The Great Steamer Riot of 1936

“The Great Steamer Riot of 1936,” Tales from the Otherverse, Rough Edges Press, 2015

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Excerpt

The trumpeter had played a total of five minutes without taking a breath before the people in the dance halls started to realize he was a steamer.

He was a tall, blonde, well-built man who looked like he was born in Kansas. Of course, the nearest plant to Kansas was the steamer factory in Chicago, along the rail lines. He looked like a wholesome, good old American boy from the planes. That’s probably how he got as far as he did.

No one knew how he learned to play the trumpet. But he played it brilliantly. Louis Armstrong may have been the reigning king of the, but Blake Blake — that was his name — could’ve taken uncle Louie for a ride. That’s easy enough to realize considering Blake could literally blow for a full hour before for he’d have to blow off steam.

That was the real trick to being a steamer in the middle of a world full of humans: you had to appear human while simultaneously not being one of them. Later, when the federal officials swarmed into the local dance hall in North Texas interviewed — interrogated is more like it — all the patrons, they all said how normal Blake appeared. Even the dance hall owner, George Frank, could not tell.

Frank nodded and repeated his same statement. “He wore glasses and I could never tell if the light reflecting off the lenses or behind his pupils.”

All of that, however, happened after Blake was outed. The dance hall sat at the edge of the town Square in Denton, Texas, a small university town forty-five miles north of Dallas. It was homecoming and George Frank, alumnus of North Texas teachers College, had arranged to bring Rip Howard’s Fiery Fifteen big band to town for the big homecoming dance. Howard traveled the southern circuit of dance halls it was a big hit down in Houston and New Orleans. Interestingly, when Howard was questioned about his knowledge of Blake’s true identity, the bandleader proudly said he knew Blake was a steamer and that he was the best horn player this side of Armstrong. In fact it was Blake’s prowess that enabled Howard’s Fiery Fifteen to become the best dance hall in the South.

The hall itself was modest: a two-story building, wood-paneled walls, and a small stage at the north end. The refreshment table was situated in the rear of the hall, next to the kitchen. Chairs lined the walls and groups of youngsters, in twos and threes, huddled together. The sheriff was there, mostly as a father, since his daughter was a senior that year, the prettiest girl in the school. He didn’t want any of the boys to manhandle her the way the crowd eventually manhandled the steamers.

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