I was told (by my commanding officer) prior to asking for my leave of absence, which was that I would only trigger my 6-year obligation to the Army if I began my junior year. By conveniently forgetting to inform me that by not dropping out of ROTC in May, my commanding officer had tricked me into a technicality under which I was now bound to serve in the Army in active service for 4 years, with another 2 years of service required in the reserves. As quite a few folks now sitting in Iraq can attest, the Army enforces enlistment technicalities very aggressively, even when verbal promises were made to the contrary. In a nutshell, I was now royally screwed.
While the commander of my ROTC already had me firmly by the short hairs, he then proceeded to make a massive blunder. He told me that he would take mercy upon me and let me out of my Army obligation, but only if I agreed to leave the University of Colorado. I could attend any other school in America, but according to him, my continued presence on the CU campus would be "bad of the morale of my ROTC classmates." When I related this weird offer to the student ombudsperson at the University Registar's office, he totally blew up. He stated, quite emphatically, that they were the ones who decided who could attend the University of Colorado, and that this ROTC idiot was completely out of line. I was then appointed a university representative, who's job it was to defend me against the Army. The Army then scheduled a Military Review Board hearing, and I was informed that if I was found guilty of violating my ROTC contract that I would be immediately forced into active duty as a private. The stakes in this battle were pretty high, as it was made very clear to me that if I lost my case that they were sending me to basic training, and that I would then be red flagged to head for Vietnam the minute I finished.
The net result of this battle was somewhat anticlimactic, as I was informed the day before my scheduled Review Board that orders had come down directly from the Pentagon to drop my case. The Army brass apparently decided that as much as they wanted to pound me into the sand, creating friction with the university just wasn't worth the price. By pure luck, I was set free! That was a particularly wonderful turn of events, as just two weeks later I discovered Lois Newmann Books had opened in downtown Boulder. Lois' bookstore would not have been very important to me, except that the ads she ran in the student newspaper for her grand opening stated that she was going to specialize in only Science Fiction and Fantasy books, and Comics! When I read that ad I thought I was going to have a stroke. While there had already been one very small comics shop in Boulder (in the broom closet of a used bookstore), it had closed after just a few months in business. Theoretically, that left the town wide open for me to finally be able to get my comics specialty store off the ground. Given that Boulder only had a population of about 70,000 in 1974, however, there was clearly room for only one comics shop. If Lois Newmann planned to carry a big line of comics, my hopes and dreams were over.
It was with great trepidation that I first entered the doors of Lois' store. My first impression was that I had entered the single finest Science Fiction specialty store on the planet. Before opening Lois had ordered 10 copies each of every in-print Science Fiction and Fantasy hardback, and 25 copies of every in-print paperback. As a result, the store was completely bulging over with beautiful books, including a slew of rare limited editions. As for her comics, however, there was only one small spin rack stuck woefully in a corner in the back of the store. That being the case, I screwed up my courage and asked Lois if she would accept some of my older comics back issues on consignment. She generously agreed that would be a good idea, and immediately offered me a single small shelf on which to set up my inventory. When I pointed out to her that one little shelf wasn't going to hold my 10,000+ back issues, she got a very contemplative look on her face, and said "follow me..." She led me to a blank wall in the back of the store, where there was a single door. When she opened the door, I found myself staring into pitch blackness. Eventually, Lois found the string that switched on the single bulb hanging from the ceiling, and I discovered that I was looking into a huge empty room filled with the leftover construction materials from the recent remodeling of the building. Lois then explained that she had wanted to rent this back part of the store for her used book inventory, but was afraid to leave it unattended behind the wall. Would I, by any chance, be willing to set up a comics shop in this space? If she could place 10 bookcases in the room with her used books she would cover $65 of the rent, leaving me with only $95 per month to pay for an approximately 1,200 square foot retail space. Not until three years later, when I first discovered the room full of Golden Age comics in Edgar Church's basement, did I have such a tingle of pure excitement course through my body. At long last, I was going to open my first comics shop!
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