For men only

Of late, the Hotel Saranac has been on Enterprise’s front page, which of course reminded me of all sorts of stories about it. One of my favorites is how I first became aware of the world of real writing.

The hotel used to be the focal point of the town. One reason was its central location, of course. But beyond that, it offered many different things. Aside from accommodations, it had a fine bar/lounge, a dining room, a gift shop, a ballroom, conference rooms all of which were hopping all the time.

Those things all catered to adults, but what recent residents might not know (“recent” meaning within the past 35 years or so) is Way Back When the hotel offered something for children.

It was on the ground floor, but the ground floor layout was completely different from today. The check-in desk wasn’t there, nor was The Boathouse. Instead, from the front door, straight through to the back of the hotel was what was called The Arcade. As per the definition of an arcade, it was a long hallway, with various small businesses on the sides.

In winter, it was something else as well. Since there were no interior doors – only the two outer ones, if both were open at the same time – instead of The Arcade being the Gateway to the Wonderful World of Business, it became the Mother of All Wind Tunnels. The times I got caught in there mid-wind, I felt less like a pisher from My Home Town than some poor slob on the losing end of a Jack London novel. Long before I ever heard the term “wind-chill,” I understood it perfectly.

The world of letters

So what was in the hotel for children? It was Mrs. Ryan’s candy store. At least it was a candy store to kids; adults might’ve called it a smoke shop. In reality, it was both.

Having fallen victim to lifestyle changes, the smoke/candy shop has vanished from the American landscape. But back in my Gilded Youth, the town was resplendent with them. They varied in the proportions of their merchandise, but not in the merchandise itself.

They had three stocks in trade – sweets, tobacco and literature. The literature was hardly of the lofty variety – it was newspapers and magazines. But if literature is supposed to entertain, not oppress, then as far as I was concerned Mrs. Ryan’s shop could rival the Library of Congress.

One magazine “genre” that always intrigued me was the men’s magazines. By today’s standards they were tame to the point of insipidness, but back then they were heady fare for a little Dope. Or more exactly, their covers were.

Oh, those covers!

Remember, this was a scant 10 years after VE Day, so as you might expect, the most prevalent theme was WWII. In wonderfully lurid colors and graphics, there might be a close-up of a fighter pilot in his cockpit, cigar stub clenched in his teeth, steely gaze on his face, a row of swastikas on his fuselage, diving out of the heavens to wreak havoc on Le Boche. Or maybe it’d be a tank officer, standing tall out of the turret, also with cigar stub and steely gaze. Or it might be a group of Merrill’s Marauders creeping through the jungle, about to lay to waste an enemy pillbox. You get the idea, I’m sure.

A lot of the covers featured thinly-disguised soft-core sadism. They were pretty much all the same: A fiendish, overweight Axis soldier was whipping a helpless (and of course gorgeous) woman, her clothes strategically shredded so as to intrigue the casual viewer but not offend him (and I presume every viewer was a “him”).

It was those covers that did me in. Had I never seen them, I might have ended up on the Supreme Court, or perhaps The New York Times editorial staff, or at least the graduate faculty at Harvard or Yale. But I saw them, and once I did, I knew that while I might someday walk through the sacred halls of academe, my heart would always belong to the pulps.

I can’t remember how old I was when I finally got to read those mags I think around 12 or so. I also can’t remember how I ever got them, since I didn’t have the nerve to try to buy them (and don’t think I’d’ve been sold them, either). I assume one of my friends clipped it when his old man wasn’t looking. All I know is once I started reading them, there was no turning back.

To think, in school I was being forced to read stories about Victorian old maids or snotty princes, or poems about leaves floating on rivers while in my off time I was reading about escaping from Algerian prison camps, parachuting behind enemy lines, or freezing to death in the Antarctic.

And not only was the subject matter riveting – the style was as well. Those guys knew how to write! I think they were all freelancers, so they had to sell their stuff or they’d starve. They knew the secrets of hooking and holding a reader -?something still unknown to the denizens of the Ivory Tower.

Gone but not forgotten

Sadly, those magazines are no more. I don’t know why they died out, except that a lot of magazines have died out. And let’s face it, we can now see the most fantastic adventures on any channel or video, in full sound and mind-blowing color, edited to perfection – all without ever moving from our Lay-Z-Boy.

In comparison, I guess those old magazines, in addition to requiring the “labor” of reading, would be considered anemic and hokey, at best. But not by me.

I have an anthology of writings from True. Its full title was True, A Man’s Magazine, and arguably it was the premier one. The anthology was last reprinted in 1971 and has since been out of print. I found it years ago in a dusty consignment store and paid a lordly 20 cents for it.

In it were articles like “The Red Army’s Traitor General,” “Killer Mountain,” The Undefeated Dignity of Gen. Bill Dean,” and “Requiem for a Jockey.” Not only are the titles catchy, but as I said, the writing is gripping. And it had to be, since the competition for getting published was so fierce (as opposed to the dreck that now abounds with self-publication and blogs). In fact, the last two articles were written by John Dos Passos and Jimmy Breslin, respectively, two masters of the art.

I keep the anthology on the bookshelf next to my bed and over the years have read each article dozens of times, never once being bored.

It may not be great literature, but it’s a great experience. It also helped launch my literary career, such as it is. And thus, when I mourn the death of men’s magazines, I do it doubly.