1932 - Snapshot One:
With a stomach full of ice cream, the gangly, sunburned kid had pedaled his beat-to-heck bicycle across two-hundred and fifty miles of barren Arizona desert, headed for Los Angeles. He had managed thirty torturous miles, during the blistering summer heat, and finally had to park under a shade tree in Needles, California, where he sat, panting and exhausted.
Now, a half-day later, he was trying the trek across once again, in the cooler night hours.
The desert at night is as silent as death itself. No cars have passed for him hours. There’s nothing out here. No gas stations or stores. No homes where he might beg for some water. Just the thin, dusty ribbon of asphalt and the flat desert, as far as the eye could see in any direction.
He has to keep going. If he doesn’t make it across in the cool of the night, he might not make it all. Like a drawing in one of his rough-edged cartoons, the circle of the full moon silhouettes Jack Cole’s comically tall and skinny frame as he resolutely moves towards his goal.
Sometime later, the kid is back at home in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Sweaty and tired, he comes home one afternoon from his job at the local can factory. “Letter for you,” his mother musically chimes, and a thrill shoots through him. His slender fingers tear open the envelope and extract a letter informing Jack Cole he has sold an article.
(As of this date, the publication information on this article is missing. Is is not, as has been previously attributed, his famous first sale to Boy’s Life magazine. Very likely this was an article published in Cole’s hometown newspaper, probably in the Sunday rotogravure magazine section.)
It was an article he had written and illustrated about his 7,000 mile trek, mostly by bicycle, across the United States . In the article, he had breezily glossed over his injuries, extreme poverty, periods of starvation, and near-death experiences. The brief article was stuffed with little jokes, puns, and vivid comical portraits. It almost read as a script for a Fleischer Brothers cartoon. He took what had been at times a dark, frightening journey and made it seem like a wildly imaginative, grand comical quest.
The article was a sort of innocent, condensed preview of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, a novel that would come along about twenty years later and define not just a generation, but a quality of American life. Cole writes: “There came to me an irresistible desire to go somewhere – anywhere.”
In the years to come, the kid with severe wanderlust would mature into a great storyteller and find an outlet for his restlessness in becoming a trailblazing innovator of a brand new art form that combined words and images in an entirely new way. His stories, like his first publication, would often make light of some of humanity’s darkest moments. Here is that momentous first publication and Jack Cole’s own account of an amazing, Quixotic and desperate search for his destiny.
Tear Sheet: “A Boy and His Bike” text and illustrations by Jack Cole
It was spring; the calendar read a quarter past 1932. Grass grew green. Birds warbled as they watched our old maple tree slowly unclench her fist-like buds into countless emerald leaves. And along with the resurrection of vegetation there came to me an irresistible desire to go somewhere – anywhere.
I had hoped to see the Olympic Games being held that summer at Los Angeles, California. In fact, Dick – likewise suffering from wanderlust – and myself were already rounding out plans for making the journey via Model T; then Dick’s family moved from town. I could not afford to buy and operate an automobile alone, so I had to find a cheaper mode of transportation.
“Can I hitchhike out, Dad?” I asked.
His answer was emphatically no.
Finally, as a last hope, I sought permission to go by bicycle, and mirabile dictu, the necessary permission was granted.
By July 11, all was in readiness: bicycle overhauled, route mapped out, equipment gathered, clothing packed. The following morning, at dawn, my journey began, and, glancing back over my shoulder, I said good-by to the old homestead, to New Castle, and later in the day, to Pennsylvania itself. Like all greenhorns, I was sure that the more the equipment, the better the trip. In addition to the clothing I wore, my outfit consisted of: two blankets, a pup tent, raincoat, three pairs of socks, underclothing, bathing suit, sweater, bicycle tools, medicine kit, sewing kit, canteen, cooking utensils, food, Bible, flashlight, paper, pencils, towels, soap, and a mouth organ [harmonica].
Fourteen hours of continuous pedaling, that first day, caused severe cramps in both legs. This was my first time on a bike in two years. I crawled off and set up camp beside a cemetery. Then, after preparing a slipshod meal, I fell into undisturbed sleep. The first hundred miles proved to be by far the most trying. Each succeeding day became less and less tedious, and correspondingly more enjoyable.
Near Indianapolis, Bessy, my trusty steed, began to wheeze and buckle slightly at the knees, protesting such an excess in luggage; so I gathered all unnecessary articles, including the raincoat, and shipped them home C.O.D.
Up at daybreak each morning, I would cook breakfast, pack up, and set out, stopping only for an occasional snack, or perhaps to fill my radiator at some wayside pump. I was often able to buy from a farmer a quart of milk for two cents, or half a dozen eggs for a nickel. Thus living was inexpensive. My greatest extravagance was a quart of ice cream a day. Old Sol sang daily to the tune of ninety degrees in the shade. To find camping sites was no problem; fields were plentiful, or sometimes a considerate farmer would permit the use of his hayloft. The most preferable spot, though, was to be found near tourist camps, where I stood the chance of getting a refreshing shower bath if the proprietor happened to be in a congenial mood.
One week on the road took me to St. Louis, Missouri. Two days later, while stopping for the night near a swamp, I was awakened from sleep to find my face a mass of stinging, swelling welts. Mosquitoes – hundreds of them – were attacking me savagely from every angle, and I was forced to spend the remainder of the night with a wet towel over my face, leaving only my nose protruding.
Mother and dad had promised to write often, so the first thing I did, upon reaching Kansas City the next day, was to make a bee line for the post office – which was closed. This meant an overnight stay. A fifty-cent hotel furnished sleeping accommodations. Here I received the first glimpse of myself in a mirror since starting. I could hardly recognize myself! The mirror reflected a six-foot lad whose 150 pounds had diminished to 135 pounds in ten days (this explained the sudden slack in his trousers). His face was swollen abnormally – one eye completely closed – from mosquito bites; broiling sun had chipped off most of the top soil from his nose, leaving it a brilliant crimson hue; his head, which a friend had graciously shaved just before the trip, was sunburned to the peeling point.
I had left a loaf of bread on the bicycle that night, wrapped in my swimming suit (you’d be surprised how a damp suit maintains the freshness of bread), and in the morning when I went to get it, I discovered that rats had completely demolished both bread and water togs. But rivers were becoming scarce, so the loss was not tragic.
Kansas plains offer a veritable paradise for cyclists. With an assisting breeze, it was not at all impossible to cover 150 miles a day. Dodge City, Kansas, proved to be – to me at least – the doorway to the romantic West. Here I saw with wonder my first cactus plant, rattlesnake, horned toad, and prairie dog. But soon these sights became commonplace.
Although most of the roads were in good condition, there were some whose construction plainly vetoed bicycle traveling, those of gravel or sand. Pedalling through sand is like tramping through deep snow sans snowshoes.
About Bessy: she was the height of inconsideration and indiscretion. While descending a precipitous maintain pass in Colorado, I naturally applied the brakes. Instantly everything collapsed. The repair job that followed bit so mercilessly into my pocketbook that a request for currency was promptly rushed eastward.
On this same day, near sundown, I was idling along at a leisurely pace, when all at once a loud report sounded, and simultaneously a bullet whistled directly over my head. About one hundred feet away stood an intoxicated Mexican, gun in hand, evidently enjoying the time of his life, but my sense of humor was not keen enough to appreciate such a joke. Bessy certainly could cover ground with the proper incentive – those succeeding twenty miles passed in a blur.
Nights in New Mexico’s highlands are filled with enchantment. The bright moon shines down upon white mountain peaks; the air is cool and refreshing. Occasionally a distant coyote interrupts the stillness with an unearthly howl. To counter-balance the beauty, though, were steep and snake-like roads, opposing my efforts of shin with all the forces of gravity. Travel was consequently slowed down.
Flat tires? By the good grace of Lady Luck, only once did this happen. Four miles west of Flagstaff, Arizona, a sharp piece of gravel accomplished the deed. Instead of back-tracking four miles, I plunged on ahead, hoping to buy a new tired at the next town. To my chagrin, I straggled 150 miles – walking fifty and receiving a lift for the remainder to Kingman, Arizona, before finally locating a place where tires were sold.
Between Kingman and Los Angeles lie 250 miles of continuous desert, and the next day, when I reached Needles, California, situated in the very heart of it all, the temperature registered 120 degrees in the shade. After dining on ice cream, I rode out into the sweltering heat. Ten-miles up-grade I pumped. Not a house, tree, nor even a signboard. My head began to reel and it seemed difficult to breathe, so, pouring the entire contents of my canteen over my body, I turned about and scurried back to Needles. I started out again after dark.
All through that night and the following day I rode, and reached Los Angeles about sundown. Forty hours without sleep! I went to bed at once.
The 3,000 mile journey had been covered in 23 days, averaging from 100 t0 150 miles a day. Bessy was so utterly fatigued from such an ordeal, that, like the one hoss shay, she simply went to pieces. There was nothing to do but abandon her, close friends though we had been. (Jim Steranko notes that Cole actually threw Bessy in the Pacific Ocean).
No story is complete without a certain degree of pathos. The sad part of my story is that after coming this far for the express purpose of seeing the Olympics, I did not have enough money to gain admittance. I remained in Los Angeles a week in a cheap hotel.
When my clothes from home arrived, I hitchhiked to Long Beach and spent a most enjoyable week at the home of friends. Early one morning we drove up into the San Bernadino mountains, to try our luck at gold mining, and we did manage to pan out about twenty-five cents worth of the metal.
I had relatives living near San Francisco, so I decided to pay them a visit next. To be suddenly catapulted from the role of poor vagabond to feted guest is bewildering. Tennis, theaters, motoring trips, operas, swimming, boat rides, field clubs – al wedged tightly into two weeks, left me nearly breathless.
In spite of the hospitality showered upon me, I began now to want to go home. When I disclosed my intention of hitchhiking the distance, my uncle thrust two ominous thumbs downward and offered – or rather insisted upon – a bus ride home at his expense. When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the only satisfactory solution is a compromise, which, in this instance, took the form of a new bicycle.
Late Bessy’s many faults were impressed upon me anew on that seventh day of September as I rode away from San Francisco on my fine new bike. In a day and half I reached Yosemite National Park.
One afternoon, as I tramped along a mountain, 8,000 feet high, I came directly upon a grand-daddy rattlesnake. Rattlers are not usually found in so high an altitude, but I wasted no time in argument with the malicious-looking creature about his right to be there.
Another hazardous experience presented itself as I was coasting down a steep, winding road one day. In the middle of the hill, my brake refused to function, and immediately the bicycle lurched ahead at breakneck speed. Forty miles an hour I tore around sharp, blind curves which automobiles were required to descend in second gear. I attempted to drag my feet along the ground, but this was useless and only ruined my shoes. At the bottom, the road changed from asphalt to one of rough gravel, and, when the gravel was reached, the jolting and bucking nearly threw me. I finally came to a stop, smoke pouring from the brake, and handlebars bent noticeably out of line.
Reno, Nevada, loomed ahead three days later. Inventory disclosed the disheartening fact that a dollar and fifty cents constituted my entire capital standing. Taking the bitter with the sweet, I continued on. Two days later, another such victim of nomoneyitis happened along in an automobile, and offered me a lift in return for the price of some imminently necessary gasoline. I offered that last dollar without hesitation.
Nothing but a faintly perceptible odor of gasoline remained in the tank when we found Salt Lake City the following morning. One partly filled box of griddle flour stood between us and starvation, and even this barrier vanished as we prepared puny flapjacks from it.
But luck again smiled, and no sooner had I passed from Salt Lake City than a shoemaker and his wife picked me up. They were en route to Chicago with a truck load of shoe heels which they peddled in each town. Nineteen long hours a day I worked at driving the truck, and at night, finishing ladie’s high heels. It took a whole week to reach Cheyenne, Wyoming, a distance of 500 miles. Here money from home awaited, so I promptly returned to cycling.
Nights grew colder and I was forced to patronize tourist homes. At Omaha, Nebraska, the thermometer crept so low that a pair of gloves became necessary.
Spurred on by the cold, I established a trip record of one hundred and forty miles in none hours, the day I reached Chicago.
But the most memorable day was October 11 – the end of three exciting months away from home. I had traveled 7,000 miles, to return weighing five pounds heavier than ever before. The trip had been one long succession of enjoyable experiences, but none could match the happiness within me that night as I peered in through a window at my family gathered about the supper table.
Note: In his excellent chapter on Jack Cole that appears in The History of Comics Volume Two, Jim Steranko recounts how, a few hours before arriving home, Cole had phoned home. He knew his family and a lot of the town would turn out to welcome him back. He circled around the back way, slipped into his house, where a crowd had gathered in his front yard. Jack Cole about gave his father a heart attack when he came in to find his son casually sitting in the living room, reading the newspaper as if it were an ordinary day and he had not been away on the trip of a lifetime for the last three months. As Steranko writes, “as usual, Jack Cole had the last laugh.”
All text copyright 2011 Paul Tumey