I was once an avid reader of the Sunday Funnies. I loved the madcap world of Dogpatch, Lil’ Abner, Mammy Yokum, and all. I also loved Pogo and his creator, Walt Kelly, but I’m sure you probably realized that already. I believe I basically grew up in Dogpatch. Rowan, Iowa is a small rural farm town. Romance is basically a matter of running away from the girls and eventually tiring out enough to get caught and married. I was a good athlete as a kid, probably why I didn’t get married until I was thirty-eight. More than one of the old church ladies was a Mammy Yokum. They fought the good fight for what is right by using a fast fist, a good dose of tonic, and an imperious, “I have spoken!” I married a woman like that. I had a Great Grandma that even looked like Mammy Yokum. There was more than one Hairless Joe hanging around town with a mind fixed on Kickapoo Joy Juice. There were even a few Shmoos. I was basically Joe Btfsplk with the little stormcloud forever above my head. I was in love with the only girl in town who looked like Daisy Mae, and I was chased by at least two different Sadie Hawkinses.
I used to read Al Capp’s strip on the front porch. It was my personal get away. We had an old student desk taken from the ancient Rowan School House. It was placed on the porch, in a corner by Mother’s German pump-organ, the one willed to her by her Great Aunt. There I would giggle about Abner’s spoonin’ and swoonin’ adventures. I remember when Frank Frazetta would draw Daisy Mae and the beautiful but smelly Moonshine McSwine. Man, I loved those curves! I didn’t realize then that the strip was portraying my own love life so subliminally. (I know there’s a better word than that, but can you say parallelly?) I didn’t like to think about romance other than to comment in front of girls that I hated girls and would not ever be trapped by a girl. That was all a lie, though, a big front. I secretly adored Alicia Stewart and she was my perfect Daisy Mae. So perfect, in fact, that I was embarrassed to even be in her presence for a moment. She would always wonder why I blushed so much. I never told her ( in an Abner-like way) how I felt about her.
My Great Grandma Hinckley was every bit as furiously upright and moral as Pansy Yokum. She was the family matriarch, oldest living relative, and determiner of the family’s opinion on practically everything. She even wore red and white striped stockings once in a while, a matter of shameless pride in the face of the pervasive Methodist Puritanism that surrounded rural people. She had cures and remedies for everything that went in the face of my mother the registered nurse and all her book learnin’. In fact, she was such a believer in Vick’s Vapo-Rub that she even ate the stuff. She would come to our house to clean, purify, and straighten up not only the house and all its furniture, but our young and unruly souls as well. She stood for no nonsense. And, although no one ever tested her, she ruled with an iron fist.
Now, Hairless Joe was actually the opposite of hairless. He didn’t have eyes behind that sheepdog haircut of his. He goofed off up town, greeted everybody at the cafe, and, although most thought him worthless and foul, everyone greeted him in return. There was a major difference, though, between him and the comic strip Joe. No Lonesome Polecat, his little Indian friend. There was no sidekick to throw horseshoes into the Kickapoo Joy Juice to give it more kick. He went through life alone.
There were a lot of Shmoos in town. They were dangerous. They made you believe that you didn’t need jobs or money. Of course, they didn’t make you believe it through magical Shmoo power. They were more like my Dad, industrious to a fault. They did everything for you, paid for everything, and never taught you how to do things for yourself. My Dad, who had been a professional truck driver at one time, tried to teach me to drive, but after the third near-fatal wrong turn, he would end up leaving that hair-raising experience to high school driving instructors. He figured he had enough hair already and didn’t want to look like Hairless Joe.
Certainly that finally brings me back to the topic of me, Joe Btfsplk. I am the unluckiest man in the whole of Dogpatch, if not the world. Every intersection I drive up to yields an instant red light. The little storm cloud above my head is constantly raining on me. I’m given to long streaks of bad luck. My best efforts often come to naught. Still, like Joe, I keep my chin up. One good that comes from always expecting the worst is that I am never surprised unless it is a pleasant surprise. The bad things I am prepared for, the good ones I welcome.
Anyway, I used to imagine myself a resident of Dogpatch, USA. I was a good, wholesome youth with a world of promise before him, just like Lil’ Abner. I think I am still a resident, only now, I’m not Abner any more. My oldest son, Dorin, more of a naive fan of the Fearless Fosdicks of the world, and I am now more like Pappy Yokum, listening meekly to Mammy’s commands until the time comes when I am needed to step up and be the mouse that roared.