By the age of 6, I was blowing my weekly 50-cent allowance on comic books at a magazine rack in Rudy’s Variety Store on the corner of First and Tulare streets.
Mostly I looked for cartoon strips created by the three grand masters I’d discovered in the Sunday papers: Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon), Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates).
They are listed here in order of my preference, yet it was Milton Caniff’s depiction of the mysterious orient that stalked me through my formative years – years brushed darkly by war.
Like most children born in the U.S., I played every war game imaginable. The field behind our Fresno home became a bloody terrain where scores of Native Americans fell to my imaginary weapons. On the dirt floor of our garage, I hunched over my micro version of World War I, 3-inch rubber soldiers strewn asunder in a 36-inch Meuse-Argonne.
Fast forward a couple of years to World War II, and I’m playing Guadalcanal and Bataan in the backyard of our house in Long Beach, a toy replica of a 50-caliber machine gun in my hands.
In the daily newspapers, Terry and the Pirates gave way to the veteran U.S. airman Steve Canyon, Caniff’s pen morphing the silhouettes of Chinese junks and bamboo-shaded parlors into ominous shapes of bombers, tanks and heavy artillery.
By 1945, my father’s job in the shipyard slowed, and we moved back to Fresno. I felt less fearful as the war ended. As a 14-year-old, I accepted the fall of Nazi Germany and the end of the Japanese Empire like a child being told he need never again fear the dark.
Then just seven years later, on leave from military service in Korea, I roamed the city of Hiroshima with a girl my age who had lost her parents and two sisters to the bomb. Fortunately, she had been visiting her aunt in Kyoto on that fateful day. Handing out yen notes, I managed to stave off a gauntlet of professional survivors, all wearing with defiance their horrific scars and mutations.
Finally, we stood near the remains of a bridge bearing on its stone façade the forged silhouettes of small children. The girl spoke of this very spot being a shrine to her family’s home. Her halting English broke the eerie stillness, and I realized she was wishing she had been right here with her sisters when the bomb hit. What god, I wondered, would ever demand such penance?
Often in Korea, I thought of my room back home, the handcrafted bookshelves, a closet full of boyhood possessions, and my artwork on the walls. I had thinned down much of the clutter while attending two years of college, so picturing it without a whiff of that long ago five and dime magazine rack left me wondering about those old comic book characters.
Had that been Terry and his group of misfits directing our troop ship into “the Busiest Port in the World?” It looked as if cartoonist Milton Caniff had penciled them in, Pusan Harbor visible in the late morning haze, and all of Korea beyond, coming down in the pit of our stomachs.
On my final R and R, two of my buddies and I caught a ferry boat from Hong Kong to the island of Macao. Governed in halves by Portugal and Red China in 1953, the colony’s mystique was magnified when a dead body was discovered floating in the harbor. The small ship’s captain entertained us with a jolly chat until the all-clear signal was given to disembark.
Stepping ashore, one of the passengers pointed out a Panama hat bobbing in the murky water below us. And I thought of every colorful pulp fiction jacket or Big Little Book cover portraying the “Mysterious Orient” that had ever stirred my imagination.
Once on dry land, we joined a long line of locals and visitors hell bent to reach the bright lights festooning an ill-structured gaming casino on the Portugal side, its several stories teetering that evening in a minor gale. Inside, I found my footing among all the anonymous uniforms, wrinkled Shantung blazers and sleek gowns, many of which were slit severely to reveal every skin tone on the globe.
I was 22 years old, standing there unscathed. The Korean War had ended in a stalemated truce three months into my deployment, and my long months in the field during its aftermath had not hardened me beyond hope.
Oh sure, I’d changed. Somewhere along the way, I’d lost the small things soldiers hide in their footlockers and in their heads. Like there I was in the heart of Terry and the Pirates country, and I was no longer looking for him.
Larry Hill of Fresno exhibited paintings with Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning, and Franz Kline. He turned to writing fiction later in life and is the author of two novels and two short fiction collections, most recently “Rose Capital of the World,” from Mark Arax’s West of West Books. He is currently working on a collection of essays.