(The photo above, in all its unfortunately blurry glory, depicts Gary Steele showing off some of the highlights of his collection in 1965.)
West Rome was, as I've indicated previously, a very close-knit community. Geographically, it was a relatively small area--perhaps three miles from the western city limits to the underpass that was the unofficial dividing line between Romes East and West, maybe three more miles from the Garden Lakes area to the southern city limits--so it's no surprise that so many of us who went to school together also lived nearby.
But it was an amazing bit of good luck that I found not one, not two, but three comic book buddies less than a ten minute walk from my house. And while my friendships with Phil Patterson and John Ball only lasted for a couple of years, my friendship with Gary Steele would continue for a decade and a half... and to this day, I have no idea why it ended.
Gary lived on Leon Street, in a small two-bedroom house that I suspect was built in the 1940s. And when I say small, it's worth remembering that I grew up in a three bedroom house that barely measured a thousand square feet. By today's standards, our house was tiny, with tiny rooms and a cramped kitchen. But Gary's house was even smaller--maybe 850 or 900 square feet, and that included a dining room, two bedrooms, one bath, a claustrophobic kitchen, and a small living room.
I don't know if Gary's parents were significantly older than my parents, but they always seemed closer to my grandparents' age. Gary's mother was a sturdy Aunt Bea type who was incredibly protective of her only child; as a result, she wanted to involve herself in almost every aspect of Gary's life, and Gary seemed to resent that.
Gary's father was a stoic, taciturn, introspective man who worked at Fox Manufacturing; when he wasn't working, he enjoyed fishing and gardening... in fact, he seemed to love both. Once he accepted the fact that his son didn't share his love for either, he also accepted the fact that he and Gary didn't share much of any interests, and weren't likely to share any interests in the future.
The Steeles were genuinely nice people, the sort of people who always seemed to the be the likeable aunt and uncle sort... but Gary had few cousins that I know of, so they didn't get to play that role. Instead, they stood slightly outside of their son's life, doting over him and supporting his interests even when they didn't understand or share them--and Gary seemed to close them off from his life.
Gary, me, Phil, John... we probably lived a quarter to a half a mile apart at most, so it was natural that we would cross paths. I first became aware of Gary's comic book interest at school, when he heard John and me talking about a Fantastic Four story (FF #16, a Doctor Doom tale), and he joined in the conversation. He had obviously read the book, and he knew the story. His enthusiasm for comics was evident, and he gradually became a regular part of our lunch table group, talking about comics and monster models and trading cards.
Within weeks, Gary had invited me to come to his house--not just for a visit, but for dinner. Gary's mom made hot dogs with chili and slaw, and I was won over immediately--not only did I love hot dogs, but she made the absolute best slaw in the work, a slaw so flavorful and creamy and rich that in my mind I still to this day measure all slaws against hers. While I always felt that John Ball's father would rather that none of his children's friends ever came to the house, Gary's parents were gracious and welcoming and seemed to enjoy their son's friends.
Gary and I hit it off right away. We both loved comics of all sorts, so each of us had huge accumulations of Marvels, DCs, Gold Keys, Charltons, Archies... if it was a comic, we'd read it. Living so close to one another, we both shopped at the same places, and we had both learned the local comic book delivery schedules. So it was only natural that the two of us would start walking to Couch's and Candler's together (I had to walk right past his house to get to those two stores if I was going the back way, which was much shadier and therefore preferable in the summertime), since his house was only four doors down the road from the back doors of both stores. Hill's and Couch's were a little further away, but once again Gary's house was a convenient stop on the way.
Within a few months, Gary and I began spending the night at one another's house, reading comics and sharing stories and producing our own comic book stories and our own superheroes. That was one other thing that Gary and I had in common: we both enjoyed writing our own stories. Gary also drew a little bit, but he didn't enjoy drawing comics as much as I did--but oh, did we both love to write our own fantastic adventures! Our personalities and interests perfectly complemented one another; when one of us would discover a new interest (as happened, for instance, when we found the Coosa Valley Book Shop in downtown Rome and I discovered a rich collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs Ace F-edition paperbacks), the other would inevitably find the new discovery just as appealing and we'd have yet another interest in common.
So in early 1965, I was lucky enough to have not one but two good comic book buddies, John Ball and Phil Patterson... but even then, I knew that Gary and I were kindred spirits with far more in common than any other friend I had known before that time.