When legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax struck out 18 batters in a single game in the 1960s, Darrell Bob Houston captured it in a headline: "Oh That KKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK-Koufax!"
It ran on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and while it was an inside joke—a K is a strikeout in baseball scorekeeping—it is among a legion of memorable Houstonian heads, including "America Louvres Her: Mona's the Most—To Say the Lisa," and "Twisting Debs Get In the Sacro-Silly Act."
To onetime editor and Beat Generation writer Darrell Bob—or D.B., as friends called him—an inspired, polished headline was art, the kind they don't make anymore. As the slot man, or dealer, on the P-I's night copydesk, Houston was the inky Gauguin, urging his students to experiment, to not do what's already been done. "Be creative," the lanky, long-haired, olive-skinned D.B. would advise his headline colony, "anything goes"—which probably explains the headline "Phenom Phen Phalls."
Around him on the rim of the half-circle copydesk, writing assigned headlines and editing stories, were kindred souls who took inspiration to heart. They included David Wagoner, who went on to achieve celebrated-poet status and a UW professorship; Frank Herbert, who had just finished a nice little book called Dune (now a cottage industry); and Tom Robbins, who was in the throes of writing his first novel. The count is now nine, the fourth of which, Jitterbug Perfume, published in 1984, includes an epilogue on garden beets, dedicated to Houston. He died that year, at 51, from cancer.
From Guam's Pacific Daily News to the Stars and Stripes, The Los Angeles Times, the late Oregon Journal, Tacoma News Tribune, The Olympian, and through several tempestuous decades at the P-I, where he quit and was rehired five times by an army of pedestrian hacks, as he knew them, the itinerant Houston left a mad trail of unique writings and headlines wisely and playfully crafted but mostly lost.
However, Mary Witter of Seattle, an aficionado of both Robbins and Houston, is trying to put together a D.B. library of sorts. It could become a scholarly collection or just a scrapbook to pass around the bar, depending on her success. For several months, Witter has been beseeching editors, reporters, authors, and D.B. friends for their Darrell Bob stories, and has placed ads on the Web and in Seattle Weekly, seeking Houston memorabilia.
"To merely say he was a local gonzo journalist doesn't begin to describe him," says Witter. He was brilliant and angry, innovative and stubborn, married with children. Avowed enemy of banality, his day was brightened by a turned phrase. He drank, played hoops, and took tennis seriously. His cancer was melanoma.
"I'm devastated to find that information about such an amazing man is reduced to a few reels of scratchy microfiche and yellowing hardcopy on dusty shelves," Witter says of her research so far. "The Seattle library doesn't even have a copy of his only book, Land of the Midnight Blue [a "screenplay-ready" novel, as he called it, about skyjacker D.B. Cooper] in its collection, for chrissakes. Most of the newspapers he worked for began their online archives after he died."
But she has nonetheless assembled four pages of bibliography and a growing stack of writings. Houston was prolific and quick to spot an empty page awaiting type: Besides all the aforementioned print journals, he also did pieces for the Seattle Times and alternative papers including the Weekly.
In one Weekly piece from 1979, entitled "The Phantom of Daybreak Star," Houston writes of Doo-Dog, a shit-and-run nemesis on his daily lopes through Discovery Park: "...I pursue, after calling him three kinds of sonofabitch. He runs all twisted and slope-assed, like an uncoordinated coyote. It's a sham, though. When Doo-Dog opens up he can humble a whippet. He flinches up close to the blackberry vines. The spiders have woven their quota of parachutes during the night. The morning sun traces the shrouds of silver. But I am no nature-lover now. All I want to do is bury my size 12 shoe in Doo-Dog's brindle flank."
Robbins, who later launched the D.B. Houston Literary Prize, awarded through the Weekly, "was kind enough to send letters that D.B. wrote to him," says Witter. "I copied them for the archive and returned his originals. He's going to look for the letters D.B. also wrote to him from Japan," where, among other memorable events, Houston spent a night partying on a streetcar careening across the streets of Tokyo.
Witter has obtained rare copies of Avatar, a magazine Houston once produced; her ads attracted a collector in Oahu who scanned a complete copy for her, and another copy is en route from a California man. She's seeking writings, photos, and letters (206-355-0704 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
In particular, Witter would like to see the stories he wrote from Vietnam, Hong Kong, and a week spent at a Yakima migrant camp. There'll be no story from Esquire, even though he sold the magazine a piece on Merry Prankster Neal Cassady: He defiantly returned the check and got the story back when they insisted on changing it.
She'd like to know more, as well, about his free-spirit experiences at the Blue Moon Tavern, such as the night he impulsively disrobed and streaked the stuffy frat-boy bar next door, doing a grand jete out the door.
Then came that sad, early pirouette to phantasmagoria, says Witter, and a life unfinished.
"Strangely, this project gets very emotional at times," she says. "Sometimes I swear it feels like he is alive and well and right here among us."