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A memoir of author/lyricist Tom Blackburn
Dirty Orange Juice
by Arthur Winfield Knight
(From Wikipedia: “Born the eldest of six children on June 23, 1913 on the T.O. Ranch near Raton, New Mexico, to Howard and Edith “Didi” (née Herrington) Blackburn. His father worked for the O'Shaunnessy Engineering Company as an engineer and was sent to the ranch to install an irrigation system. The T.O. Ranch had its own internal railroad and was used in Blackburn's novel Raton Pass. After the irrigation system was installed the family moved to La Salle, Colorado (where Edith's father had a farm), and Howard Blackburn tried farming, then dry farming, several other jobs-including town marshal, and (with the help of financing from his father) opening a Ford Motor Company automotive dealership. After this failed, he got more help from his father and Howard took insurance classes in Denver and then became successful working for the Federal Surety Company in Denver. The family moved to Denver when Tom was in the fourth grade. Howard Blackburn was then put in charge of monitoring construction jobs for Federal Surety where the insurance company had bonded the contractor. If the contractor failed to complete the project, Federal Surety would finish the contract with Howard in charge. Tom was put to work in menial jobs during the summer time at the various construction sites that his father was supervising. When Tom was older he helped his Uncle Cecil, who was in the produce business, pickup fresh vegetables from area farms. For a time the family lived in Lander, Wyoming, and then they moved to Glendale, California. Tom's mother was a writer of juvenile poetry, pulp fiction, and juvenile Westerns. He cites his mother as one of his literary influences. Blackburn attended Glendale Junior College and UCLA. While at Glendale Junior College he met (Hazel) Juanita Alsdorf, and they were married in Glendale on July 6, 1937. They had three children: daughter, Stephanie Jean Blackburn and sons Thomas Wakefield Blackburn III and Gary Keeling Blackburn (Gary was adopted, the biological son of Juanita's sister). “After he left college, Blackburn became a “ghost writer” for pulp fiction authors Harry F. Olmsted and Ed Earl Repp, what he called “pulpeteering.” When he left Olmsted and Repp, and moved to Santa Monica, he was replaced by Frank Bonham. To make ends meet he took a job at the local gas company. Blackburn also wrote stories under the pseudonyms of Steve Herrington, Ray P. Shotwell, and Dave Sands. Tom Blackburn died August 2, 1992.”
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I’d known Tom Blackburn for 35 years, but he’d changed profoundly in the past three, and I didn’t like to think about it.
Since my wife and I had seen Tom, he’d had a series of small strokes, so he dragged his right foot. Crossing the room, he held his hands out before him, as if he were clutching a divining rod, dowsing for water, or holding onto an invisible walker.
Now I understood why Tom’s wife Juanita had said, “Let’s remember each other the way we were,” when I’d phoned Juanita in Newport Beach. I’d wanted Kit, my wife, to meet two of my oldest friends, but Juanita was already dying from cirrhosis of the liver that bicentennial summer.
The way we were: I remember Tom firing a Colt .45 given to him by Randolph Scott after Scott starred in a western Tom had written about the making of the pistol. Tom was wearing a sweatshirt with a picture of Mickey Mouse on it because he was working for Disney that year, writing a script about Davy Crockett. The shots echoed in the canyon behind Tom’s house that overlooked the San Fernando Valley.
On warm nights during the summer you could look down on the smog that hovered above Burbank, and Tom and Juanita and I would sit on the balcony and drink gin and tonics although I was only 18. They’d told me I could live with them if I decided to attend UCLA later that year. It was 1956, and they were the permissive parents I didn’t have.
The way we were. The night I met Tom, he played the banjo and sang a song he’d just written the lyrics to. Pretty soon, almost everyone in America would be singing it.
When I stayed with Tom and Juanita, we’d have steak and champagne for breakfast, then Tom would go down the hill to Disney’s.
Juanita was having her portrait painted. Each afternoon she’d sit in their large living room while the artist tried to capture her. She didn’t like to be photographed, already worried about growing old; she was beautiful. She drank Scotch and milk while the painter worked because she had an ulcer and thought the Scotch would calm her nerves while the milk coated her stomach. It hadn’t turned out that way, but it had seemed like a good plan at the time.
Tom probably outlived her because he couldn’t drink at Disney’s or, at least, he wasn’t supposed to, but he’d made up for it when he came home and, later, once he’d stopped working at the studios.
The first time Kit and I saw Tom, Juanita had died, but Tom was still living in Newport Beach, and he took us to lunch.
Kit and I gave him a book of poems we’d written and he said, “I wish I had something to give you. I suppose you don’t read westerns anymore.” He seemed wistful.
We told him we’d be glad to read his books, so he inscribed five novels for us; they formed a series. In the first one, he wrote, “For Kit and Arthur: A continuation of a long and rewarding friendship and the beautifully hopeful beginning of another.”
While Tom signed the books, I looked at some verse he’d written for Juanita, and Kit glanced at an unabridged dictionary on a stand near Tom’s desk. Later, she told me the pages were opened to H and she’d read the definition for “heartstrings,” strangely moved because Tom and I were so obviously touched, seeing each other again after how many years? It must have been close to 15.
Now Tom lived with his daughter in a small town in the mountains in Colorado because he needed someone to care for him. Tom didn’t eat much, didn’t read much, didn’t even watch TV, sitting in the large leather chair that had belonged to Juanita. For breakfast he drank what he called “dirty orange juice.” It was a mixture of dark rum and orange juice and he told us it was good for his health, but it was killing him. As the day progressed, he’d switch to Bombay gin, straight, on the rocks. It was symbolic of his life.
He smoked unfiltered Pall Malls, even though he had to use an oxygen tank to breathe at times, and we both felt he was just waiting to die. He said, “The next time you see me I’ll probably be in a pine box,” and he didn’t seem to care.
I hated it.
Before we left, Kit asked, “Which movie is your favorite? Based on one of your scripts?” and he looked at her strangely. More than 30 had been produced.
“None of them,” Tom said, and I understood why I’d never gone to work in Hollywood.
Tom had earned $750 a week in the mid-50s and the first royalty check for the lyrics to “Davy Crockett” had been for something like $30,000, but his was a Hollywood story. It was a town that paid its writers well, but it always ended-up destroying them.
“None of them,” Tom said again, finishing his glass of dirty orange juice in a gulp. Then he lit an unfiltered Pall Mall, coughing, the oxygen tank beside him, and asked his daughter for another drink.