The Space Merchants


In 1944, I was an Army Air Corps weatherman attached to the 456th Bomb Group (Heavy) at its base near the tiny town of Stornara, Italy. For years the group had survived with a total weather complement of two, one major and one sergeant, but then at last the weather training school at Chanute Field, Illinois, had been able to put a force of several hundred trained weathermen onto a troop transport headed for Italy. The 456th got eight of that shipment, and one of them was me.

With all those weathermen, none of us had to work very hard. When a mission was on there was a flurry of pre-dawn activity until the B-24s began to rumble and waddle down the runways to get airborne, then not a lot to do until they, or the survivors among them, came (often limping) back. And of course if the weather was bad not even that much happened. Then everybody had most of the day off.

For those reasons I had a lot of free time on my hands. Much of it I spent exploring the nearby Italian towns and the just as nearby Adriatic Sea beaches. But I was also a little homesick for my beloved city of New York, and what I decided to do about that was to write something about it. That something became a novel, not science fiction, set in the city and concerning what seemed to me one of New York’s most interesting manifestations, the advertising business.

So for a while. on days when I was not otherwise occupied. I would carry the lavender Remington No. 5 portable typewriter that my mother had given me on my twelfth birthday (and that I lugged with me throughout World War II) to the Enlisted Men’s Club, where I added a few more pages to a novel entitled For Some We Loved. (The title comes from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, to which I had been addicted as a teenager.) And I did, in fact, after some couple of hundred pages, type “The End” on the last page and pack it into the bottom of my duffel bag to await better times.

Then time passed. The war ended. Better times did come, and I was a civilian again with a neat little apartment and attached roof garden at 28 Grove Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. And one of the first things I did after moving in was to pull that manuscript out and read it over.

It was not a joyous experience. I quickly realized that the story had an incapacitating flaw. It was about the advertising business, which was a subject I knew nothing about. It showed.

After some thought, however, I could see a possible way of remedying that. I picked up a copy of the Sunday Times, turned to the Help Wanted pages and found three ads for advertising copywriters. I answered all three. One of them was the tiny Mad Ave. advertising agency of Thwing and Altman. They specialized in book accounts, including the Merriam-Webster dictionaries and Doubleday’s Dollar Book Clubs, and when I showed them the house ads I had written as an editor at Popular Publications, they took me on.

And that was the beginning of a few prosperous years spent in the advertising biz. (Not very much of that period was spent at T & A, however. They didn’t pay much. On months with only four Fridays my take-home pay was not quite enough to cover the month’s rent on that nice Village apartment, and I felt that I’d really like to have a few more dollars coming in to spend on food, clothes, cigarettes and science-fiction magazines. So when I decided to stay on for a while with this advertising racket, I went looking for, and found, a better job, which was on the payroll of the advertising and editorial departments of the Popular Science Publishing Company.

At some time a couple of years into my new career, I had rented a summer place high up over the great Ashokan Reservoir, maybe a hundred miles out of New York. One of the things I liked best about the large house that came with it was the big flagstone fireplace on its second floor.

And there, one Saturday evening, I once more pulled out that manuscript from my 456th Bomb Group days and read it over. As I read it, I perceived that it had another flaw I had not previously noted. Considered on its merits as a novel it was — what’s the word I should use? — well, lousy.

So as I read the manuscript, I fed it page by page into the fire. And when I was through, there I was, now with some notions about advertising that just begged to be put into a novel, and no novel to put them into.

I did have some sketchy notions, however, and so I wrote a few pages of an opening, but didn’t like it very much.

To be continued. . . .