Back in the early 80s, I understood there was a story that needed to be told, and I would have to be the one to do it. This story was called Redleg Boogie Blues and was originally published as a special issue of the AVA in 1997. For anyone that may still be interested, it can be found on theredlegs.com.
The decision to write the story came after a reading binge in which I devoured everything Henry Miller and Hunter S. Thompson had written.
I was living in Kona, Hawaii, with my drinking buddy Joe Bloss, a self-professed football fan. Late one night, we had run out of booze and Bloss couldn’t sleep, so he stayed up watching infomercials on TV. He found one with former football star Fran Tarkenton pitching insurance. (A few years later, the 49ers’ Joe Montana could be found selling suits on TV in San Francisco). Bloss, sensing possibility of a scam, got on the phone and ordered an insurance card “from Fran Tarkenton.” Since his intentions were dishonorable, he would use a fake name.
But what fake name? Bloss needed to think. He went to the kitchen and ravaged the cabinets, looking for a forgotten bottle of cooking sherry, anything alcoholic that might bring his brain back to functionality. But of course, no luck. There wasn’t even much food other than a forlorn-looking can of Campbell’s soup. In his booze-deprived state, he read the label on the can as a dyslexic might: BellCamp. He came up with “Howard” and ordered his insurance card. When the card arrived, he showed it to me, with the fake name: “Howard Belcamp.” I liked it, thought it would be a fun writing alias. My friend, with good humor and a bit of mock ceremony, handed the card to me, saying “It’s yours.”
In the 7th grade, I happened on the obscure fact that it is not illegal to use any name you want, any time. Another one was that it is not illegal to drive a car on the sidewalk in Connecticut. It is, however illegal to sit on the curb. Probably a good thing under the circumstances. Having discovered this non-law, I began using a different name on my school papers every day and annoyed the teacher, who expressed his displeasure by means of cold, steely looks in my direction. One of the names I used was Ignatz Weinerschnitzel.
I first encountered the AVA in 1988, at Jim Gibbons’ house in Willits, and understood it was a newspaper published by and for human beings, already a rare commodity those 22 years ago. Gibbons and I had just gone to eat at McDonald’s, a deliberate move on our part to “do something perverted.” While there, we saw two morbidly obese women ordering Big Macs, double fries, those hideous little deep-fried “apple pies,” “shakes” (composed of powdered marshmallows) and diet cokes. That was the beginning of the dialog that became the Fat Letters. Back at the house, I wrote my first letter to the Editor of the AVA, a comment on Miss Mendocino and her “few extra pounds.” As a lark, I decided to use the name on the card Bloss had given me back in Kona, “Howard Belcamp.” I changed the spelling to Belkamp and the joke has stuck all this time.
If there ever was a notion of secrecy or hiding behind the fake name, it was dispelled when upon the publication of the Redlegs story, our Fearless Editor announced in his column that Howard Belkamp and I were one and the same. If there was ever a cat in the bag, it was let out a long time ago. After that, I considered Howard to be merely the name of the voice in which I wrote my sometimes prickly pieces. If asked, “Why can’t you be nice,” I might paraphrase Gibbons by saying, “Because there is so much to be not nice about.”
So for now, I’m putting Howard out to pasture, but he may be back.