Not Vanilla Pudding
Dale Brumfield’s dressed in his trademark black—more punk than ninja—jeans and a T-shirt. He sports a scruff of white stubble seemingly intent on maturing into a beard, and a shock of white hair combed straight back. He’s a natural raconteur and slips easily into a narrative about his early life.
Born in Waynesboro, Dale spent his earliest years in a little neighborhood called Park Road, a handful of ranchers built in the early 1950s by Korean War vets and financed with GI loans. Safe, tidy, mini-dream houses. His father, James, had served aboard the USS Wisconsin and later the Missouri, but when he returned stateside returned to work at DuPont, which employed half the men in Waynesboro. “He had started work there in 1938 for about eight and a half cents an hour,” says Dale. “I’ve got his first pay stub.”
James married Polly and they quickly had their first child, Lisa, and then Dale came along. They put an addition on the rancher and then in the late 1960s moved to older home on four acres in the village of New Hope out in Augusta County. Whether he knew it or not at the time, Dale was collecting stories and anecdotes, saving them for a later date, and he would then be forever changed by a photograph.
Dale watched the tumult of the sixties from the brick rancher mainly on nightly news, but they were buffered from it out in Waynesboro. And then one day, as he flipped through the latest copy of a LIFE magazine in his parents’ living, Dale came across a black-and-white photo of student activist David Shapiro sitting bind the desk of Columbia University’s president, a man named Kirk. Shapiro’s wearing shades, and holds a cigar with its ash tipped toward the ceiling, his mustached lip curled up, a wisp of smoke spiraling toward an open window. He looks like he owns the place.
“That picture shocked me awake,” Dale remembers. “That picture scared me more than any picture I had ever seen because it showed me this was an uprising that’s not eight thousand miles away in Southeast Asia. This is happening right in our own backyard. And all of a sudden it clicked. I was nine years old.”
After the family moved out to New Hope, Dale attended Fort Defiance High School. He was a good student and excelled at sports. “I was a stud athlete,” he says. “Three sport letterman—cross country, track and basketball. I took five years of art and five years of band. I really was an arts and culture kind of guy. But I was an academic too. I was an honor graduate. I enjoyed high school tremendously.”
Somewhere during that time, in a small drug store out in Staunton, Dale picked up a magazine he had never seen before. It was National Lampoon and he simply couldn’t put it down once he’d peeled back the glossy cover. “I’d never laughed so hard in my life as I laughed at that thing,” he says.
It was a moment that set the stage for some of Dale’s later performances in publishing. “It seemed the best talent working in humor came together at that point with National Lampoon,” he says. “They didn’t pull any punches and some of it was really offensive. You know I grew up on Mad magazine and then when I reached puberty I graduated to National Lampoon. That was a terminal degree.”
After high school, Dale came to Richmond where he planned to earn a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in commercial art. He lived in one of the smaller men’s dorms in the 800 block of Franklin Street. He had a second floor room overlooking the alley and there in front of him was the Biograph marquee, which was perfect, considering Dale’s penchant for films. “A guy from student services came that Sunday night before classes started and said, ‘Don’t go on Grace Street, you have no business on Grace Street,’’ Dale says. “Well what’s the first thing an eighteen year old boy’s going to do? Go to Grace Street.”
He remembers the first time he ventured into Sandor’s Bookstore, which used to have the best collection of New Direction Paperbacks in Richmond. “They also had the largest selection of adult magazines in the city,” Dale says. “They had quarter movies in the back and Stroke magazine. It was weird for me a kid from Augusta County. All along Grace Street there were prostitutes. There were junkies, there were pimps. And questionable businesses. That was in the day when Richmond had the highest murder rate in the country.”
That first year was tough and Dale almost threw in the towel. “I really hated VCU that first go around,” he says. “There were sirens all the time. I was put off by Grace Street. I lived at Stuffy’s on Harrison and the easy money sandwich which was a $1.25 for a six inch sub. Richmond wasn’t sitting well with me and I really considered dropping out.” Plus, he quickly discovered that commercial art was not for him.
Things changed his sophomore year. For one thing, he switched his major to painting and printmaking. For another, he moved into Scherer Hall on the fifth floor just down the hall from Hunter Jackson one of the founding members of GWAR. “All of a sudden things clicked,” says Dale. “By my second year I was pretty much enmeshed. That’s when I got into my art more and went to work at The Commonwealth Times as a graphic layout person, something I’d never done it in my life.”
Dale began creating comic books, always in a satirical vein. He aped Cappy Dick and Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. “Bastardizing pop culture was something I really enjoyed,” Dale says.
A couple years later, in 1981, Dale, along with Bill Pahnelas and Peter Blake, put out the first issue of Throttle magazine, a publication that would endure in one permutation of other for the next 19 years. “We had done five one-shot publications over a period of a couple of years, things like Mushroom Times and Rockets & Weenies,” says Dale. “Then Peter said, ‘Let’s do another one, but let’s make it a tabloid and let’s do it right.”
They printed a thousand copies for $180 and dropped them off throughout the Fan in restaurants and bars. Within 24 hours they were all gone. Two months later they did another run. Hours after they were dropped off, every copy had been picked up. “And we thought, you know we’ve hit a niche here, maybe we should capitalize on this,” Dale says. “In Richmond, there was nothing but the Times-Dispatch and the News Leader and the Afro-American. Nothing arts and culture related.” By the third issue they were selling ads, and six months later they were completely supported by ad sales. “Then we started coming out monthly and it just caught fire and took off after that,” says Dale. “Our top issue in 1984 we did 42 pages, full color, 20,000 copies.”
Not long after their inaugural issue appeared, STYLE weekly was born. “Their distribution was to leave a bundle in every apartment building and then you’d walk into an apartment building and there’d be a thousand copies of STYLE scattered up and down the stairs so we used that for a Throttle ad one time,” Dale tells me. He’s grinning. “Bill Pahnelas and I one night, when STYLE was at Franklin and Harrison, dressed up like homeless people, which wasn’t much of a stretch, and got a couple of shopping carts from Safeway and pushed them down the alley pretending we were looking for cans.” Dale’s grin erupts in laughter. “We started rooting through STYLE’s trash can and we found all this great stuff—memos, in house letters, story lists, discarded stories and we carried it all back to Throttle and weeded through it and we published some of it in Throttle.” Now his laughter is uproar. “And what was so funny was that Lorna Wyckoff (founder of STYLE) got so upset about us going through her trash that she met with George Crutchfield (chairman of VCU’s department of mass communications) over at Stuffy’s Upstairs,” Dale continues. “She thought Throttle was a VCU publication.” The reason Dale found out about this conversation was that the server at Stuffy’s was a writer for Throttle and she reported the whole conversation verbatim to Throttle’s staff.
“As fast as you go up, you do down,” says Dale. “We had a big purge in 1986. Bill went to work for the T-D and had to sign a no compete clause. Peter said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ Advertising hit the skids. It was getting too hard. We had a staff meeting. Ned Scott, Jr. said, ‘I’d like to take it over if you don’t mind.’ Well, we couldn’t hand it over to him fast enough. Ned said he got hit on the way in by those of us trying to get the hell out”
During that same time, Dale was working full-time at Kings Dominion as a technical writer and a documentalist. “I started in 1981 and stayed there till 2000,” he says. “It was a real mom and pop amusement park at that time, a weird mix of genres because there were no corporate overseers.”
He remembers working there one night when a frantic call came from the elephant shed: In those years a number of exotic animals called Kings Dominion home. “Get as many guys as you can together and start getting all the buckets of ice as you can down here right away,” the caller said.
“What happened?” Dale asked.
“An elephant died,” the caller said.
“We got these fifty gallon trash cans and started filling them with ice and taking them down there and dumping ice on top of this dead elephant,” he recalls. “Going back and forth. And there’s this dead elephant laying in the barn and all this ice around it. So a guy who’s going to do the autopsy gets in at eleven that night at the airport and he’s carrying a brief case in one hand and chain saw in the other. I mean how else would you do an autopsy on an elephant?”
Dale worked at the theme park when a teenage boy was killed on a roller coaster. He was there when a man jumped off the Eiffel Tower to his death. “He had gotten out of a group home in North Carolina, came up, spent the night at Kings Quarters Motel for $19.95 a night, and then the next day bought a ticket to the park, walked in, took the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower,” Dale says. “He climbed out and got on the roof and the witnesses said that he stood on the slanted roof looking straight down and then moved over to avoid a group of people. And then he swan dove. The elevator operator saw him right when he jumped. She freaked and grabbed the A-phone and punched the button and the guy on the ground picked the phone up and she said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but . . .’ And then she heard him through the phone hit the ground. It was like a bomb going off. They had to pick his remains out of the asphalt.”
In the 1990s Dale began writing a novel that started off as a satire on the history of television. But the book got away from him and turned into a 500-page behemoth about a TV minister who has an encounter with an alien. It was titled “One Minute Before Midnight”.
“It was gigantic,” says Dale. “I was just writing and writing and writing this thing and there were so many insane scenarios in it. It was perfectly unsellable.” A couple years later Dale began another novel. “And then it dawned on me at that point that I’m pretty good with this long-form type of fiction,” he says. “I’ve got all these cool stories. I drew on what was going on around me.”
He remembers sitting with friends from high school and one of them asking about growing up in New Hope. “He said, ‘Do you remember Creepy’s Last Funeral. And I said, ‘Creepy’s Last Funeral’ is a hell of a name for a story.’ So I went home and wrote that story. That gave me an idea for another one. In the next year I wrote 30 stories about growing up and living in this small town. And when I finished them in 2008 I told my wife Susan, ‘I’d really like to shop these around for a publisher.’ And she said, ‘Do it.’ She gave me the title—‘Three Buck Naked Commodes’ which was a title of one of the stories in it.”
The first publisher Dale took it to accepted it. It was published in 2009 on Dale’s fiftieth birthday, the same day Susan went into the hospital with Guillain-Barre syndrome. “It was published by Publish America and I would not recommend them to anyone,” says Dale. “They didn’t market the book at all. I might have made $200 on it, at best.”
A year later he published “Remnants: a Novel about God, Insurance and Quality Floorcoverings”, and the following year he released his first eBooks—“Trapped Under the Pack-Ice” and “Bad Day at the Amusement Park”. His horror novel “Standers” came out in 2012.
Two years ago Dale published “Richmond Independent Press: A History of the Underground Zine Scene” and just this past April his book “Independent Press in D.C. and Virginia: An Underground History”, was published.
“I found out I’m good at finding stuff out,” Dale says. “Thank God, I’ve got some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder. Like a cat with a fly; you just can’t stop until that fly is dead.”
He tells how he ultimately discovered the truth about a faux underground newspaper that came out at American University at the height of the Vietnam anti-war protests. “It was kind of like research on steroids,” Dale recalls. “You’re using FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, social media and court transcripts. The FOIA became a big deal for me because I figured out how to specifically target them to where there could be no mistake in what I was looking for.”
What he was looking for was a publication called “The Rational Observer” a sort antidote to student unrest, supposedly produced by the FBI. No one had ever been able to find a copy of it, even seasoned scholars and journalist. A lot of people believed it might have been nothing more than an urban myth. But Dale persisted. He had a sense about its existence.
“My ultimate goal was to find the phony underground newspaper the FBI had produced in the fall of 1969 at American University,” says Dale. “I sent my first FOIA request looking for COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) of the FBI which was the name of the FBI’s program. They had one for white hate groups, one for black nationalists and one for the New Left. These programs were specifically designed to harass and disrupt. It was under J. Edgar Hoover and would have never passed muster if it had gone through the channels. It didn’t go through the Senate or the President.”
Dale filed one FOIA request after another, narrowing the search area. He struck pay dirt the sixth time out. “It was all through the process of deduction and I got a link to a website that had a total of 4,300 PDF documents,” says Dale. He promptly downloaded them, which was a good thing, because when he tried to go back to the site two days later, it was simply gone, vanished into cyberspace.
Dale began the arduous task of sorting through this pile of documents. He figured out how to spot the ones from the FBI’s Washington field office. “I finally found the memos talking about American University,” he says. “One said, ‘Let’s call it The Rational Observer’. The whole purpose of it was to introduce a more moderate voice on campus. There were all these memos and then all of a sudden there it was a five-page copy of The Rational Observer. Later on I found the names of one of the agents who created it and who’s still alive, a guy named Courtland J. Jones.”
One of the memos read: “We have to take extra precautions to make sure the Bureau cannot be identified as a source of this material.” The FBI had no idea the likes of Dale Brumfield would emerge—a dog with a bone, a dog with a lust for marrow.
Shortly after the April release of his latest book, Dale earned his MFA in creative writing from VCU. “I feel that humor can be a powerful part of literature and I think you can be literary without being a literary snob,” he says. “When I was in the art program at VCU as an undergrad I fought against the art snobbery. I found a lot of literary snobbery in the MFA program but my classmates were fantastic.”
Dale was pleased when some of his thesis readers told him that he did not emit “the stench of an MFA”.
And then Dale Brumfield says this, which is a sort of condensed MFA in creative writing, and something all writing instructors and wannabe writers should heed, if for no other reason than to clear the air of the villainous odor that permeates far too many creative writing programs: “Studying writing at VCU was a very valuable experience for me. It made me a tremendously better writer. But you’ve got to filter out what you don’t think is a part of you. Ultimately, it comes down to you as a writer. What’s your gut feeling about what you’re writing? Does it feel right to you? If it does, then go with it. Don’t change your writing because of a workshop. Listen to what works and what doesn’t. Learn self-editing. Don’t try to start writing like someone else because then you’ll have vanilla pudding. It’s got to be a sense of discovery. If you go into it knowing a beginning, a middle and an end, you are going to contrive it to fit your agenda and you will F*** it up.”