Visiting a local junk shop, I recently picked up an iron curiosity from another age —one straight outta the comics. The flat heavy iron straps opened and closed accordion style, like an old wooden pet gate, and the rusty contraption had a C-shaped clamp on each end.
“See, that’s where you fix it to your running board,”said the guy behind the counter, but I still didn’t get it. He read the look, familiar to his profession, and explained, “It’s a luggage rack for your Model-T.”
Then I remembered Gasoline Alley and Walt & Skeezix and their self-imposed exile into 1923, the not-quite-but-almost-still Wild West. In my garage, I have a 1927 Willys Overland Whippet, so I bought the luggage rack for ten bucks.
Frank King’s daily newspaper comic strip Gasoline Alley routinely had America on the edge of its breakfast chair in the 1920s, but one story arc was particularly hair raising, especially for jazz age parents. Inexplicably missing for days, King revealed that single dad Walt Wallet’s son, Skeezix, was indeed kidnapped by his true mother, Mme. Octave, a wealthy opera singer with an army of lawyers on retainer. Octave had left Skeezix on Walt’s doorstep four years before, abandoning the child to the good man’s care so that she might better pursue her singing career. In the spring of 1924 she changed her mind. After a nationwide hunt that culminated in a harrowing chase, Walt retrieved Skeezix but decided to hide out in Arizona until he knew what additional fallout there would be concerning Octave’s ultimate intentions. (She had all those lawyers, remember.)
Setting out from the midwestern Alley in Walt’s belching old tub, luggage racks identical to mine are evident in the May 31 strip. While my Whippet runs okay, (well, it’s got a few issues), and I would today have a cell phone and Triple A coverage…I can’t imagine pointing its nose toward the Pacific and setting out in the thing, sleeping bags and suitcases riding in the dusty-muddy backwash of the narrow wood-spoked wheels.
Walt and Skeezix didn’t give it a second thought. They didn’t have interstate exits or GPS navigation, and neither did their creator when he packed up the King family and followed a similar trail of real life exploration and adventure.
Both stories, the fictional and the real life, can be found in the excellent series of hardcover reprints from Drawn & Quarterly Books. There are five volumes of Walt & Skeezix dailies and one super-sized album of breathtaking color Sundays available. They’re well worth seeking out.
If I do chip away the rust and get these luggage racks mounted, were I to screw on some courage and take flight to the west in the clattering ’27…I’d take Walt and Skeezix with me, not just for company, but for practical guidance.