Brian M Downing
In the twenty or so years after the end of World War Two, popular culture abounded with adulation of the military and glorification of war. Movies and books with WW2 themes came out in large numbers and celebrated the Great Event from the lowly private to the most august general, and mythologized events from Anzio to Okinawa. Most of it, of course, was neither realistic nor edifying. It was delusional and militaristic, but boys loved it. They tend to love such things. Susceptibility to delusions about war is as innate to boys as snips and snails and puppy dog tails. It’s probably in our genes, and it would take centuries of careful breeding to rid us of it.
One part of the celebration is largely forgotten, but readily recalled by many guys, usually with a round of laughter. That was the genre of magazines with titles such as Male, For Men Only, Stag, and True Action.
Part Sgt Fury and part Confidential, they were in their own section of drugstore newsstands, near American Rifleman and Road & Track, far from Redbook and Architectural Digest. They were also next to the waiting chairs in barber shops. What lad could not be enticed by the lurid covers of Thompson-wielding GIs and alluring “dames”? Not many. Not me. They featured attention-grabbing stories that Ernie Pyle somehow missed such as:
The Commando-Led Battle Nymphs Who Pinned Down a Jap Army
The Nazi Blood Fortress that Surrendered to a Single Girl (See, they weren’t sexist.)
The genre had incandescent appeal to boys back then. It promised to reveal esoteric knowledge of things about which we knew nothing, but about which we were desperate to learn – sex and war. After millennia of the commingling of those two things, the themes had reached their highest artistic expression right there on the newsstand. We could become parts of a great historical tradition. Samson and Delilah, Odysseus and Penelope, Lancelot and Guinevere, Nelson and Hamilton, me and . . . an Italian nudist girl.
The magazines were on open display, but that by no means meant we could leaf through them. Trouble loomed for the lad who, after stealthily inching over from where Mad and Cracked lay, opened up a copy of Stag or For Men Only. They were . . . well, for men only. Standing too long near that section would surely elicit a reproving glare or a pointed “ahem” from a grown-up, even if the kid was unknown to him. It was adult-oblige. It was best only to casually walk past that section a few times. In the barber shop, Vince would tell you to get the hell away from there or maybe throw a brush at you that puffed out a talcum-powder cloud upon impact like a small white phosphorous round. Vince had been in the marines in Korea and was direct and compelling. Who knows how many buxom and grateful nurses he had rescued from Chicom sin dens across the Yalu?
Trying to purchase one of those mags was impossible. The sales clerk was as likely to sell us one as an East German border guard would allow someone to climb over the Wall. Our parents might be told. We’d be thought along the ruinous path upon which Caryl Chessman once embarked. Such were the norms of early-1960s America.
It didn’t matter. We didn’t have to read the stories anyway. The pictures and titles on the covers got the message across pretty well. Gil Cohen’s cover art was worth several thousand words, and the writers were probably not his literary equals. I really don’t think I ever read one of the stories, but I vividly remember those magazines. Those magazines disappeared during the Vietnam War, along with Steve Canyon, Terry and his Pirates, and Smilin’ Jack from the comics. A lot of things, both good and bad, disappeared amid all the tumult of the 60s as well, among them was the idea that a grown-up could reproach someone else’s kid.
©2008 Brian M. Downing