Posts tagged ‘Dirk Wylie’

Horace L. Gold

Horace L. Gold

Over the next few years I gave most of my thinking time to other matters. I finally could not make myself stay on at a 9-to-5 job in advertising, so in spite of pleas to stay and the offers of still more money, I left my good friends in advertising and took over the management of my dying friend Dirk Wylie’s literary agency. I did occasionally have a spasm of writing the novel, putting together a few pages of one false start or another, and then ash-canning them when I read them over.

But then I had an idea — slow in coming but full of promise. What I had become reasonably good at, and seemed to be getting slowly better, was science fiction. So why not write a science-fiction novel about advertising?

I experimentally wrote a few pages, on something to which I gave the title Fall Campaign. Then, as time permitted I wrote a few more, and then a few more than that, and after quite a few such episodes I had about a 20,000-word chunk of what was a recognizable science-fiction novel about advertising.

Although I had {through the Wylie agency agency), been selling a reasonable number of short stories, all under pseudonyms, novels were terra incognita to me. I felt the need of an outside opinion. So I took my 20,000 words over to show to Horace Gold, the brilliant, if sometimes maddening, editor of the new magazine Galaxy. My agency did a lot of business with his magazine and we had become friends. He read it over and said, “Fine. I’m running an Alfie Bester serial now. As soon as that finishes I’ll start this one.”

That caught me unawares. I said, “Horace, did you happen to notice that it isn’t finished?”

He said, “Sure. So what do you do about that? You go home and finish it.”

The trouble with that very appealing idea was that running the literary agency did not leave me enough time to do what Horace wanted, at least single-handed. But I quickly saw that I had a possible solution to the problem right up in the third floor guest room of my recently acquired house in Red Bank, New Jersey. The name of the solution was Cyril Kornbluth.

 
To be continued. . . .

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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’ »

Cyril Begins to Blossom

His Share of Glory by C.M. Kornbluth

When Cyril’s bad luck dumped him into the Infantry just when Hitler caught the American Army with their pants down in the Battle of the Bulge, he became a machine-gunner. What happened with him in that worrisome period before Patton, plus thousands of fresh reserves, kicked Hitler’s troops back into Germany I don’t know, because Cyril refused to talk about it. The end result, though, was that he got two things from that period of service. One was a Bronze Star. The other was a bad case of what they called severe essential hypertension, which was Army talk for heart trouble.

For a time after the war Cyril dealt with that situation by ignoring it. At some point he had married Mary G. Byers, the Ohio femmefan he had smuggled into New York City over the efforts of the uncle who, as her guardian, had done everything he could to prevent it. When Cyril’s draft number came up (I believe from things Cyril said), they were married.

While Cyril was serving in Europe, Mary was (again, I understand) alone, and not doing well. I believe that was when her drinking problem first surfaced; but when Cyril came home, he entered the University of Chicago on the G.I. Bill and, at least for a time, things went well for both of them, especially after he took on a part-time job working for the newswire service, Transradio Press.

That job he got by invitation of our mutual old Futurian friend, Dick Wilson, who got there a little earlier than Cyril and had already become head of Transradio’s Chicago Bureau. (I must write something about Transradio some time, because it loved hiring Futurians, including, occasionally, me. But not now.)

Cyril had stopped by New York before moving on to Chicago, and he and I had kept in contact. I was then operating the Dirk Wylie Literary Agency, helping Dirk to make it a career (his own war injuries having made it impossible for him to hold a normal job.) When Cyril began writing, and selling, an occasional postwar sf story again, I coaxed him to do more.

He ultimately gave in, quit Transradio (and quit the university too) and moved back east. I think, again from things Cyril said, that part of the reason for leaving Chicago was because Mary was involved in some drinking there. I know (from Mary herself) that Cyril tried really hard to help her quit, including some pretty harsh measures.

He and Mary set up housekeeping near where I was living with my family in Red Bank, New Jersey. For the next few years Cyril-the-writer was not only vastly productive but getting better and better at it, almost by the day. That’s when he was producing such winners as “The Luckiest Man in Denv,” “The Silly Season,” “The Little Black Bag” and many more. Cyril had a nearly in-born gift for graceful writing and excellent spot-on characterization. His only real weakness was in plotting. By then he had taught himself — maybe with a little help from those Futurian writing orgies — plot structure for short stories and, soon thereafter, novelettes and novellas. Some of his work from that period I would match against almost anybody’s best stories ever, including “The Marching Morons,” “Two Dooms” and a good many others. (The intelligent folks at NESFA have put all those stories in a single volume, entitled His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth.) None of them won any Hugos or Nebulae. The reason was just some of Cyril’s bad luck. The awards hadn’t been invented yet.

Apart from the writing, Cyril’s life was unusually ordinary — that is to say, mostly quite apparently happy in those years. He and Mary shared many interests, not least the two sons, John and David, that Mary gave him in those years. Fatherhood, I must say, revealed a side of Cyril that I had not suspected to exist. He was an archetypal proud papa, he worried seriously when John developed some problems that none of their doctors seemed able to cope with (but which, apparently, the boy ultimately outgrew). From outside, even a quite close outside, the ultimate cynic seemed to have transmuted himself into a perfectly normal young married.

There was one small puzzle. One time when he and I were in my car, on the way to the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute, our conversation got much more than usually personal. And when, leaping from earlier remarks between us, I asked Cyril what he would most like to change about himself, he clenched his teeth and, “I wish I were less cruel.”

I didn’t ask him any questions about that remark, but I did give it a lot of thought for a long time.

More coming along as soon as I find time to write it.

 
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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’ »

The Battle of the Bulge left Dirk Wylie unable to hold a regular job, so we made him — and ultimately, me — into a literary agent.

The Battle of the Bulge left Dirk Wylie unable to hold a regular job, so we made him — and ultimately, me — into a literary agent.

After World War II had grabbed most of us Futurians by the scruff of the necks and flung us to various odd destinations in all sorts of unexpected parts of this planet of ours, it did, somehow get itself ended and there we were, civilians again, and back in New York. I had had a relatively undemanding war, ending up with doing public relations at the Mediterranean Theater of Operations in Caserta, Italy (with my spare time spent in a resort hotel on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius). Dirk Wylie, however, hadn’t had anywhere nearly as nice a war as I did.

Dirk’s war hit bottom in the early winter of 1944–45. That was when Hitler’s Wehrmacht made one last attempt to take back control of the western front in the Battle of the Bulge. It was a vicious and protracted fight, and Dirk, then an MP sergeant, was in the middle of it. This cost him. At one point, he jumped hastily out of a truck and landed in a very wrong way, doing something seriously bad to his spine.

That was the end of the war for Dirk, and the beginning of years of hospital stays and unremitting pain.

By the late 1940s, he was discharged from the New York-area Veterans Administration hospitals — not because he was cured but because there was nothing more they could do for him. Now Dirk was a civilian again, with one unanswerable question: What was he to do with the rest of his life? A normal nine-to-five job of any kind was pure fantasy. The only good part of the situation was that he didn’t need to make much money. The Veterans Administration had recognized their obligation to him and awarded him a substantial pension. But a living wage wasn’t the whole of Dirk’s needs. He was just barely out of his twenties, and didn’t like the prospect of doing nothing for the rest of his life.

I spent a lot of time with Dirk and his wife, Roz, discussing that question, and we came up with an idea that seemed worth pursuing. He could become a literary agent.

 
There are all kinds of literary agents. Some of them can do very good things for their clients, making sales for them that the writers would not have made by themselves and sometimes acting as story coaches to help their clients write more salable material. Others (as my mother used to say when totally exasperated) are not worth the powder to blow them to Hell.

So what made the difference between the saviors and the total wastes? One, a good agent needed to know the market. Two, s/he needed to know good work from bad. Three, s/he needed to be able to let clients know how to tell the difference between good and bad, too, and how to encourage them to get better.

Of course, Dirk didn’t have personal knowledge of all these things, although, as a Futurian, he had been exposed to a fair amount of shop talk over the years and had made a few sales himself. But what he did have was me.

Continue reading ‘How I Lost My Oldest Friend
(and Gained a Literary Agency)’ »