BIG Frank Jackson spread a wide and pearly grin. His broad hairy chest expanded another four or five inches and he stuck hard calloused thumbs under his armpits. He strode the splintered creaky boards across the kitchen to the clock hanging on the shamelessly nude cracked plaster wall over the water pail.
The clock had stopped at five minutes to twelve, but “What the hell! ” he said, “who cares whether the kid was born on the tenth or eleventh of September. It’s here! it’s a boy, and everything is fine. Hot damn! ” The object of the old man’s affection was me—and although I don’t remember it, I’ve been told that I was lying in bed broadcasting my arrival to a sleepy, disinterested world in accents loud and clear.
My dad was pleased because the big bird with the long bill had short changed him with girls on three previous occasions, but this time, at long last, had come a man child to carry on the family name! And what a name—and what a boy!
This tender little scene took place in Oberlin, Ohio, some score and two thirds years ago… but time marches on, as we’ve heard tell, and the scene changes (for which you will no doubt be thankful). We find the hero (that’s me) of this here yarn swinging a spike maul on a railroad track near Columbus, Ohio. The weather is hot—so is the boss, because yours truly wasn’t so hot as a spike maul tosser, being only thirteen years old and a little light in the places and things necessary for heaving an eleven pound hammer ten hours a day.
So, down comes the curtain again, to rise on a steel mill scene in Pittsburgh, Pa. We find our slightly brawnier party of the first part with a pair of steel tongs in his leather-encased hands, grabbing at a hunk of white hot steel as it jumps out of the rollers. If he misses it, it won’t miss him, and will cut through his legs like a hot knife through butter.
The next thrilling chapter follows in the gymnasium of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. This time my hands wear a pair of sweat and blood smeared mitts and above me stands a chunky little guy called Shorty Morrison. The referee calls a halt on this very touching murder —and it was strictly touching, too—Shorty touched me with everything but the ring posts. That wasn’t my first fight, but (thank God) it was practically my last.
An English teacher told me I should be an advertising writer because on one historic afternoon, I described a fried egg in all its taste tantalizing glory—in such a realistic way that she swore she could smell it. One of my art teachers suggested that I quit school and keep the night job I had driving a mail truck, because I might be an artist some day, and I might not—but I could always drive a truck.
Well, I didn’t take either teacher’s advice… being only nineteen years old and knowing (I thought) what everything was all about, I said “I do” to the girl of my dreams and started in the sign business. Business was good—in fact it was super, and I had sign painted the whole countryside before a severe case of lead poisoning put me out of the sign business and on the train to Chicago, where effortlessly I became first poster artist and then shop foreman for a chain of theaters.
Everything was swell until the old man with the scythe caught up with my life and struck swiftly, viciously—my father, my first child—my wife… leaving me with an infant daughter and not the vaguest idea how to fold a diaper. I was twenty-two.
The next scene comes on like an Orson Welles film set—crazy pictures at crazy angles… loneliness, bitterness, sullenness, strange hotels and soulless rooms, moonshine whiskey, bathtub gin, despair…. Life had done me dirt and I resented it… so I drew and wrote about people on the down beat —my inborn humor turned sour and came out on paper with a sardonic grin. I tossed them in a trunk and forgot them. As the years crawled by, bitterness and frustration hung around me like a shadow… but I was lucky too, for those were the years when hand painted posters we used in front of theaters and speakeasies went in for murals… more work than I could handle was tossed my way.
Then, after those years of wild prosperity came 1933. No job. I gave up my apartment and moved into a fine hotel… kept my big flashy convertible gleaming… changed suits every day—it seems crazy now, but at that time, it helped to keep my courage up.
Working on Old Mexico murals for the Century of Progress, I dug into my trunk and submitted a number of illustrated verses to a Pittsburgh newspaper on which I had worked while still in school. The drawings caught on, and I soon had a staff job on a Chicago magazine and national weekly newspaper, also a three year contract from a New York publisher to fill up a half page each week in his magazine section.
Then (in the Chicago office) I met the little lady who was destined to be my girl Friday, my good right arm and the rarely silent power behind the throne.
So, everything is all right now… I have my studio in our little suburban home, where my wife pinch hits at modeling for me, in between her own enthusiasm for dress design and the business of raising my daughter who graduated from the eighth grade this past June. I want to tell you how much I enjoy working for this fine magazine, and how much I appreciate your grand letters—even the ones telling me how lousy I am —because they all keep me trying harder to make each drawing better than the last, and some day, I hope to please all of you.