Posts tagged ‘Jack Gillespie’


When my speaking-tour bookers at Foggy Bottom (as we insiders term the State Department) told me what my next port of call would be, in my world-girdling pilgrimage in the attempt to make foreigners like the U.S.A. better than their own daily papers did, it was Yugoslavia.

That didn’t thrill me as much as you might have thought it would. One of the reasons I jumped, as I usually did when the State Department said “frog!” was that I was trying to beat my friend Jack Gillespie’s record of number of countries any Futurian had set foot in. (His lead was unfair. During the War, he had been Merchant Marine, serving mostly in little freighters that cruised up and down the coasts of both Americas.) Against the odds, though, this time I had already been there.

When we went across the Italian border into Yugoslavia, to tell the truth, the border guards of both nations were more interested in the American comic books they were puzzling over than in what terrorist, regicide or cigarette smuggler was sneaking past them. There was a fair quantity of traffic going through, which led me to make the first of my dumb-headed remarks for that day.

I said, “This ocean drive must be really beautiful to get all these cars driving it.” To which a Foggia-bound Italian fan, who had hitched a ride to his home with us, said, “Not for the beautifulness, no. Is for cheap shopping.”

And the second one was when I said, “There must be a lot of Yugoslavians named Zimmer, because half those little houses have a sign that has their name on it.” Which produced another of those little giggles from the back seat, and then the comment, “In German language the word ‘zimmer’ means ‘room.’ They wish you to stay with them, for money.”

I won’t deny, though, that that drive down the coast road was indeed spectacular, with the broadening blue Adriatic on one side and that mountain range, getting taller and taller, on the other. So, when the man from State had said “Yugoslavia,” my first thought was, “But I’ve seen the mountains and the sea, what’s the point in seeing them over again?”

That would have been my third dumb-headed remark if I’d said it to those two easily amused passengers. Fortunately I didn’t say it to anyone but myself. Because, you see, that vanished nation of Yugoslavia didn’t have any “over again.” At every point it betrayed its origin as a clutch of sovereign states; go one way and you’re among the ski lifts in the mountains, go another and you’re sailing among the gorgeous Adriatic islands. Sometimes you’re in a city, sometimes in hectare after hectare of farmland or pasture.

Well, you say, doesn’t almost every country have that same sort of variety? You’re missing the point, I say. Yugoslavia’s variation was extreme. Go up to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It’s a Saturday night and the city square is filled with two concentric rings of strollers, one going clockwise — those are all young men — and the other, walking the other way, young women. You’ll see that in almost every Macedonian town, for young men and young women must somehow meet, or else the race dies out, and there only a certain few approved ways to do it.

And you glance up at the clock on the tallest building. It says 11:15 and you say to your English-speaking companion, “Oh, look at the time!”

And he laughs sand says, “The correct time is a little past eight-thirty. So you know what the time eleven fifteen means? No? Eleven-fifteen is the time when the great Yugoslavian earthquake struck. It caused much damage, so much that our then President declared an emergency and required every other province to send food, vehicles, building materials and money to Skopje. The drive was a great success. So much so that other provinces in Yugoslavia — ” he winks — “begged couldn’t they please have an earthquake of their own.”

You recognize that is a joke, so you just say, “So the earthquake rolled in at eleven-fifteen and stopped the clock. Was there much — ” You were going to ask him about panic, but he’s sighing. You ask if something is the matter.

“Not exactly — well, yes. That story was not entirely correct. Yes, the earthquake struck at eleven-fifteen, but it didn’t stop the clock. The clock had already stopped years before, when something broke and wasn’t fixed. After the earthquake one of the people who worked in that building got a ladder and reset the hands to eleven-fifteen. Which is where they have been ever since.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Macedonia was the only part of the old Yugoslavia worth visiting, especially when what I’m trying to say is that was hardly a part of it that was not worth the trip. You could have visited Dubrovnik, for instance, an ancient city built on a spur of solid rock extending out into the Adriatic Sea. It remained intact, when other cities its age had long since been fought over, converted largely to rubble and then rebuilt.

Dubrovnik was preserved intact because it’s really hard for an attacking army to attack, conquer and demolish a walled city on top of a great big rock. This siting had an odd effect on the city’s hotels, or at least in the only hotel I’ve ever stayed at there. The lobby is at street level. The streets, however, lie on the top of the rock, and when you’ve signed in you take the elevator down to the guest rooms carved out of the side of the rock.

(More about Yugoslavia coming to you shortly after I write it.)

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he Futurians, 1938

Some of the Futurians at my apartment in 1938. From left, front row: Joseph Harold Dockweiler aka Dirk Wylie, John B. Michel, Isaac Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim; center row: Chester Cohen, Walter Kubilius, me, Richard Wilson; top row: Cyril Kornbluth, Jack Gillespie, Jack Robins.

I haven’t been in the habit of putting my own stories in the blog, but there are one or two that I think belong here. “The Reunion at the Mile-High” was one. I wrote it as a “festschrift” story for Isaac Asimov and it, along with a dozen or so similarly born stories by other writers, made a volume given to him to celebrate his long and glorious career.

What tickled me was what he said after he’d read it. He clutched his chest and said, “I suddenly thought, what if the story had been true?”

The Reunion at the Mile-High

By Frederik Pohl

In those long and long-ago days — it’s been half a century! — we were not only young, we were mostly poor. We were all pretty skinny, too, though you wouldn’t think that to look at us now. I know this, because I have a picture of the twelve of us that was taken right around 1939. I dug it out to loan it to my publisher’s public relations people just the other day, and I looked at it for a long time before I put it in the overnight mail. We didn’t took like much, all grinning into the camera with our hairless, hopeful teenage faces. If you’d been given a couple of chances to guess, you might have thought we were a dozen Western Union boys on our day off (remember Western Union boys?), or maybe the senior debating club at some big-city all-boy high school. We weren’t any of those things, though. What we actually were was a club of red-hot science-fiction fans, and we called ourselves the Futurians.

That old photograph didn’t lie. It just didn’t tell the whole truth. The camera couldn’t capture the things that kept us together, because they were all inside our heads. For one thing, we were pretty smart — we knew it ourselves, and we were very willing to tell you so. For another, we were all deeply addicted readers of science fiction — we called it “stf “in those days, but that’s a whole other story. We thought stf was a lot of fun (all those jazzy rocket ships and zippy death rays, and big-chested Martians and squat, sinister monsters from Jupiter — oh, wow!) That wasn’t all of it, though. We also thought stf was important. We were absolutely sure that it provided the best view anyone could have of T*H*E  F*U*T*U*R *E, by which we meant the kind of technologically dazzling, socially Utopian, and generally wonderful world which the rather frayed and frightening one we were stuck with living in might someday become. And, most of all, we were what our old Futurian buddy, Damon Knight, calls toads. We weren’t very athletic. We didn’t get along all that well with our peers — and not even as well as that with girls. And so we spent a lot of time driven in upon our own resources, which, mostly, meant reading. We all read a lot.

We even more or less agreed that we were toads. At least, we knew that girls didn’t seem anxious to fall bedazzled by any of our charms. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t that we were hopelessly ugly — well, not all of us, anyway. Dave Kyle and Dirk Wylie and Dick Wilson were tall and actually pretty good-looking. Even the snapshot shows that. I think our problem was partly that we were scared of girls (they might laugh at us — some of them no doubt had), and partly a matter of our internal priorities. We were more into talking than tennis, and we put books ahead of jitterbugging.

That was half a century ago. In other words, history. My secretary, who is also my chief research assistant when I need a specific fact from the library, tells me that 62.8 percent of the people alive today weren’t even born then, which undoubtedly means that that ancient year of 1939 seems as remote and strange to most people now as the Spanish-American War did to me.

I would like to point out, though, that 1939 didn’t seem all that hot to us, either, even while we were living it. It wasn’t a fun time. We were the generation caught between Hoover and Hitler. We had the breadlines of the Great Depression to remember in our recent past, and the Nazi armies looming worrisomely in our probable future. When we looked out at the real world we lived in we didn’t much like what we saw.

So, instead, we looked inside the stf magazines we adored, and then we looked inside our own heads. We read a lot, and we tried to write. Because the other thing about us, you see, was that we were all pretty hardworking and ambitious. Since we weren’t thrilled by our lives, we tried to change them. We had our meetings — we’d get together, once a month or so, in somebody’s basement or somebody else’s living room, and we’d talk about this and that; and then we’d go out for an ice-cream soda; and then we’d gradually splinter apart. Some of us would go home — especially the ones who had to get up in the morning, like Isaac Asimov. (He worked at his parents’ candy store, and the commuters started coming in for their morning papers at five-thirty a.m.) Most of the rest of us would just wander, in twos and threes. I’d start out by walking Dirk and Johnny Michel to their subway station. But generally, by the time we got to it, we’d be in the middle of some really interesting discussion (did the General Motors Futurama at the World’s Fair have the right idea about the World of Tomorrow, all twelve-lane superhighways and forty-story apartments? Were John Campbell’s Arcot, Wade & Morey stories as good as Doc Smith’s Skylark?) — so then they’d walk me back to my station … or around the block … or anywhere.

Always talking. Talking mattered to us. Writing mattered, too, almost as much. We did a lot of it, on our battered second-hand portable typewriters, each on his own but always with the intention of showing what we had written to the others. Words mattered, and we particularly intended to make our words matter. Somehow. We didn’t really know how, exactly, but when you think of it, I guess we succeeded. If we were toads, as Damon says, then sometime or other some wandering fairy princess must have come along and kissed us, and turned us into something different … or we wouldn’t have been getting together at the top of the Mile-High Building for our Fiftieth Reunion, with reporters allover the place and our older, considerably more impressive faces stating out at the world on the Six O’Clock News.

You can’t fly nonstop from Maui to New York, even on the sleeper, because they don’t let flying boats operate over the continent. So I had to change planes in Los Angeles. Naturally I missed my connection, so when we finally landed at Idlewild I was late already.

The porter cut a taxi out of the snarl for me — it’s wonderful what a five-dollar bill can do at an airport. As I got into the cab, I stretched my neck to look toward the New York City skyline, and I could see the Mile-High Building poking far above everything else, looking like a long, long hunting horn sitting on its bell … if you can imagine a hunting horn with gaps along its length, held together (as it seemed at that distance) by nothing bigger than a couple of pencils. They say they need those wind gaps in the tower, because a hurricane just might push the whole thing over if they didn’t allow spaces for the air to get through. Maybe so. I’m willing to believe that the gaps make the building safer, but they certainly aren’t reassuring to look at.

Still, the Mile-High has managed to stay up for — let’s see — it must be six or seven years now, and it’s certainly an imposing sight You can see it from anywhere within forty or fifty miles of New York. More than that. It’s so immense that, even across most of Queens and part of Brooklyn, when I looked at it! was distinctly looking up. Then, when I got out of the cab at its base, it was more than big, it was scary. I couldn’t help flinching a little. Whenever I look straight up at a tall building I get the feeling it’s about to fall on me, and there’s nothing taller than the Mile-High.

A limousine had pulled up behind me. The man who got out looked at me twice, and I looked at him thrice, and then we spoke simultaneously. “Hello, Fred,” he said, and I said:

“Doc, how are you? It’s been a long time.”

It had been — twenty years, anyway. We were obviously going to the same place, so Doc Lowndes waited for me while I paid off the taxi, even though it was gently drizzling on Sixth Avenue. When I turned away from the taxi driver, after a little argument about the tip, Doc was doing what I had been doing, staring up at the top of the Mile-High. “Do you know what it looks like?” he asked. “It looks like the space gun from Things to Come. Remember?”

I remembered. Things to Come had been our cult movie, back in the l930s; most of us had seen it at least a dozen times. (My own record was thirty-two.) “Yeah, space, I said, grinning. “Rocket ships. People going to other planets. We’d believe almost anything in those days, wouldn’t we?”

He gave me a considering look. “I still believe,” he told me as we headed for the express elevators to the top.

The Mile-High Building isn’t really a Things to Come kind of edifice. It’s more like something from that even more ancient science fiction film, Just Imagine silly futuristic spoof packed with autogyros and Mars rockets and young couples getting their babies out of vending machines. I first saw Just Imagine when I was ten years old. The heroine was a meltingly lovely teenager, just imported from Ireland to Hollywood, and that movie is why all my life I have been in love with Maureen O’Sullivan.

The Mile-High Building doesn’t have any of those things, least of all (worse luck!) the still lovely Maureen, but it is definitely a skyscraper that puts even those old movie-makers to shame. To get to the top you go a measured mile straight up. Because the elevators are glass-walled, you get to see that whole incredible five thousand plus feet dropping away as you zoom upward, nearly a hundred miles an hour at peak velocity.

Doc swayed a little as we accelerated. “Pretty fast,” he said. “Real fast,” I agreed, and began telling him all about the building. It’s hollow inside, like an ice-cream cone, and I knew quite a lot about it because when I was still living in New York City, before I could afford the place on Maui, I used to know a man named Mike Terranova. Mike was a visualizer working for an architect’s office — at another point in his career he did the drawings for the science fiction comic strip I wrote for a while, but that’s another story, too. Mike really was better at doing machines and buildings than at drawing people, which is probably why our strip only ran one year, but he made up for it in enthusiasm. He was a big fan of the Mile-High. “Look at the wind gaps in it,” he told me once, as we walked down Central Park West and saw the big thing looming even thirty blocks away. “That’s to let the wind through, to reduce the force so it shouldn’t sway. Of course, they’ve also got the mass dampers on the two hundredth and three hundredth and four hundredth floors, so it doesn’t sway much anyway.”

“It’s just another skyscraper, Mike,” I told him, amused at his enthusiasm.

“It’s a different kind of skyscraper! They figured out the best offices are the ones with an outside view, so they just didn’t build any offices inside! It’s all hollow — except for the bracing struts and cables, and for the three main floor — through sections, where you change elevators and they have all the shops andthings.”

“It’s brilliant,” I said; and actually it was. And I was explaining all this to Doc, and all the time I was talking we were flashing past those vast central atria that are nearly a hundred stories high each, with their balconies, and flowers growing down from the railings, and lianas crisscrossing the central spaces; and Doc was looking at me with that patient expression New Yorkers reserve for out-of-towners.

But all he said was, “I know.”

Then I was glad enough for the break when we walked across the hundredth-story level, between the soda fountains and the clothing shops, to the next bank of elevators, and then the next. Then you get out at the top, five thousand and change feet above the corner of Fifty-second Street and Sixth Avenue, and you have to take an escalator up another flight to the club itself

I don’t like standing still, so I took the escalator steps two at a time. Doc followed gamely. He was puffing a little as we reached the door the doorman was already holding open for us.

“Put on a little weight, I see,” I told him. “Too much riding in limousines, I’d say. There must be big bucks in the poetry racket these days.”

I guess my tone must have sounded needling, because he gave me a sidelong look. But he also gave me a straightforward reply, which was more than I deserved. “I just don’t like taxi drivers,” he said. “Believe me, I’m not getting rich from my royalties. Publishing poetry doesn’t pay enough to keep a pig in slop. What pays my bills is readings. I do get a lot of college dates.”

I was rebuked. See, we Futurians had been pretty sharp-tongued kids, big on put-down jokes and getting laughs at each other’s expense; just the thought of coming to the reunion seemed to get me back in that mood. I wasn’t used to seeing Bob in his present gentler incarnation.

Then the white-haired woman took our coats, and even gentle Bob got a kind of smirk on his face as I handed over my trenchcoat. I knew what he was looking at, because I was wearing my usual at-home outfit: canary-yellow slacks, beach-boy shirt, and thongs. “I didn’t have a chance to change,” I said defensively.

“I was just thinking how nice it is for you folks that live in Hawaii,” he told me seriously, and led the way into the big reception room where the party had already started.

There had certainly been changes. It wasn’t like the old days. Maybe it was because they were talking about making Bob poet laureate for the United States. Or maybe it was just the difference between twenty and seventy. We didn’t have to explain how special we were now, because the whole world was full of people willing to explain that to us.

There were at least a hundred people in the room, hanging around the waiters with the champagne bottles and studying the old pictures on the wall. It was easy to see which were the real Futurians: they were the ones with the bald spots or the white beards. The others were publicity people and media people. There were many more of them than of us, and their average age was right under thirty.

Right in the middle was Dr. Isaac Asimov, sparring good-naturedly with Cyril Kombluth. They were the center of the biggest knot, because they were the really famous ones. General Kyle was there — in uniform, though he was long retired by now — telling a young woman with a camera how he got those ribbons at the battle of Pusan. Jack Robinson was standing in the background, listening to him — no cameras pointed at Jack, because the reporters didn’t have much interest in schoolteachers, even when that one had been one of Harvard’s most distinguished professors emeritus. I saw Jack Gillespie, with a gorgeous blonde six inches taller than he was on his arm — she was the star of one of his plays — and Hannes Bok, looking older and more content than he used to, drinking Coca-Cola and munching on one of the open-faced sandwiches. There wasn’t any doubt they were pretty well known by any normal standards. Jack had already won a Pulitzer, and Hannes’s early black-and-whites were going for three thousand dollars apiece in the galleries on Fifiy-seventh Street. But there’s a difference between say-didn’t-I-see-you-once-on-TV and famous. The media people knew which ones to point their cameras at. Cyril didn’t have one Pulitzer, he had three of them, and the word was he’d have had the Nobel Prize if only he’d had the sense to be born a Bolivian or a Greek. And as to Isaac, of course — well, Isaac was Isaac. Adviser to Presidents, confidant of the mighty, celebrated steady guest of the Jack Paar show and star of a hundred television commercials. He wasn’t just kind of famous. He was the one of us who couldn’t cross a city street without being recognized, because he was known by features to more people than any senator, governor, or cardinal of the Church. He even did television commercials. I’d seen him in Hawaii, touting the Pan American Clipper flights to Australia … and he didn’t even fly.

They’d blown up that old photograph twelve feet long, and Damon Knight was staring mournfully up at it when Doc and I came over to shake hands. “We were such kids,” he said. True enough. We’d ranged from sixteen — that was Cyril — to Don Wollheim, the old man of the bunch: why, then he had been at least twenty-three or twenty-four.

So much has been written about the Futurians these days that sometimes I’m not sure myself what’s true, and what’s just press-agent puffery. The newspaper stories make us sound very special. Well, we certainly thought we were, but I doubt that many of our relatives shared our opinion. Isaac worked in his parents’ candy store, Johnny Michel helped his father silk-screen signs for Woolworth’s Five and Ten, Dirk Wylie pumped gas at a filling station in Queens, Dick Wilson shoved trolleys of women’s dresses around the garment district on Seventh Avenue. Most of the rest of us didn’t have real jobs at all. Remember, it was the tail end of the Great Depression. I know that for myself I considered I was lucky, now and then, to get work as a restaurant busboy or messenger for an insurance company.

A young woman came over to us. She was reading from a guest list, and when she looked at me she wonderfully got my name right “I’m from Saturday Evening Post Video, “she explained. “You were one of the original Futurians, weren’t you?”

“We all were. Well, Doc and I were. Damon came along later.”

“And so you knew Dr. Asimov and Mr. Kornbluth from the very beginning?”

Continue reading ‘The Reunion at the Mile-High’ »

Jack Gillespie

Jack Gillespie

Jack Gillespie was the shortest of the Futurians and the most likely to be up for any fun idea anyone had.

Jack’s parents were divorced. He lived with his mother, a devotee of, among other composers, Richard Wagner. His father ran a trucking service with an unwonted record of having merchandise fall off the backs of the trucks, so Jack always had plenty of cigarettes and Milky Ways.

Jack and I, having nothing much to do and plenty of time to do it in, would sometimes begin to write three-act plays, and sometimes kill a weekend by hitchhiking to, say, Washington, where my Uncle Les was a motorcycle cop and sometimes was reasonably glad to see us.

During the war, Jack went his own idiosyncratic way: no uniformed service; instead, he joined the Merchant Marine. He survived the U-boat menace, and after the war married a startlingly beautiful blonde girl named Lois Miles, a former schoolmate of my wife Carol, and then moved to Pennsylvania because that’s where the jobs he wanted were.

We exchanged letters in regard to a number of little-known American poets for a while. But then we pretty much lost touch.

After Judy Merril and I realized that the one thing we both most wanted from the life we had been living was to have a baby, we started looking for someone to marry us so the baby would be legitimate. Judy quickly found someone. I’ve forgotten his name, but he was a fairly well-known lefty New York Justice of the Peace.

So we were married in 1948. Then we began the process of knocking Judy up. It didn’t take long. Judy handled pregnancy quite well, so we simply went on with our lives.

Which, at the time, were actually quite nice. We still both had our jobs and were therefore well fixed for money. I had bought a car — secondhand, a giant Cadillac eight-seater that Jack Gillespie said was a gangster car and quite possibly once had been. It was very easy to imagine half a dozen criminals with tommy-guns shooting up an enemy’s hangout out of its windows.

We used it to roam around the countryside, and to transport friends to cons if they wanted to go. We’d driven it up to Toronto for the 1948 Worldcon with a party of half a dozen or so passengers — George O. Smith, I think Chan Davis and his wife, and I don’t remember who else. (The reason I clearly remember George O. is that as we passed through Niagara Falls George got out of the car, ambled over to the railing and fulfilled a lifelong ambition by urinating into the Falls.)

And then, all of a sudden we had come to the time when Judy’s belly was as big as a washtub and we needed to watch for signs of needing to get to French Hospital for the birthing.

I have to confess I was not the most useful Father in Waiting. What I very much feared was that she would start in labor when she was in bed with me, or something of the sort, and I would have to deliver the baby. I’m afraid I chased her off to the hospital too early at least once, when she thought it was barely possible she was beginning to feel labor pains, and they sent her back home. But then the labor did start.

I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when the baby came. I hope I was at least considerate enough to have been in the hospital while Judy was giving birth. But I don’t remember whether I did.

Anyway, our baby daughter Ann — I insisted on naming her after my mother and Judy was willing to let is be so — was born in 1950. Both Judy and I were then exactly as happy and contented with parenthood has we had thought we would be.

For a while.

But then it all came crashing down on us, when Judy came to me and said she was sorry but she just couldn’t help it. She couldn’t go on without the sexual freedoms that had meant so much to her. She didn’t want to get a divorce. Our marriage, she said, was working quite well and she didn’t want to change a thing. Well, one thing, that was … she wanted to change the rules a little. How would I feel about making it an open marriage?

Continue reading ‘Judith Merril, Part 3: Life with Judy’ »

Puli “Ch Banhegyi Ancsa with Mornebrake” Photo by w:en:User:Sannse.

In the 1930s, few of us had any excess of spending money. What money we had was scarce and hard-won. Radio was our great professional source of comedy, with those two titans Jack Benny and Fred Allen dominating the airways. Mostly, though, we generated our own comedy and a favorite form of it was the shaggy dog story, as practiced in the haunts of New York City’s café society.

The professionals worked in nightclubs which were sometimes dingy rooms with a tiny stage, seats for perhaps 100 to 300 persons, and of course, a bar. The people performing there were professionals. We weren’t. We didn’t have furnishings, electronics, or stocked bars, we had very little but our physical selves. Fortunately, we needed nothing more.

We Futurians would collect on the front stoop at the apartment house at 2574 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn. It housed the four rooms we called the Ivory Tower. After a period of talking, joking, gossiping, singing, making noise, we would start to move.

Cyril Kornbluth was likely to take part in one of these performances, Doc Lowndes almost as much so. Chet Cohen, Jack Gillespie and Damon Knight — or, as he preferentially wrote it in those days, damon knight — might be frequent performers, so might any Futurian or, for that matter, any other fan temporarily hanging out with us.

So when there were four or five of us gathered, we were likely to start the move, the narrator continuing to tell the story, and, when he came to the end, one of the others beginning a different one.

Nearly all the Futurian shaggy dog stories are lost to 21st-century performance. That’s not entirely a bad thing. The whole point of a shaggy dog story was that it needn’t have a point. When Futurians told their stories in the presence of ordinary fans, the expressions on the faces of the audience was often a sort of stupefied disbelief. A shaggy dog story was meant to be dragged out as long as possible.

I cannot write down for you the text of a classic Futurian shaggy dog story. It’s not just that my right hand would wither and fall away. You wouldn’t read it, either.

I will instead give you a short synopsis of the classic example of the Futurian shaggy dog story, which gave its name to the whole genre, and also “The Story of the Brass Cannon,” which is about the only story in the catalogue that has actually sometimes caused listeners to laugh right out loud.

The Shaggy Dog Story

A man who owns a shaggy dog has let it run away. He advertises in the all the local newspapers for the return of his dog. He says, “My dog has run away and I want him back. He is a shaggy dog and I will pay a reward for his return.

The next day he appears at the home of someone who says he has found the dog but when the dog appears at the door of the home, the man says, “Oh, not so damn shaggy.”

Continue reading ‘What Made the Futurians Laugh: The Shaggy Dog Story’ »


From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel, Will Sykora, 1936.

From left, Donald A. Wollheim, Milton A. Rothman, me, John B. Michel and Will Sykora in 1936.

After a while two Real Pro Writers did in fact come to our Science Fiction League meetings.

They weren’t top pros; in fact, I had never heard of either of them until they showed up. And they weren’t there to help promote Wonder Stories, either … oh, my, no. Their names were John B. Michel and Donald A. Wollheim.

To fourteen-year-old me they were immensely impressive high-powered types. Not physically. Neither were most of the rest of us fans; to some extent, Damon Knight’s toad theory is descriptive enough.

I started out lucky enough, but somewhere just before I got into science fiction I went swimming one day at the St. George Pool, a huge indoor saltwater marvel, and went off the high board, meaning to see how close I could come to the tiled bottom. I came real close. When I got out of the water and looked in the bronze wall mirrors, I found I had knocked off a front tooth; and so, for the next couple of decades until a dentist shamed me into doing something about it, when I smiled I smiled gold. So did Bob Lowndes. (I also had pimples, not many, but prominently located, usually on the end of my nose and big enough to be visible as soon as I was. Donald used to call that one my “auxiliary nose,” bless his darling heart.)

G.G. Clark was sort of belligerently defensive-looking most of the time. Cyril Kornbluth, when he came along, was short and pudgy. Jack Gillespie looked like an Irish jockey. Walter Kubilius was incredibly tall and wraithy, six-feet-eight or thereabouts, and maybe all of a hundred pounds. All of us came to understand early on that it was not on our looks that we would make our way in the world.

Both Wollheim and Michel had really bad complexions, and Donald had mannerisms that I suppose had origins within his own head, but gave the appearance of skeptical contempt for everything around him. Donald always carried a rolled-up umbrella. He rarely looked directly at the person he was talking to, but stared forty-five degrees to starboard, wry half-smile on his face, in moments of concentration a finger at his nose. Johnny was a self-taught cynic, and talked that way. Donald’s voice was gruff and abrupt. They were both smart as hell.

Not only that. They were far more mature than the rest of us, including Clark. Johnny was a year or two older than I, and Donald a year or two older than that. (He had to be all of nineteen.) But the real clincher, the thing that elevated both of them to at least veneration, if not actual sanctity, was that they both had actually been paid for work published in a professional science-fiction magazine. Johnny had earned his letter by winning some sort of contest, in which he supplied a plot that some other writer — I think it was Clifford D. Simak — wrote a story around. Donald had done even better than that. A story entirely of his own creation, “The Man from Ariel,” had been published.

And, it turned out, that was why they were with us. They were mad.

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