Gather round, dear friends and fellow fans, especially the kind of fans who enjoy going to science-fiction cons. I have a story to tell that will make you eat your heart out. It is a tale of the absolute jim-dandiest (sort of) science-fiction con that was ever held, although it wasn’t called one. Unfortunately for present readers, it happened nearly forty years ago, and it is highly probable that nothing like it will ever happen again.
The project was the brainchild of three good friends of mine. One was an astronaut, one was a communications genius who used to work with Walter Cronkite and the third was a highly respected scientist, and the one thing I won’t tell you about them is their names. You see, the three of them collectively cooked up one of the very best ideas I have ever heard, and they overcame all obstacles to make it come to pass. But then they messed up one tiny, inconsequential little detail. That turned the whole enterprise into a catastrophic confusion which gave great pleasure to some but cost others, including one of its principle intended beneficiaries of the idea, the Holland America cruise ship line, a ton of money.
That’s why I conceal their identities. They suffered all the embarrassment they needed forty years ago. Now, well into the 21st century, they are entitled to set that huge humiliation behind them. So, just for purposes of identification. let’s refer to them as Joe, Jack and Jim.
The inspiration came to them in the early spring of 1972. By that year, NASA had already made good on President John F. Kennedy’s pledge, in his famous “Man on the Moon” speech of May 1961, to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. The space agency had landed five two-man teams of astronauts on the Moon’s surface in the Apollo series. One more was due on 7 December 1972, listed as Apollo 17. Several additional launches had been announced, but the fickle public had lost interest in space, and now they were all canceled. Apollo 17 would be the last of its kind, at least unless and until a new program began.
Our three friends, sitting around and chatting about it, agreed that this last Apollo launch would probably pull in a considerable crowd of spectators. “Only, you know,” (said Jack, or Jim, or possibly Joe), “if you’re just an ordinary citizen who wants something to tell your kids about, it’s really a lot of trouble to be a spectator to a launch. You have to fly down to a motel that’s probably ten or fifteen miles away the night before, and rent a car. Then you drive to your assigned parking space through miserable traffic while it’s still dark the next morning, then hiking half a mile or so across the sand dunes to get to your assigned observing spot, with the bull alligators bellowing at each other and the mosquitoes lining up for breakfast. Wouldn’t it be nice for them if there were some way to sit in comfort and watch the whole thing. Besides staying home and watching it on TV, I mean.
At that, one of them — I don’t know if it was Jim, Jack or Joe but we’ll say Jack — said, “Hey, what about watching it from a cruise ship anchored just offshore?”
And another one, maybe Jim, said, “Great idea! And, listen, if you really wanted to do it, maybe you could get a bunch of people like us to give lectures on the ship in exchange for free tickets.” And somebody, possibly Joe, said, “Why the dickens don’t we just go ahead and do it?”
They did. They talked to Holland America line (my own personal first choice among cruise companies), who loved the idea, only they wanted to make a real cruise out of it, with visits to four or five gorgeous tropical islands. Then they got busy compiling a guest list of leading science-fiction writers and assorted celebrities to attract hoi polloi. To all of which Holland America responded with approval and encouragement, and did they have any other ideas like that? And everything was going smoothly and the future looked good.
That year the Worldcon was in Los Angeles, in one of their big hotels close to the airport.
I planned to attend — actually I was their Guest of Honor that year — and when one of the three planners let me know that the three of them, too, would be in L.A. that weekend, I decided to drop in on them to see how things were going.
That was a little bit trickier than it looked. Los Angeles is one of the sprawliest of cities and, while the con hotel was next to the airport, the three schemers were clear on the other side of everything at the much classier Century Plaza Hotel in Century City. Still I did want to see them, and, besides, from experience I liked eating in the Century Plaza’s restaurants. So I shifted a few items in my Worldcon schedule around and drove my rental car clear across LaLaLand to join Jack, Joe and Jim for a very upbeat lunch.
Things were going splendidly, they said. They had been working the invitation list. Robert Heinlein was coming, and Ted Sturgeon and Isaac Asimov and at least a dozen other top science-fiction writers, said Joe. And other celebrities, too, Jack added, people like Carl Sagan and Norman Mailer and Katherine Anne Porter, whose 1962 novel Ship of Fools had created a stir in the world of publishing (an invitation which produced quite a lot of joking from Jim and Joe when Jack mentioned the title).
“And,” Joe put in, giving me a grin, “of course everybody brings his wife or husband or main squeeze. And we’re all comped, for the whole cruise, courtesy of Holland America. In your case, Fred, you don’t even have to worry about air fare, because you live near New York and that’s where this cruise starts and finishes.”
That I took to be my cue to tell them some good news I had brought with me. “Over on the other side of town at the Worldcon,” I said, “there’s a hotel stuffed full of four thousand or so science fiction fans, each one of whom would sell his grandmother into white slavery for the chance to be on this cruise. So why don’t the three of you come back there with me today? I’m giving a talk this afternoon. I’ll introduce you and, if you still have any unsold space left, you can have a sellout by dark.”
I had expected to get a pleased, maybe even a relieved response to that. After all, when you’ve got a thousand or so passages to sell and each one costs a couple of thousand dollars, you’d like to lower the risk factor as soon as you could, wouldn’t you?
So I thought they’d be happy to have the suggestion. They weren’t. They were polite, but not taking me up on my offer. One of them — Jim? — said, “We’re not ready for that, Fred. We’ve got to finalize the invitation list, and that’s what we’re here to work on for this weekend. We don’t want to start selling cabins until we know how many we need for guests, which means how many we have left to sell.”
Well, it wasn’t the way I would have done my calculations, but Jim, Joe and Jack were savvy, experienced human beings. So all I said was, “Let’s see. This is the first week in September. The launch is scheduled for December 7th. That’s not much more than ninety days away.” And the response I got to that was three friendly what-is-there-to-worry-about? chuckles.
And we went on with our lives. I was aware that there was a fair amount of telephoning going on in science-fiction circles — “Did you get invited to go on this cruise?” “Did you?” — but I was not involved in the decision-making, and very glad that was so.
I was never able to make a reliable count of the guests invited by Jack, Joe and Jim. More than fifty, I’m sure, but I think fewer than one hundred, and most, as Joe had said, were invited to bring their marriage partners, while a few had brought progeny as well. These were all traveling free, the cruise line covering their expenses, while the number of paying passengers was —
Well, I don’t know what it was. I have been told, by people who claimed to know, that there were a handful of people, fewer than a dozen, who in spite of the best efforts of Jack, Jim and Joe — who never did consider themselves quite ready to start selling tickets — somehow managed to pay actual money to someone for actual tickets for passage on the cruise, but I never met any of them. It is quite possible that the number of paying passengers on the ship was zero. It is true that, at the last moment, Holland America Lines, recoiling in horror from the approaching disaster, did put a couple of small nonpaying groups of travel agents aboard, as cruise lines, airlines and hotels often do to encourage future business. But most of the ship’s cabins were unoccupied as it pulled out of the port of New York.
This fact, of course, was reflected in all the ship’s services. There was only one sitting at meals and no waiting to use the exercise machines or visit the snack bars. For those passengers on the free list, it was a dream of paradise. For the cruise line, not pleasant at all. I don’t actually know what these follies cost Holland America. A figure I have heard mentioned was half a million 1972 American dollars. Jim, Joe and Jack might have been able to give a more precise figure, but we couldn’t ask them.
They hadn’t come aboard.
To be continued.