All Monk & Mandi comic strips are copyrighted. To purchase reprint and/or other rights, visit my archives at cartoonstock.com.
All Monk & Mandi comic strips are copyrighted. To purchase reprint and/or other rights, visit my archives at cartoonstock.com.
By Jim Sizemore
I’m in my bedroom, lights out. It’s my mother’s third-floor apartment on Linden Avenue, two blocks south of North Avenue. Ernie Harwell’s words seem to float to me out of the glowing orange dial of my tabletop radio. The small fan next to it is set on high with scant effect in the humid heat. Ernie is telling me—play-by-play—that our new Baltimore Orioles are losing another game at Memorial Stadium. But that’s okay, at last we finally have a big league team. Thank goodness the radio is loud enough to muffle the voices of my mother and her new boyfriend, William “Wild Bill” Denton. They are in their bedroom arguing about money.
Meanwhile, I peer out of my window at the couple across the street in their second floor apartment, rolling around on what appears to be a daybed. It can’t be a regular bed, because it’s low enough to fit just below the lip of the windowsill. They’re covered by a white sheet, out of which an occasional pale body-part juts. I guess they’re trying to catch what little cool air there is. My one wish is that if I watch long enough, the sheet will magically work its way off and slide to the floor. They must believe—like radio’s Lamont Cranston, aka The Shadow—that they have “the power to cloud men’s minds,” making them all but invisible.
In the summer of 1954 I was sixteen, my seventeenth birthday due in early October. When I was twelve, after many years of violent conflict, my parents had separated. Over the next four years I was farmed out to various relatives in Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky—mostly my three half-sisters’ families. But now I wanted to control my own fate and had worked my way back to Baltimore to share my mother’s home. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
It wasn’t long before I realized that “Mr. Denton,” as I called the small and wiry Wild Bill, was a problem. With regular construction work, he treated my mother and me pretty well. But a slack time in the building trades became an invitation to booze-ville for Mr. D. He needed my help with expenses, and seemed to resent me for it. I didn’t mind helping because I sold lots of newspapers out of a large green newsstand where North and Linden Avenues met—a dynamic corner with several streetcar and bus routes converging. I easily earned enough to help with food. At times I even managed part of the rent money. In fact, there were weeks when the only cash coming into the apartment was from my newspaper sales. I loved being able to help my mother financially. That summer—for the first time in my life—I felt like a grownup.
That said, I was edgy about our living arrangement. My mother was right back in a situation similar to the one we had experienced with my father, and once more I felt powerless to protect her. At some point, concern about the fights with Mr. Denton must have overcome what common sense I had, and I bought a large hunting knife, complete with scabbard. “Just in case.” One sweltering evening, during an extra-mean fight when he grabbed her—or at least grabbed at her—it all happened too fast for me to be sure—I wound up face to face with Wild Bill. It was all very confused; I was in some sort of frenetic daze. Mostly I remember forcing myself in between them, he and I spitting out blasts of profanity. Despite my bad case of the shakes, I somehow found the courage to pull my shirttail up to display the weapon, and at that the action slowed to a sweat-like trickle. Then my mother’s desperate pleas from the sidelines shut our little scene completely down.
The very next morning, my mother sat me down for The Talk. We quickly agreed it was time for a change—that I had to move on again. My only good option was the military, but since by law I was still a minor, she had to sign so I could enlist. And of course she did. My induction date was set for early October—all I needed do was to survive the rest of that summer.
On the nights my Baltimore O’s were far behind, I’d turn the radio off and go to sleep. Other times I’d leave it on, very low, and let Mr. Harwell’s southern-accented voice lull me to sleep. And there were those nights—the Orioles ahead or behind—when I was just too wound-up to nod off. Then, inspired by the drawings of the Morning Sun cartoonist, Jim Hartzell—especially his animated Oriole Bird sketches—I’d try to make up a cartoon about the game I’d just heard on the radio; the drama and frustration and elation of it all. I’m sure the images—the best of which I would eventually find the courage to send to Ernie Harwell—were crude and amateurish, little more than sketches, doodle-like. But I worked hard to make the ideas better than the visuals—and I hoped, funnier. Of course they were never near the professional quality of a Jim Hartzell cartoon. Up to then, my only art training had been finger-painting in elementary school. When I sent my first batch of “work” to Ernie Harwell, care of WCBM, I didn’t expect much. I certainly didn’t expect Ernie’s voice, a day or so later, saying my name on the radio. He praised my cartoon idea and even the drawing. I was shocked.
After I’d mailed in more drawings, Mr. Harwell shocked me again. Again he spoke to me by name and praised my work. But this time he also invited me to visit Memorial Stadium. He even gave me a phone number to call for my free pass to the game of my choice. Plus the biggest prize of all—a special pass that would get me into the broadcast booth. On the appointed day I remember being at the stadium, walking the steep ramp to the upper levels, running down the hallway to the broadcast booth. I knocked on the unmarked door and was admitted, out of breath and in an emotional fog. I know I spoke to Mr. Harwell, his partner Bailey Goss and a radio sound tech guy, but I don’t remember what anyone said. When the meeting was over—it seemed to have gone by so quickly—I do remember Mr. Harwell announcing to his radio audience: “This young man is going into the army in October, and I’m very proud of him, as we all should be.” Then, winking at me, he smartly saluted.
60+ years on I view the summer of 1954 as a mash-up of bad and good. Sure, I lost the dream of a fresh start with my mother, but on the other hand I learned that—to coin a cliché—growing up simply means moving on. And yes, the Orioles lost 100 games that first season, winning only 57. But, thanks to those O’s being there for me, and Mr. Harwell’s encouragement, and discovering the cartoon work of Jim Hartzell—plus moving on to three years of interesting military experiences—I gained a glimmer of several career possibilities. Even today I’m still on the path to—to what? Well, for one thing, I think I’m smart enough now to know that it’s always too soon to speculate about what may come next. The one thing I do know is that I’m really curious to discover what it may be.
“I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, share-croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill-workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy
Harper Collins, New York, 2016
By Jim Sizemore
There once lived a King in a castle high on a hill overlooking rich farmlands and forests. The King owned everything as far as the eye could see. His peasants labored from sunup to sundown growing his crops, tending his flocks and carefully breeding his livestock. The King, a more-or-less fair man, as absolute rulers go, allowed the peasants to keep a reasonable share of their earnings. So, as peasants go, they were more-or-less happy.
But the King had recently become terribly unhappy. Some years before the time of this story, his wife the Queen had died. The King then shifted all of his love and attention to his only child, and the beautiful young girl became his obsession. For a time, his focus on her was enough to keep the King perfectly happy. But then she changed, as children always do; the once sunny girl turned into a sullen, hyper-sensitive adolescent.
The King was distraught. He tried reasoning with his daughter, pleaded with her to tell him what the problem was so he could have it fixed. But his heightened concern only made matters worse. She became more and more distant, and soon refused to communicate with her father at all. The King was depressed. His work suffered. The lack of royal leadership was felt across the land. Crops failed. Taxes went uncollected. Battles with neighboring kingdoms over land rights and such were at first neglected, then lost by default.
As powerless administrative bodies often do, the King’s Court panicked. Dire interventions into the King’s business were considered by some of the younger court members. As young men often do, they even convened a secret meeting to plan a royal coup d’etat. When the Court Wizard heard about what was going on, he suggested a delaying tactic to head off an uprising. The Princess would be handed over to him for a complete physical, mental and spiritual evaluation. The King agreed, despite that doing so amounted to admitting that the Royal Blood had become tainted. A cover-up story was concocted and the exam scheduled. Despite attempts to keep things quiet, the scandal leaked, and it soon became obvious to even the lowest peasant that their King was a desperate man, not unlike the most common of his subjects.
In time the report came back and was duly translated from arcane medical jargon into the King’s English. It stated that the only unusual finding was a heretofore unheard of condition, caused by No-One-Knew-What. Small cobweb-like fibers, with the tensile strength of steel, were growing in the girl’s ears. The good news: their progress appeared to be very slow. Even so, the condition limited the social life of the princess. For one thing, the sprouts effected her balance. She walked with an erratic gate, couldn’t run or jump, and her favorite pass time, dancing, was out of the question. The Wizard explained that all this angst seemed to account for the Princess’ bad behavior; it was, he declared, enough to unsettle anyone. The Wizard’s report ended with an apology. He confessed that he had already tried all of his magic tricks, and nothing had worked. Therefore, as good fake doctor’s do, he recommended taking a “wait-and-see” attitude.
The King was grateful that the Wizard had at least suggested his daughter’s problem, but he was not satisfied with the passive approach. In better days The King had been a man of action, and now he was once again inspired to draw upon that attribute. He instructed his Town Crier to issue a bold proclamation. The King decreed that any man who could free the Princess from her problem, and thereby restore her cheerful character, would be fixed for the span of his natural life—at least gold-coin-wise. Also, subject to the approval of the Princess, The King threw in the possibility of a marriage option.
Every eligible young swain in the Kingdom, every aging bachelor, every social-climbing-son-of-a Duke, applied to have a go at solving the mystery. Some of the men were crude in their approach, as we know men can be, especially when in competition for the hand of a rich and beautiful young woman. Several tried outlandish physical humor: standing on their heads and spinning while juggling three balls. Others took the subtle approach, bombarding her with terrible puns and corny jokes. Then there were the totally clueless ones who attempted to melt the fibers by whispering sweet nothings into her ears. Alas, none of it worked, and the Princess grew only more awkward and ill-tempered.
The King was desperate. Finally the bachelor son of the court sheep herder came forward. This was most unusual. As a rule, a commoner would not dare to think that he had anything to offer one so high-born. But to this sheepherder-in-training, known in the kingdom as Max the Talker, no such self-effacing idea had ever occurred. From birth, Max had shown unusual self-respect, a natural sense of entitlement, so to speak. On the day of his application appointment with Her Highness at the Castle, he showed up perfectly relaxed, head erect, back straight, smiling sweetly.
After just one session with Max the Talker, the King noted an improvement in his daughter. For the first time in three years, she actually smiled. And she asked for permission to see Max again, which of course was granted. Thus it came to be that Max the Talker was allowed to spend one hour each afternoon with the Princess. At first they met in her chambers, chaperoned by her Ladies in Waiting. For the next six months they spent the hour talking about subjects of mutual interest on a wide range of subjects: history, music, clothes, books, food, dancing and suchlike. Max the Talker never mentioned the cobwebs, and neither did the Princess. Nevertheless, she continued to recover. Before long she demanded even more privacy, which the King was quick to allow. From then on the chamber door was locked from the inside, the couple now without adult supervision of any sort. With this new arrangement, it was obvious to everyone that the Princess’ rate of recovery had accelerated. She was becoming her old sunny self again.
The King was ecstatic. His work, such as it was, improved. The Peasants had never been better managed. The Kings’ soldiers once again became victorious in battle. Taxes were paid on time for the first time in three years. Quarterly reports indicated that the Royal financial house was in order, again showing profits for each quarter—and at rates higher than ever before. The Wizard, when he reexamined the Princess, was amazed: The “cobwebs” had vanished. This news was quickly reported to the King who, without hesitating, awarded Max the Talker the fortune in gold, plus his restored daughter’s hand in marriage. To the King’s surprise, and also to his relief, Max the Talker graciously declined the hand of the Princess. He used the golden windfall to buy a small farm, plus a huge herd of sheep, larger even than the King’s own.
As the months went by, and when not too busy with chores, Max the Talker was content to hang out with his many peasant friends, discussing this and that—anything they found conversation-worthy. In the evenings, he made notes in his journal. And best of all, he finally had enough free time to write at length, which had always been his passion. Max knew that he could never have been this happy as a member of the King’s Court, so he felt not the slightest twinge of regret. He and the Princess remained friends, and met from time-to-time for a longish chat. Eighteen months after the disappearance of her ear problem, the Princess met a handsome peer from a nearby Kingdom and fell in love. And that was that.
Max the Talker, meanwhile, staying true to his character, spent the rest of his days living just as he had always thought he would—happily ever after . . .
Copyright © 2016 Jim Sizemore