When I was kid, and we were visiting my grandparents in Hollywood, my grandfather told bedtime stories. These weren’t your run-of-the-mill, get the kids to sleep, halfhearted stabs at storytelling. They were, in fact, an interconnected serial of considerable complexity, and interest, full of plot twists and jokes and three dimensional characters. The series was named after the stories’ mythical setting: the town of “Dry Gulch.” As good stories do, the Dry Gulch stories, and the cast of characters, have stayed with me through the decades since I last heard one, and spawned an inside-baseball kind of humor between me and my sister in our adult life.
My grandfather was in advertising, meaning he started in that business with the Caples Company, and ultimately started his own firm, with a partner, in Los Angeles after the war. Rullman & Munger was a going concern for many decades, and they counted plenty of heavy-hitters in their portfolio. I doubt sincerely that it resembled Mad Men, that grand television epic, my grandfather being far too much of the midwestern sensibility, but I’m certain they had their share of fun, and I can remember running amok in their offices, on the top floor of the Lincoln Savings building in LA, when I was very young.
It was on these visits, when my sister and I stayed with Russ and Jean–by some strange family convention we always called our grandparents by their first names–that Russ would put us to bed with a Dry Gulch rendition. I don’t know where he got all of this, if he was borrowing from some other place, or if it was all his own creation, but whatever the origin, they were terrific stories, brilliantly told.
Every story, eagerly anticipated, even demanded well before bedtime, started the same way, delivered in character, with the bedroom lights off, and my grandfather’s voice carrying us instantly away. When we were quiet and still, Russ would begin slowly, deliberately: “Once upon a time, a long time ago, in the town of Dry Gulch, everybody was sitting around in the saloon, when all of a sudden, guess who walked in?” And then Russ would pause, giving us the chance to offer up a name, for we knew the characters as well as we knew our schoolmates. And we were inevitably wrong. But whoever walked into the saloon came with an announcement, a declaration, a complaint, or a question, and we were off on a story that never failed to please.
The principle inhabitants of Dry Gulch were as follows:
Sheriff Milquetoast–it was understood that the Sheriff was a tremendous guy, but generally too soft for the position, and in the habit of letting the bad guy go free, in order to sneak back to the saloon for another sarsaparilla.
Deputy Blister–an overweight bungler who frequently left the jail door unlocked and danced with his mop.
Mrs. McGillicuddy–a temperance woman, severely dressed, disinclined to humor, who frequently blew into the saloon with an axe and chopped up the bar. Generally reviled.
Black Bart–my personal favorite, he was a well dressed bandit who serially robbed the stagecoach and was forever pursued by Sheriff Milquetoast. Occasionally, in better times, he could be found in the saloon.
Tiger Teagarten–young gunfighter, he only used his pistolas when it was just, and his showdowns with Black Bart at high noon were continually thwarted by a kind of bedtime story deus ex machina, which was Russ putting an ellipses on the story and saying go to sleep.
Iron Fist Ike–brawler, handyman, jovial malcontent.
The Rubber Man–a strange, superhero type figure who had the ability to stretch himself into bizarre contortions, or to elongate, or become a bouncing ball in the dusty streets of Dry Gulch.
The Silver Man–a shadowy figure who lived on a mining claim in the hills outside of Dry Gulch.
Bartender Bob–ran the saloon, naturally, and was mortally afraid of McGillicuddy. He was famous for pouring a generous sarsaparilla, and his enormous mustache. He was frequently in the act of repairing some portion of the saloon.
Indian Joe–lived in town and was often employed in tracking Black Bart, when he wasn’t under suspicion for having robbed the bank or the stage himself. Was unsurpassed in his use of the bow and arrow, and was generally well-liked.
Banker Bob–no relation to the bartender, was unfortunately married to McGillicuddy. A nervous, sweaty, fidgety sort who was always overdressed for the perpetual heat of Dry Gulch.
There were other, walk-on parts, but this is the cast as I remember it, and with such an ensemble Russ was able to string together many nights of madcap adventure, of stage robberies and bank heists, of missing silver hordes and temperance parades, indian raids, town fires, jail escapes, thwarted hangings, the entire gamut of western noire told with a sense of humor and in a perfect radio theater voice that never failed to send me off into a sleep where my dreams ran wild.
In many ways they still do, in no small part due to this early inculcation in Dry Gulch mythology, a town which never grows, or shrinks, or is discovered by modernity.
And so, dear readers, I would like to offer you an opportunity to become a part of The Dry Gulch Project. I’m encouraging each of you, who finds yourself interested, to submit a Dry Gulch story to the Bunkhouse Chronicle. Send them to my email on the contact page. I will publish the best that I get in this prestigious forum. These stories should seek to ride that line between a child’s impressionable mind and an adult’s sense of humor. It’s a challenge.
Here are the rules: each story must start with the obligatory, and aforementioned, opening line. You must use the characters above, as suits the story, or invent a compelling new resident who fits the general mold. Keep the story short. Be funny. Solve a crime, commit a crime, solve a mystery, or tell a long joke. Whatever works.
That’s it. Give it a shot. Let’s see if we can’t bring something round to preserve the heritage of that magnificent town, it’s even better inhabitants, and perhaps find a way to send the legacy forward a few more generations.