Elayne of Pen-Elayne fame broke the bizarre news to me in an email and when I saw the subject line, my face wasn’t sure which mask to don. So Bill-Dale Marcinko was dead. Again. I picked up the phone and pushed buttons. “Jeepers!” I said to the voice on the other end. “It’s deja vu all over again.”
“I don’t know, Cliff,” Elayne replied. “I’m not sure if he’s coming back this time.” I grew suddenly vexed as my mind whirled about. Not coming back? Where’s your faith, lady?! I never expected blasphemy from you, the closest of his disciples!? No, no?that was Elayne Wechsler. That was Rutgers. Those were the days of mimeo-fanzines and Phil Seuling conventions; when movies were something you drove to and corresponding with folks meant licking stamps. That was a different America, when the man in the White House was quoting Bob Dylan in his inaugural speech. Times had indeed a’changed? She was Elayne Riggs now I realized through the collective looking glass of midlife vertigo.
I held my head with both hands to stop it from spinning, blinked like Jeannie was back at the computer, pecking at the keyboard as I searched the net for news items while my mind disconnected and leapfroged through the time-tunnel of recollections.
Wharton man dies in house fire:
Autopsy needed to confirm identity of victim
“Nostalgia!” Bill-Dale warned us. “America’s favorite mood!” I look up and there he is, center stage at the Wharton Community Theatre in Northwest New Jersey rehearsing Mark Medoff’s “When You Coming Back Red Ryder”. Bill-Dale is Teddy, a borderline psychopath grasping for semi-meaning with a semi-automatic and I am menaced by him, cowed in front of my gal?me, Stephen Ryder, tough guy-wannabe now saddled with the bleak reality of utter impotence when faced with true violence. The play became a skewed metaphor for our fledgling friendship and would continue to inform it in years to come.
A Monday afternoon fire in a one-story house at 47 Crater Ave. killed its lone occupant, authorities said.
I was just 15 when Bill-Dale, 17, began to fuel my imagination with all manner of music and books and film and urbane happenings beyond the scope of my single-horse-town upbringing. On any given day, a new icon would take residence in my growing pantheon courtesy of Bill-Dale’s superior reach. It was through his glass darkly that I first encountered the music of Phil Ochs and Warren Zevon, the satire of Firesign Theatre. Bill-Dale delighted in driving small bands of close comrades to far-out-of-town little theatres to catch showings of old films (there were neither DVDs nor Sony Betamax’s in those pre-histrionic days of 1976). One Saturday, he dragged me to a Star Trek Convention at the New York Hilton to witness readings by authors whose names I’d never encountered: Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova and a young firebrand named Harlan Ellison. As Ellison prepared to address the huge assembly, Bill-Dale got a gleam in his eye. “Quick?ask Harlan if they’re going to censor him,” he urged.
I jogged up to the podium. “Excuse me! Mr. Ellison? Are they going to censor you today?”
Harlan glared down at me like the idiot child I was. “Nobody fucking censors me, kiddo,” he said, turning away.
Morris County Prosecutor Michael M. Rubbinaccio, in a statement released Monday night, said the victim was so badly burned, identification is pending an autopsy and dental review, scheduled for today. Family members and neighbors, including two who tried to rescue him, identified the sole occupant as William Marcinko, a man in his mid-40s.
For the most part, spending time with Bill-Dale was a crash course in counter-culture polemics. There was always the overload factor, but Billy, as he sometimes called himself when he wasn’t insisting on “Bill-Dale,” would quickly overlay the student-teacher relationship with a deeply personal one. He loved his friends and as much as he feared people, he treasured his inner-circle. This love manifested itself as extraordinary generosity. For a teenager of meager means, he gave oddly lavish gifts. I remember receiving Byron Preiss’ Weird Heroes collection and other books filled with the sublime artwork of men I’d never heard of?Frank Frazetta, Richard Corben, Jeffrey Jones. More realms opening?fastastical new worlds…
Neighbor Patricia Ganzer said her husband, Pete, tried to push open the home’s front door to reach the man inside, but was thwarted by a clutter of cardboard boxes. As Pete Ganzer tried the front entrance, another neighbor, Anita Katzenstein, called 911 and was yelling for Marcinko to come out. “I kept screaming for Billy,” she said.
Bill-Dale introduced me to comics-fandom mainstays like Russ Maheras, Wm. Messner-Loebs (then Wm. Francis Loebs), Jason Sacks, and Capt. David Health Jr? to Bob Andelman and Bob Pinaha of The Fans of Central Jersey? to the writings of James Van Hise and “Keno” Don Rosa along with the breath-taking fan art of Mike Zeck at RBCC? And then Bill-Dale decided to launch his own fanzine. But first, he sought to do something grand?something sensational. So he sent a letter to the editor of CBG announcing his death. A tragic auto accident had snuffed out the light of fandom pioneer Bill-Dale. He signed the letter with my name.
Arson investigators determined that the fire originated in the kitchen and wasn’t the result of a criminal act, Rubbinaccio said. Wharton fire Chief Dave Stalter said the blaze was called in just before 1 p.m. and was under control within the hour. He said an immense amount of cardboard boxes in the house impeded firefighters attempting to get into the house.
It was only 30 days later that fandom witnessed Bill-Dale’s Easter, his miraculous rising, that clever ploy to launch AFTA (Ascension From The Ashes), his breakthrough fanzine of “temporary culture”. What fun! The hoax at last revealed! With more than 100 pages (five-times the size of the average ‘zine), contributions from dozens of global fan writers and artists, and a cover by George Perez, AFTA was a far cry from the faceless fanzines of its day?and these days, let’s face it?an evolution cleverly strewn with revolutionary contents. Between the contributed art and interviews with people like comedian Steve Martin, Bill-Dale’s editorials would discuss a beating he’d caught at the hands of local thugs, or how his parent’s Pennsylvania mining town had dried up when the highway passed it by.
And here I was certain that Bill-Dale’s parents had spent their whole lives in New Jersey…
“The house was cluttered,” Stalter said. “That made it difficult. When we got there it was fully engulfed in flame and we couldn’t get in right away. We had to fight the fire first.”
AFTA may have been the first comics ‘zine distributed to book and comic shops that combined comedy, politics and reviews on books, films, and comics. It was very much an underground version of Crawdaddy, though with vastly personal content. Its formula would be duplicated over and over, but AFTA was an original. Bill-Dale, at this point an undergrad at Rutgers University living in Demerest Hall, gathered about him a coterie of new devotees, post-Yippie counterculture types who were continually invigorated by his energy and ideas.
William Marcinko’s brother, Dover resident Jack Marcinko, declined to comment on his brother.
Bill-Dale described himself as an orphan to some, an only child to others. He kept his past carefully hidden. To straight friends, he was gay; to gay friends, he was straight. He tested all friendships. Some withstood the tests. Many didn’t.
“Billy…used to be, years ago, a critic of movies,” said nephew Mark Marcinko, 33. “He enjoyed all kinds of movies, videos, vinyl albums. He had a lot of different interests.” Mark said his uncle made a living selling those types of items on eBay. “He made a pretty good living doing it,” Mark said, adding that years ago his uncle was an English professor at Rutgers University.
Several years after I left Rutgers, Bill-Dale and I lost touch. I was on to greener pastures; Bill-Dale was still making Rutgers greener. He had taken over the student newspaper The Livingston Medium for a number of years, transforming it into a bizarre guerilla weekly with overt sexual material and political satire. For his efforts, Bill-Dale found himself very disliked by the establishment. And it only grew worse when he graduated and began teaching at the university, where his reputation among students and staff grew to cult status.
Although neighbors described William Marcinko as a bit of a recluse, Mark Marcinko said his uncle was chatty with those closest to him. “When he was with family he was very talkative,” Mark Marcinko said. “He’d talk for hours. You couldn’t shut him up.”
It all ended as quickly as it began. For nearly two decades, no one from comics fandom nor The Livingston Medium heard from Bill-Dale. I was told that Rutgers had finally shown him the door for reasons I could only imagine. His name would come up from time to time, especially as the people he’d once weaned intersected on the information super highway.
Terri Lasala, a former next-door neighbor, said Marcinko was very close to his late mother, Heddy, who died about 10 years ago. “What I always found special was he was so committed to taking care of his mother, who was not well the whole time,” Lasala said. “He’d weed the garden for her … he lived to take care of her and the house.”
The internet: It was the perfect medium for a cult figure like Bill-Dale Marcinko. He apparently hadn’t made it in TV nor films?at least not under any name we knew off?but with the new frontier of cyberspace, Bill-Dale’s second coming was imminent.
The Morris County Prosecutor’s office, the Morris County Sheriff’s office and Wharton Police department are investigating the blaze. Police taped off the area around the home as firefighters knocked down hot spots that lingered inside. The small, white and green-paneled home’s front lawn was littered with empty cardboard boxes that firefighters apparently threw there to clear a path.
A new webzine, perhaps. A blog. Something. Anything? But Bill-Dale was nowhere to be found. A Google search only turned up former friends nostalgic for their guru.
Lasala also said Marcinko had a deep appreciation for black-and-white movies, and had boxes of them in the basement. “After [his mother] died, they filled the house from corner to corner. He didn’t go out much.”
Two years ago, I got it in my head that I wanted to find out the fate of my old friend. After hitting a number of dead ends on the internet and via phone calls to his former pals, I decided to drive out to his old home in Wharton. Perhaps his parents were still around. Or maybe an old neighbor in-the-know.
There was a purple Dodge Neon parked far back in the driveway at 47 Crater Avenue. It reminded me of the broken down Dodge Dart he drove when we were kids. I proceeded up the front steps. From the outside, the house was in terrible disrepair. Looked like no one had lived there for years. Inside, I could hear a TV playing terribly loud. Must be old people, I thought. There was no doorbell, so I rapped on the screen door? No one answered. So I knocked again.
The man who came to the door didn’t recognize me, but I’d have known him anywhere. Bill-Dale, always a tad overweight, stood skinny and frail now. His pale, yellow hair was thinning. It had been thinning two decades ago. He still looked out from behind thick-lens glasses. I was invited to come in.
Neighbors said that Marcinko constantly received deliveries, usually old movie reels and video cassettes. “They said the UPS truck was here every day,” Patricia Ganzer said.
Everywhere I looked, there were stacks of albums or tapes or books or magazines. His parents’ home?now his home with their passing?had become home, too, to an enormous clutter of temporary culture that threatened to engulf its frail owner. The term firetrap came to mind.
Bill-Dale and I spoke for an hour. I compressed two decades of living and career and accomplishments and disappointments into 60 minutes. And then I asked the question that had been bothering me for so long.
“Why aren’t you writing?”
Jean Malson, a 40-year Wharton resident, said that even though Marcinko kept to himself, he was very kind, adding that she heard of Marcinko being a professor. “I know he was a great typist,” she said.
Bill-Dale smiled and looked away. He’d always done that?smiled and looked away, only back then he’d burst into laughter. This time there was none.
“I suppose I’ll write,” he said, “when I have something to say.”
Fire and rescue crews from Wharton, Randolph, Dover, Mine Hill and Picatinny Arsenal all were at the scene, along with the Wharton Police Department.
Dead, said the newspaper. William Marcinko, dead.
I didn’t believe it for a second. In fact, I can hardly wait to see what he’ll think of next.
© 2004, Clifford Meth