Posts tagged ‘Academics’

How to Make Paper Flowers


After the war — that’s World War II, I’m talking about, what did you think? — I went to work as copywriter for a tiny Mad Ave. advertising agency called Thwing & Altman. It wasn’t a boring job, and one of the things I liked about it was that one of my favorite over-the-top novelists, Tiffany Thayer, was among my predecessors in holding it. But I turned out to be good at that kind of work, and they weren’t paying me particularly well, so before long I was studying the Help Wanted pages in the Times again.

It was still a boom time for the unemployed. Jobs were begging for people to fill them as America got back in the business of business. There was one particular listing which seemed to be addressed to me almost by name — I no longer remember what it was in the specifications that seemed to bear my initials, but the moment I saw the ad I lusted for it. The ad had been placed by an employment agency, so I called them up, made an appointment, sneaked out of the office with some of my roughs under my arm and laid them proudly before the man who had agreed to see me.

“Um,” he said. “Not too bad. Have you made a resume?” Of course I had, but when I handed it to him he looked puzzled. He gave me a dubious glance, studied the resume one more time and then said, “It doesn’t name the college you went to.”

At times in the past I had wondered if that question might ever handicap me in my chosen career. But no one who ever hired me for anything had ever asked about it before, so his comment rather surprised me. “Óh,” I said, “I never went to a college. I dropped out of high school as soon as I was seventeen.”

That got a reaction out of him. He gave me a scowl of repugnance, stuffed all my papers back into their folder and said, “You’ve wasted my time. This is a good job with a very important publishing company. Naturally they’re not going to hire anyone without at least a bachelor’s degree.” And I crept out of his office in humility, hardly daring to look at even the receptionist out of my high-school-dropout eyes.

But the ad was still in the paper on the next Sunday, as well as the as the Sunday after that. Moreover, although there were plenty of other jobs on offer, there weren’t any that seemed to be calling me by name, so I got back on the phone. “I called,” I said, after identifying myself and feeling the temperature drop when I did, “because I noticed that ad was still running, and I wondered — ”

“Mr. Pohl,” he said severely, “I told you that you’re simply not qualified for a job of this caliber. If anything comes up that might suit you I’ll keep you in mind. Goodbye.”

I hung up, meditating violence. But time passed and I cooled down. And, more important, the ad continued to run. So a few weeks later I called again. My account executive was beginning to sound tired of the subject, but he admitted they had run out of candidates. “All right,” he said. “I don’t suppose it would hurt anything if I let you try your luck. It’s the Popular Science Publishing Company, on Fourth Avenue around 28th Street. The man you want to see is their advertising director for circulation and books, and his name is George Spoerer. I’ll give him a call to say you’re coming — ”

“Well, no,” I said. “Let’s not do that. I’ll call him for an appointment myself. And, don’t worry, I won’t forget about your commission on my first week’s salary.”

I had been worrying a little myself about what this hard to please Mr. Spoerer might be like, but on the phone he sounded like a reasonable human being and when I got to his office he looked and acted that way too. Not only that, but, when I showed him some of the house ads I’d written at Popular Publications, he revealed himself as at least a part-time science-fiction fan. And when George Spoerer had decided I could do the job he walked me into the office of his boss, the Circulation Manager of the company, Eugene Watson, and he wasn’t bad either. And twenty minutes later I had the job.

I didn’t know how my account executive at the employment agency would take that news. When I phoned he just sighed a long sigh and began reminding me that, under New York law, their commission was a collectible debt and they would expect weekly checks from me until it was paid off. “All right,” I said, and hung up.”

I had intended at least to say “thank you,” but it no longer sounded appropriate.

I forgot to mention that, as I was leaving, George said, “Did I tell you about your other jobs?” And when I said an apprehensive no he said, “Don’t look so apprehensive. One is Subscription Fulfillment Manager, and all that requires is that you let Old Jim tell you what’s going on in that department so you can answer any questions the higher brass might ask. That’s where we have twenty-five young girls to type out the addressograph stencils that make labels for subscribers. Old Jim is the actual boss of the department because he’s too old and too religious to cause any trouble with those twenty-five young girls. But he’s hopeless when he tries to talk to a vice president.”

As I had never talked to a corporate vice president myself I crossed my fingers and went on to the next point. “And the other job?”

“That’s no sweat, too. The title is Book Editor for books published by our two magazines, Popular Science and Outdoor Life. We make a good thing out of mail-order books for home handymen and sport fishers. Since the magazines buy all rights we take material that appears in the magazines and retread it for how-to books.

“You don’t do that work yourself, of course. You hire an editor to do it, and you just make sure it’s done right — I’ll show you how it’s done over the table at the Gramercy Park, if you’ll have lunch with me on Monday.”

“A week from Monday, if you don’t mind,” I said. “I’d like to give Mr. Altman a little notice.” And a week from Monday it was.

Continue reading ‘My Life as Book Editor for Popular Science’ »

Some Techies supplemented their education at Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque.

Some Techies supplemented their education at Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque.

The fall term of the year 1934: For all of us Techies, it was a watershed event in at least two ways.

First there was the sybaritic opulence of our new home. Everything was so clean! Not only that, the rooms smelled better. In every washroom, the toilets worked whenever you flushed them, and each workspace in chem lab was covered with a glass hood to contain their toxic gases, with the result that the whole building had lost that familiar acid reek. And, oh, yes, there were electric motors in every metal-working machine, eliminating the old main building’s tangle of overhead belts and pulleys. You just pushed a single button and the machine was on!

Most impressive of all, the New Building came with giant elevators, so you didn’t have to develop the muscles of a Himalayan mountaineer to get from one class to another. (Well, maybe we’re going a tad too strong here. The New Building had those elevators, all right, but few of us were allowed to use them. And compliance with the rules was enforced by a horde of student monitors, called the Longfellows because you had to be at least six feet tall to join. Dirk Wylie and I signed up at once in the hope that, as enforcement officers, we might be allowed elevator privileges, or even the right to leave the building when we had open time so we could explore the park across the street. But we weren’t.)

The second great improvement was location. The New Building wasn’t out in the unexplored boonies like the old one. The new neighborhood was a lot nicer. Just across the street was that pretty little Fort Greene Park that I just mentioned, commemorating the first full-scale engagement between the two armies in the war of the American Revolution. (We Americans lost that one, but later we came back strong.)

More immediately interesting to us newly arriving Techies, the school was only a few blocks from the very heart of Brooklyn’s commercial and entertainment life, where Flatbush Avenue crossed Fulton Street. The area was home to half a dozen huge and ornate first-run movie theaters, not to mention several live legitimate theaters where Broadway producers sometimes sent their biggest productions for their “out-of-town tryouts.” And almost any Broadway show might wind up in one of them when its New York run was finished and it went on the road. And there were perhaps one or two less legitimate live theaters — Billy Minsky’s Brooklyn Burlesque comes to mind — that were nevertheless so greatly appreciated by male Techies (and in those benighted days there were no female Techies) that it was sometimes called “the ninth period.”

That same neighborhood held three huge department stores plus three equally immense five-and-tens and numerous lesser enterprises of all kinds. At last we Brooklyn Tech students had arrived in the Promised Land!

But I guess I couldn’t take prosperity. I had been doing worse and worse academically, failing several subjects — even one semester failing in math, and honest, I am pretty good at math. I expect that if I had put my mind to it, I might have been able to get back on the ball, studies-wise, but, of more practical importance, the Depression turned into the Recession and there was no longer any hope that I could continue these sort of studies at some such school as Rensselaer or MIT.

I decided that what I was really failing was School. I transferred to an easier school for starters and then, as soon as I was legally old enough to do so, I dropped out and never attended an actual school again. Although I hadn’t yet met John Brunner, who did what I had done at about the same age, I adopted as my own what he announced as his rationale: “I had to leave school because it was interfering with my education.”

And so I did. But I still treasure those three years and the things I learned about math and chemistry and physics and the way things work that have stayed with me ever since.

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Brooklyn Tech: The fabled new building.

Brooklyn Tech: The fabled new building.

In New York City, the school year, up through the end of high school, came in two parts, fall term and spring term. I had entered Brooklyn Tech in September 1932 — fall term — which would end in February 1933. By then, rumor whispered, we might move over to the new building.

That is not what happened. We moved to a different building, but it wasn’t the shiny Amazing-Stories kind of construction I’d been hoping for. It was not only not new, it was the very opposite of new. Our home for the next term had begun life as P.S. No. 1, the oldest school building still in use in the Brooklyn system. Actually, it had been retired as no longer inhabitable a few years earlier, but then it had been resuscitated when Tech had to have space.

That must have been a tough call for some Board of Education office-holder, though. By any sensible calculation, the old ruin was uninhabitable still. The internal architecture had been up-to-the-minute when built, but that had been a lot of minutes ago. Many of the vertical room dividers were movable partitions instead of fixed walls — so they could be shifted around to make space available for special purposes — but the little wheels they rode on had long ago stopped turning. Some ceiling panels had collapsed baring patches of snowy (but not healthful) asbestos insulation. There were toilets in plenty. But not all of them worked, and in some a student would have to be really hard pressed to use them.

Or at least patient, because the best thing about having P.S. 1 for a homeroom was that you didn’t spend your whole day there. There was a whole constellation of bits and pieces of Brooklyn Tech there where Flatbush Avenue Extension ended at the East River. Ancient P.S. 1 was the farthest northwest of them, not far from the neighborhood called Borough Hall, where Brooklyn Bridge jumped the river en route to the financial district. In the other direction, that area was a tangle of transportation lines and decrepit poverty, a perfect home for decrepit P.S. 1. A few blocks east of there was P.S. 5. (Perhaps you might suppose that a P.S. 5 — or for that matter my old P.S. 9 — would have to be almost as much of an antique as a P.S. 1, but they weren’t. They were as ageless as any other school building I had attended, and I don’t know why.)

P.S. 5 was yet another annex of Brooklyn Tech at almost the end of Flatbush Avenue Extension (which is to say right as it crossed over the river on the Manhattan Bridge.) And just across the Avenue from Annex 5 was the last piece in the collection of three buildings that completed Tech: the old Main Building. (Well, actually no, perhaps it wasn’t quite the last. I believe there was yet another annex somewhere in Queens, but I never happened to attend it.)

Continue reading ‘Early Days at Brooklyn Tech, Part 2’ »

By Frederik Pohl (’09)

In the spring of 1932, when I was 12 years old, my homeroom teacher explained to us that as we were going to start high school as soon as we came back from summer vacation, we needed to choose the high school we wanted to attend. I took the list home to study. As I had no clue in the world what I wanted to do with my life, studying didn’t help much, though there were some hints in the name of one school. It contained the word technical, which implied something sort of science-y; and that reverberated well with science fiction. (Which had begun to interest me quite a lot.)

And, a consideration not to be sneezed at, it was new, and this was 1932. The Great Depression was biting hard and all of New York’s existing schools were getting a bit tacky from postponed maintenance. So I applied, and passed the test. Summer came and went; and I was a Techie.

My parents and family friends were unanimous in letting me know that I had reached an important rung in that long ladder-climb to adulthood. Indeed there were detectable changes, but I couldn’t consider all of them to be improvements. As an eighth-grader, I had been able to walk to and from school, maybe twenty minutes each way. As a high-school freshman, it not only took more than twice as long, it required taking two different El lines in each direction with a change of trains at a station somewhere in Queens even whose name I had never before heard. (With a fifteen-minute walk to the first subway line.)

Not only that, but the building on Kosciusko Street where Brooklyn Tech’s freshman classes were held was almost indistinguishable from P.S. 9, where I had just left my eighth grade behind, or indeed from any other 20th-century New York City public school, all built from the same one-design-fits-all master plan.

The New Building? Oh, yes, there definitely was a New Building. They had pictures to prove it — a seven- or eight-story skyscraping giant structure, with a screened-in athletic field on the roof and who knew what wonders of laboratories and high-tech pedagogical hardware within. Only thing was, it wasn’t quite finished yet. It was pretty close. Indeed a few senior classes were moving in already. And they showed us pictures of them, too.

As for our own moving-in day? Next year, they said. Probably. Or at least maybe.

So much for the physical environment. Academically, the Kosciusko Street (pronounced “Kos-Key-Osco,” because hardly any of us were fluent in Polish, or in American history) annex was a little more challenging. The math was a little harder than it had been. Shop was only woodworking, but with lathes and drill-presses and other power tools. And one or two of the subjects were totally unfamiliar — what was Industrial Processes, for instance, and who was the Samuel Mersereau who not only taught it but was the author of the only textbook for the course?

But then I read the book and discovered that ‘industrial processes’ meant the way things worked — how that black, tarry stuff they pumped out of the ground in Texas became the gasoline that went into the tank of my father’s Buick, how a television receiver, when such a thing might emerge from the pages of Popular Mechanics (remember, this was in 1933), could pluck radio waves from the air and convert them into actual pictures for us to look at. There were, in short, answers that I wanted to have to questions I had actually asked, and if I had known this book existed I would have begged it from someone long since.

To be continued.

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Jack and Blanche Williamson at Seacon, 1979 (Photo by Frank Olynyk.)

Jack and Blanche Williamson at Seacon, 1979 (Photo by Frank Olynyk.)

Jack Williamson, of course, had become a civilian again along with all the rest of us. His plan was to go back to the college education he had been forced to abandon long before because he didn’t have the money to continue it. Now there was this wonderful new law, called the GI Bill of Rights, which would give any veteran who wanted to go to school money to pay the tuition and all the other expenses and a few bucks extra each month as a stipend. With that to make it possible, Jack signed up at Eastern New Mexico University, right there in Portales, New Mexico, quite close to the small community called Pep, where the Williamson family ranch was located.

In his writing career, he hit the ground running, turning out kinds of stories that were, if anything, better and more mature than before. He had everything he needed. He could stay in the large house that dominated the family ranch, where there was always a room for him.

And, yes, he had a studio of his own to write in, because he had built one for himself out of surplus planks nailed together long before.. No one disturbed him there, though if you stopped typing long enough to listen you might hear the rustling of the tribe of rattlesnakes that lived under the floorboards. (That studio survives to today. So do the rattlesnakes.)

His future seemed quite predictable. What changed it was Blanche Slaton Harb.

Young Blanche Slaton had been young Jack Williamson’s schooldays sweetheart when both were pre-teens. Jack never got over it. When they had grown to wedding size, he would have liked nothing better than to ask Blanche to marry him. What stopped him was poverty.

He didn’t have a job and he didn’t have much hope of a future. What he did have was a rigorous, if old-fashioned, conviction that you didn’t go around asking women to marry you when you couldn’t support them. So he let her get away, and somebody else did marry her, and for the next several decades Jack moved about the world and sometimes came across quite nice and available women, but never one that came up to the memory of pretty, sweet, dearly beloved — and lost — Blanche Slaton.

Until, that is, the time when Jack got out of the Air Force and returned to the Portales area, and there was Blanche. Her husband had died unexpectedly, long before his time. Blanche was a widow, supporting herself on a little women’s clothing store she had started in Portales’ town square … and again marriageable.

Jack did not make the same mistake twice. He courted her at once, married her as soon as she said yes, and in 1947 began one of the happiest marriages I know of. It lasted almost forty years, until Blanche died in a tragic traffic accident in 1985.

To be continued when I get to it. . . .

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(This isn’t exactly the next installment in my memories of Isaac Asimov. It’s just additional detail on some points that I wanted to make quite clear. I’ll get to Part Next soon.)

When I wrote that Isaac and his family were “Russian Jews,” rather than just Russians, I thought of trying to explain why it was appropriate. It was a digression, though, and although I love to digress, I felt I was doing too much of it in that piece. The thing is, in Russia in the time Isaac was still there — I don’t know if it has changed since — Russian Jews, like all Russians, carried internal passports, and theirs invariably declared their Jewishness.

In the days when I was doing a lot of traveling, my best friend in the USSR was Professor Yuli Kagarlitsky, a Moscow academic, theater expert and science-fiction fan, the author of the first (and, for a long time, the only) critical work on science fiction published there, Shto Eta Fantastika? (translation: What is Science Fiction?). He showed me his passport, and that’s how he was identified.

Yuli’s wife, and the mother of their son, Boris, was not Jewish, and therefore Yuli, with a certain amount of trouble, managed to get the baby’s passport issued to describe him simply as Russian, in order to make his life a little easier when he grew up. (In the event, Boris didn’t make it all that easy for himself. He got politically active as an opponent of the Soviet system and spent a couple of years in Lefortovo Prison as a result. (But when he got out, the world was changing, he ran for office and, with the help of my manual on the subject, Practical Politics, got elected to the Moscow city council (and how’s that for a digression?).))

But all that’s another story.

Anyway, being Jewish in the big cities was somewhat less troublesome than being Jewish out in the villages, as you know if you’ve ever seen Fiddler on the Roof (and if you haven’t, what’s the matter with you?). And the place where the Asimovs came from was somewhere in between.

* * *

While I’m on the subject of Jewishness, Isaac didn’t practice the religion, didn’t join many Jewish organizations and from time to time collected large tonnages of reproach for not helping to support Jewish causes. I remember one incident he mentioned, all but the name of the other person. (This is a pity, because the name is the point of the story. I’ll have to make one up — say, “Brewster Adamson.”). Anyway, old Brewster very publicly and harshly reproached Isaac for not joining more Jewish organizations and working for more Jewish goals, suggesting that Isaac owed other Jews an apology for turning away from the culture of his people,. Isaac got uncharacteristically angry and, also quite publicly, told the man that “Isaac Asimov” didn’t need to apologize to “Brewster Adamson” for turning his back on his Jewishness.

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