Public School 9, Brooklyn (Photo by calculat0r)

Public School 9, Brooklyn (Photo by calculat0r)

I had, as it happened, met one or two fellow fans before encountering the Science Fiction League.

One was a boy in my eighth-grade class in Public School 9 in Brooklyn. That was a close-knit class to begin with, because we were all united in a bond of common terror. Our teacher, Maude Mary Mahlman, was nine feet tall, ferocious of mien, and possessed of compound eyes, like a fly, so that even when she seemed to be looking at the blackboard or a student across the room, at least one facet was always and unwinkingly fixed on me.

She told us that herself, and I believed every word she said. For a time. Then my courage came back. By the end of the term, I had learned to look industrious when daydreaming, and I actually wrote a short science-fiction story, my very first, under her eyes on a drowsy May morning in English class. (The story had something to do with Atlantis. That’s all I remember, except that it was awful.)

In the same class, Owen Jordan sat nearby, and lived near my home. We would walk home together and sometimes stop off at his house or mine to play chess, and he was the one who tuned me in to the existence of the magazine I had not previously known existed, Astounding. The first issue he loaned me had a cover illustrating the story “Manape the Mighty,” and so naive (or despairing) was I that I read only that story and returned it to him before he pointed out that all the other stories in the issue were science fiction, too. But we lost touch shortly after that. We graduated from grammar school, and I went off to Brooklyn Tech.

There was no high school specializing in science fiction, which is what really interested me. There was not yet even a High School of Science, and perhaps that’s a pity, because I think I might have liked being a physicist or an astronomer. What there was, was Brooklyn Technical High School. It was said to give many courses in science, which I recognized as being some part of science fiction, and besides, it was an honor school, requiring a special examination for entrance, which appealed to my twelve-year-old snob soul.

Brooklyn Tech was a revolutionary concept in high schools, dedicated to the quick manufacture of technologists. In 1932, its own building was still under construction, and it was housed temporarily in a sprawl of out-of-date schools and one abandoned factory, at the Brooklyn end of the Manhattan Bridge, where the laboratories and workshops could be accommodated.

In my second term, my homeroom was in Annex 1, identified as Brooklyn PS 1 at the time it was built, probably around the time of the Civil War. (Or the Punic.) It was by all odds the dingiest structure I have ever spent much time in. The toilets were plugged and foul. Leaking pipes overhead left white nacre on the walls. The heating system was a mockery, and the time was February of 1933, cold as hell.

Fortunately, only a few of my classes were in Annex 1. In midmorning I shifted to Annex 5, a much newer, nicer school next to a playground, six or seven face-frozen blocks away. Then in the afternoon I had classes in the Main Building, the whilom factory, just on the other side of the constant truck rumble of Flatbush Avenue Extension.

After the first few days I noticed that I was dodging the trucks in the company of the same tall, skinny guy with glasses — he looked quite a lot like me, or actually quite a lot handsomer than me — and he turned out to be a science-fiction fan. His name was Joseph Harold Dockweiler, but he wasn’t terribly pleased with it, and a few years later he changed it to Dirk Wylie.

Dirk was the sort of best friend every young person should have. Our interests were similar, but not identical. We were much of the same age, and almost identically of the same stage of growth, so that we discovered the same things about the world at the same time: girls, smoking, drinking, reading, science fiction. If you mapped a schematic diagram of Dirk onto one of me, nearly all the points at the centers of our personalities would match exactly. Off to one side was my growing interest in politics and society, which Dirk found unexciting; off to another, his in weapons and cars, which I shared at most tepidly.

Dirk lived in Queens Village, an hour from Tech by subway and bus. Like me, he was an only child. Like me, he had no close ties with the kids next door. Like me, he had a tolerant home environment, willing to let him grow on his own. Like me, he had a Collection.

The possession of a Collection is one of the diagnostic signs of Fandom. Another is Trying to Write, and Dirk shared that symptom with me, too. We found out these things about each other within the first week after our meeting, after which there was no question that, at least until further notice, we two loners were going to be Best Friends. So we were. We stayed Best Friends. When we were old enough, we even married two girls who themselves were Best Friends, and were Best Men at each other’s weddings.

Although we were schoolmates, school was the least part of both our lives. There was much more education in the outside world. Partly it was because of Brooklyn Tech itself, a splendid school but not for us. It was necessary to declare a specialty at the end of the first year, so that at the age of thirteen I committed myself to a lifelong career as a chemical engineer, which was nonsense. (I uncommitted myself a few years later by dropping out of high school without graduating.)

Not all of it was unpleasant. There was a lot of how-to-do-it in the curriculum, and we found ourselves operating machine tools and casting molten iron into greensand cope-and-drag molds, and that was fun. Lab work in chemistry and physics was enjoyable, and the math courses were challenging, but the rest was a washout. Both Dirk and I were readers, and so it was our custom to read our textbooks all the way through in the first week of any term, and so the rest of the term was unendurable tedium.

But the excitement of the world outside never waned.

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6 Comments

  1. Faith Mikelsons says:

    Fred, old friend and neighbor from Hance Rd in NJ stopping by to say hello.

    I haven’t seen you since the Science Fiction Convention in Boston like late 60s’, early 70s’ And the party afterwards was great.

    faith

    fmikelsons@yahoo.com

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    Good entry, and I hope to read more like it.

    It’s interesting to read how, at least in places like NYC, there have been “magnet schools” for going on a century. (My cousins went to the Stuvuysant braniac school . . . I’m guessing that was too far for you?)

  3. Mark Morris says:

    Mr. Pohl,

    I really enjoy reading these stories. These reminiscences about the past are so fascinating. Life was so different back then when you were a kid.
    I am forty eight years old and it amazes me how much has changed in thirty years.
    I read your autobiography and enjoyed it too.

  4. Robert Trabulsi says:

    I was a student at P S 9. Maude Mahlman was my 8th grade
    teacher. I lived directly accross the street at( now gone)
    703 Vanderbilt Ave. I think this was apx 1937’38 ?

    There is not a week that passes without my thinking about
    Maude. I visited her many years later at her Brownstone
    apt. in Park Slope.

    Dr. Corey was the pricipal
    Mr. Block was the Shop teacher

    Would really like to hear from you: Bob Trabulsi

  5. Chris Evo says:

    I just started reading your blog, and it’s great to see one of the greats of the golden age of science fiction is still around to share these great experiences with the world. I hope I can find a way to tell you in person how important your work and that of your contemporaries has been to me, because it’s hard to believe that anything I write will ever be able to communicate it sufficiently.

    It’s funny how some of the strangest little coincidences can tie people together. The first story I ever wrote, more then half a century after you and in a different part of the world, was a terrible story about Atlantis created in an eighth grade English class. Granfalloons are one of the best parts of life. These coincidences are so meaningless, but so fun to tease out and compare.

  6. Dan Tannenbaum says:

    When I was a Freshman at Tech in 1969, we started a Science Fiction Club. We even started publishing a little magazine. Tech was a wonderful place. In 1971 (I think) they started admitting girls. That was the icing on the cake! Thanks for your memories!