Gertrude and Isaac Asimov. (Photo by Jay Kay Klein.)
When World War II ended, Isaac Asimov’s stint as a war research scientist came to an end. Then he said good-bye (or at least au revoir to his associate researchers, because he was pretty sure to be seeing at least Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp again) and headed for the normalcy of a return to civilian life.
That, however, was not to be. His draft board had other ideas. His work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard had preserved him from being called up as long as he was doing the work. Now he wasn’t doing it any more. He was quickly promoted to become classified 1A in the Selective Service’s eyes, and shortly thereafter promoted again, now becoming Asimov, Pvt Isaac.
This was not a development Isaac had sought. Worse, it soon became a development he couldn’t live with at all, because the Army had a plan for him. With his education and his record of writing about the future, he was a natural to be selected as an observer at some upcoming military tests.
They were not tests Isaac wanted to observe. Indeed, he saw nothing but trouble, bad trouble, if that scenario was followed.
The USA had invented the atomic bomb and used it to speed the end of the war. Now it wanted to set off test bombs under experimental conditions, several of the things, so it could learn as quickly as possible just how to use this ultimate weapon. The higher-ups had scheduled several such tests, far off in the islands of the Pacific Ocean, and the plan was that formations of GIs would be present at every firing — to observe and protect, they said, but the suspicious-minded wondered if the tests were also likely to provide useful information about the effects of radiation on healthy young men.
There was also a political problem. The Soviet Union, America’s most potent wartime ally, had with the peace become its deadliest rival. The papers were filling up with lurid stories about Soviet spies lurking everywhere, trying to steal America’s secrets — trying hardest to learn everything that could be learned about the atom bomb and how to make one of their own. And, Private Asimov, in what country did you say you were born?
Private Asimov pointed out that he had warned of this problem to every authority figure he could find who would listen. It took a while before he could find one who was willing to do that, and by then he was well on his way to the test site. But then things improved. Isaac not only was taken off the A-bomb detail, his draft status was reviewed and he was a civilian again.
There was one bad feature. They insisted on flying him back to the States. But Isaac put up with that, confident that if he survived that ordeal he would never have to get in a plane again.
Since, being Jewish, Isaac was not going to be allowed to attend any decent medical school, he had no hope of ever putting the letters M.D. after his name. Next best, he thought, would be a Ph.D., and the discipline that he wanted to get the award in, he decided, was organic chemistry. And while he was working toward that goal there was one other accomplishment he wanted to achieve. He wanted to get married, because Isaac had a girl.
Her name was Gertrude Blugerman. If you picked out the letters D-E-A-R-E-S-T on your telephone keypad in those years she was the person (assuming you were dialing in New York City) who would answer.
I think that tells you an important fact about Isaac right there. Oh, of course it was only dumb luck that gave Isaac’s girl an endearing phone number. That sort of pure chance could have happened to anyone. But if it had happened to almost any other young man, it is likely that neither he nor the girl would ever have known. It takes a certain kind of mind to ring up changes on all the numbers and phrases and facts that come one’s way — the kind of mind that Isaac Asimov was born with, and that made him the writer he was.
All this time, of course, Isaac was writing science fiction, mostly for John Campbell but now and then for others. He had already established the two main currents in his fiction: The positronic robot stories (Why were they positronic? I asked him that once and he said, “Because the positron had just been added to the list of particles and no one knew what it could and couldn’t do.”) and the Foundation series.
So what else can I tell you about Isaac Asimov at this stage? His favorite breakfast was a can of Campbell’s vegetable-beef soup. As far as his general dietary choices were concerned, his family didn’t keep kosher but were not very adventurous in diet. But Isaac liked to try new things when he and I ate out together. Not all experiments were successes, When the two of us lunched one day and discovered the restaurant was offering soft-shell crabs, which neither of us had ever tried, we gave them a shot. Once was enough for me — I didn’t like their slippery feel in my mouth — but Isaac’s verdict was that he didn’t really like them but might give them another chance some time.
(More parts to come, as I write them.)