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A Guy Named Joe
JOE, WE HARDLY KNEW YE
By TOM SOTER and TOM SINCLAIR[[wysiwyg_imageupload:11:]]
In the end, he was just a guy named Joe. During my high school years, I used to entertain myself by creating – with my pals Tom (“Siny”) Sinclair, Alan Saly, and Christian Doherty – tape-recorded audio shows. I’d call them radio programs, except that they weren’t broadcast on the radio. But they were radio in all but name: 15-minute dramas, comedies, spy thrillers, westerns – all preserved on reel-to-reel tapes. One of the programs for which I have a particular fondness, even to this day, is Joe, Agent of V.A.T. Joe wasn’t a tax revenue man in Britain (where VAT is commonly understood to be the Value Added Tax) but a spy for the top-secret organization Victor’s Action Team. Never mind that this was never explained in the actual series (nor was the shadowy figure of Victor ever heard or mentioned), V.A.T. was just, well, V.A.T., a cross between the 1940-50s propaganda-laden Captain America comics and the Boy Scouts of America, by way of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series and the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comic book.
The V.A.T. agents, all played by Siny with practically the same vocal tones (no Mel Blanc he), included The Chief, Corporal Thaddeus Idiot, and Jasper Stanwell (the latter two being parodies of Dum-Dum Dugan and Jasper Sitwell in S.H.I.E.L.D.), and the villains included Speedman and, my personal favorite, The Mad German, who threatened V.A.T. agents with a pie that would brainwash them if they ate it.
All the V.A.T. men were true blue and didn’t curse, drink, or fool around with the ladies (when the Chief went on a date with a woman, Joe and Corporal Idiot knew he was under an evil influence), and the adventures were pure, tongue-in-cheek hokum.
Now, Siny played most of the roles except for the title character, Joe Ryan. For some reason, I was cast as Joe, even though the name (if not the part) was owned by another. There actually was a Joe Ryan, and he was in elementary school with Siny and me.
I didn’t have much cause to think of Joe, real or imagined, until over 30 years later, when Alan Saly and I put many of the old “radio” shows on the internet for their widest potential audience ever. We did it as a kick, but I was floored by an e-mail I received from – you guessed it – Joe Ryan. The real one.
Joe, who never knew that we had appropriated his name (but not his personality) for our audio series, was apparently amused and flattered by the show and left me a wry message. Siny, who knew Joe better than I did, was very excited about making contact with V.A.T.’s inspiration and actually called him. They talked, and, Siny told me, Joe had happy memories of our elementary school years together, remembering me as a very amusing third-grader.
It was flattering but also embarrassing. I didn’t remember being amusing in third grade and, apart from his picture in the yearbook, I had no memories of Joe Ryan himself. So, I asked Siny to tell me what the real Joe was like. His response:
When we were in elementary school, I had a friend named Joe. We got chummy around third grade at St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School. Over the summer of 1966, we went to Jamaica together for two weeks with our mothers; it was the summer I turned 10. We got our picture taken with Olympic legend Jesse Owens at a Sheraton Hotel there.
For the next few summers, Joe and I went to camp in the Parksville, N.Y., together. It was an idyllic time and place, filled with leisurely ping pong games, sporadic crab apple wars, and daily trips down the hill to “the Village,” where we would pick up comic books, Sugar Daddies, and the like with our 15-cent (sometimes 25-cent!) daily allowances. I remember Joe came up with a character called “Uncomfortable” (U.N. for short), who was a takeoff on Jasper Sitwell (get it?) from the Nick Fury, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. feature in Strange Tales. Joe also had another character: Lala Bugosi, a sort-of-inverted version of Bela Lugosi of Dracula fame. I can still hear Joe delivering Lala’s catchphrase: “Bloo-gee, bloo-gah! I have come to suck your blood!”
When Joe moved to Teaneck, N.J., circa 1968, we remained friends, and would visit each other’s homes for sleepovers. I really enjoyed those trips to Teaneck. I still have fond memories of riding bikes all around the town; as a city kid, I found the suburbs exotic and kind of cool.
Around 1971-‘72, Joe and I drifted apart. In my case, adolescence brought with it a burgeoning alcohol problem, which would take almost a decade to overcome. I severed ties with many friends because of my drinking, but I wouldn’t speak with Joe for close to 40 years.
Over those years, I often thought of him but never reestablished contact. Then, Tom Soter got an e-mail from Joe, and that led to my phoning Joe and having a long-overdue catch-up conversation. It was great to reminisce. It seems to me now that nobody really knows you so well as your youthful friends, those who shared so many formative experiences with you.
It’s been over a year now since that talk, and, though we’ve e-mailed each other a few times, Joe and I have yet to get together in person. I’m not entirely sure why. But, I still hope it will happen. After all, who else in the entire blessed world remembers “Uncomfortable”?
FULL CAPTION FOR PHOTO (above): JOE AT LAST! Joe Ryan and Tom Sinclair were reunited in the fall of 2010 at the Columbus Circle branch of Borders, where Sinclair was on hand to read from his story on Quintano's School for Young Professionals in the just-published book SPIN GREATEST HITS: 25 YEARS OF HERETICS, HEROES, AND THE NEW ROCK 'N' ROLL. As this pic was snapped, Sinclair was heard to remark, "Joe at last, Joe at last! Thank God almighty, it's Joe at last!" (Photo by Bill Miller)
August 29, 2010