Saturday, September 15, 2012

Big Ben Blagwell: a partial retrospective

Because of a rather unusually busy several days for your humble editor, the eagerly-awaited next episode of Railroad Train to Heaven has been regretfully postponed until next week; however, we hope to forestall any groans of disappointment with today’s submission, a brief backward look at the exciting career of Arnold Schnabel’s friend, that hearty adventurer Big Ben Blagwell.

Ben’s first known appearance was in They Called Her Clementine, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Gold Medal paperback original published in 1949, which opens with these immortal lines:

I liked her face; it was a sweet, open face, a face that seemed to say springtime and flowers and happiness; oh, how wrong I was.

It was almost three years (during which time our hero’s hair somehow turned from “black as engine oil” to “red like dirty rust”) before Ben’s next appearance, in The Magic Pen Wiper, by Horace P. Sternwall; a Popular Library paperback original, 1952 (republished as Port of Passion, by "Hank Peter Savage", a “Perma Book Original”, 1954):

Big Ben Blagwell had whored and boozed and brawled his way through every two-bit dive in the South Seas, but he hadn’t really hit rock bottom until that day he strolled into a little place down Baguio way on the isle of Luzon, a little joint called the Magic Pen Wiper.

A scant two months later Ben showed up again, in My Friend the .45, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Behemoth Books paperback original, 1952:

‎He had a face that looked like it had been run over by a truck a few times; I turned away but then he spoke, the face spoke: "Hey, buddy, no disrespect, can I ask ya a question?

Ben’s next starring role was in Hell in the Amazon, by Horace P. Sternwall, an “Ace Double” paperback original, paired with Five Elegant Hit-Men, by “Henry Per Swenson” (yet another Sternwall nom de plume), 1953:

When my old navy buddy Buzz Maxwell called me up and asked me if I wanted to take a boat trip up the Amazon just for the hell of it with our other navy buddy Chip Weatherby, I said sure, it sounded like fun.

Boy, was I wrong.

Dead wrong.

Like flesh-eating piranha wrong.

We find Ben again, apparently fully-recovered from the numerous wounds incurred in his previous adventure, in Princess of the Bowery, by Horace P. Sternwall, an Ace paperback original, 1954:

She had a face that reminded me of my mother's face in the casket at the funeral home: painted, hard, and dead, with just the ghost of a smile; I decided to buy her a drink.

Again little worse for the wear, we find Ben a year later in Big Gun For a Little Lady, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Ballantine paperback original, 1955 (originally serialized in abridged form as "Little Lady With a Large Gun" in Savage Tales for Men, August and October, 1954):

“Hey, buddy,” said the dame sitting to Ben Blagwell’s right. “You wanta do me a favor?”

She was a redhead, but not with orange hair like a normal redhead. Her hair really was red, just like her dress.

She didn’t wait for Ben to say anything, but she opened up her sparkly red purse on her lap and brought out a .45 automatic, locked and cocked.

“Here,” she said. “Hold this for me a minute.”

Ben looked up and down the bar. Nobody was paying attention, and the kind of joint this was, even if somebody was paying attention they probably wouldn’t give a damn.

Ben took the gun out of her hand and held it on his thigh.

“Pretty big gun for a little lady,” he said.

“Sometimes a little lady needs a big gun,” she said. “Now put that thing away and let me buy you a drink.”

Still “a sucker for a good-looking dame, and the deadlier the better” we find Ben for the first time in sunny Los Angeles, in A Broad Named Maude, by Horace P. Sternwall, a Signet paperback original, 1956 (“Not a reprint”, but actually serialized in abridged form as “Devil’s Flight” in Torrid Tales, October-November-December, 1953, by “Harry P. St. James”):

It was a long walk back from the Santa Anita racetrack to downtown Los Angeles. Every once in a while Ben Blagwell would stick his thumb out, but nobody stopped. What the hell, Ben wouldn’t have picked himself up either if he saw himself standing on the side of the road in his cheap Robert Hall suit, a big ginger bruiser who looked like he’d kill you just as soon as look at you. It was almost midnight by the time he got back to Bunker Hill, and all the lights in the rooming house were out, which was good -- maybe he could avoid the landlady at least until morning. But someone was sitting on the porch glider up there in the dark. Ben started climbing the creaky wooden steps, hoping to hell that the someone wasn’t Mrs. McGrath, the mean old harridan. And then the someone struck a match, and lit a cigarette, and Ben stopped where he was at the head of the steps.

“Hello, big boy.”

Maude. Maude Collins. Three thousand miles he had traveled to get away from this broad, and here she was.

“You look like hell, big boy,” she said.

I look like hell, thought Ben.

And now I am in hell.

Ben apparently appeared in at least fourteen other Horace P. Sternwall novels, but we have not yet been able to track a single one of them down. If any of our faithful readers does happen to chance on any of them in a garage sale or moldering in a cardboard box in a grandparent's basement, the present writer would love to hear from you.

But in the meanwhile can any of us forget Ben’s first appearance in Arnold Schnabel’s heroic and massive memoir, Railroad Train to Heaven? Yes, it was way back in Chapter 251, when Arnold idly picks up a paperback titled Havana Hellcats (Horace P. Sternwall, publisher and date unknown):

I turned it over and looked at the back cover.

“Trapped in a tropical paradise that turns into a burning inferno of passion and betrayal, Yank soldier-of-fortune Ben Blagwell goes up against a harem of lesbian murderesses whose only motto is ‘More!’”

“By Horace P. Sternwall, author of Say It With a .38, Two Ways to Tuesday, and The Magic Pen Wiper.”

“I couldn’t put this book down, and neither will you!"-- Bennett Cerf

“Not for nothing has Sternwall been compared with Maugham and Conrad." -- Bernard DeVoto

“Sternwall’s Big Ben Blagwell deserves a place in the pantheon of the great heroes of literature, right up there with Leatherstocking, Ivanhoe, D'Artagnan, and Humphrey Clinker.” -- Lionel Trilling

I opened the book to the first page of the novel. I brought the opened book to my nose and breathed in the reassuring smell of the pulpy paper. Then I lowered the book and read the opening lines.

“Your name Ben Blagwell?”

“Who wants to know?”

“I’d like to buy you a drink if you’re Ben Blagwell.”

“I only drink with my friends,” said Big Ben Blagwell.

“And what’s a chap got to do to become your friend?”

“Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you.”

“Innkeeper!” called the fat man in the wrinkled white suit. “Another drink for my friend here. What’re you drinking, Ben?”

“Planter’s Punch, with a float of ‘151’.”

“Two Planter’s Punches,” said the fat man.

“With a float of ‘151’,” Ben reminded him.

“And a float of ‘151’,” said the fat man.

“Sit down, my friend,” said Big Ben Blagwell….

“All right, buddy,” said someone behind me, in a deep, gruff voice.

I turned. It was a big muscular, sun-bronzed guy with four or five days’ growth of a ginger beard, a crushed and dingy white yachting cap, a wrinkled Hawaiian shirt, equally wrinkled denim trousers, dirty white deck shoes. He had a tattoo of an anchor on one forearm, and there was some sort of a bird on the other. He took a drag from a cigarette...

(Portrait of Ben and unknown woman by Vic Prezio. Please come back next week for another blood-curdling chapter of Railroad Train to Heaven. Ben and Arnold will be waiting for you.)


Unknown said...

I tend to read too much into the text, but these glimpses of Ben made me wonder if he's eternal. One man in so many layered incarnations? Perhaps he's Josh in diguise.

Dan Leo said...

I wonder if we could start the Church of Ben? The sacrament of course would be a Planter's Punch with a "float" of 151 rum.

Ted Stamas said...

"Good work ain't cheap. Cheap work ain't good." - Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins.

Must have been a shipmate of Big Ben Blagwell.

Dan Leo said...

Hey, good to hear from you again, Ted. I just looked up Sailor Jerry -- what a story! And there's a "Sailor Jerry" store here in Philly on 13th Street...