More Fannish Nostalgia: My First Convention; My First Fanzine

Eagle Feb 1953 first panel

Eagle Feb 1953 first panel

For those of us who don’t use the Chinese or Ukrainian (I think it’s Julian, but I could be wrong) calendars, happy New Year! Whatever 2013 was to you, I’m sure 2014 will be bigger, better and happier! If you have health issues, my New Year’s wish is that 2014 sees recovery on its way. If you have money issues, my wish is that financial recovery comes your way. If you have family issues or romance issues, I wish that you’ll be happier and emotionally complete in 2014! Whatever your issue, I wish that you overcome it! (And for those of you with no issues at all, I wish you continued good fortune!)

In about 1973-74, I was one of the few “dedicated” SF readers I knew of in the little college town of Pullman, Washington. I had some friends who had read some SF or fantasy, but only one friend who read it as voraciously as I—my then-wife read none at all; she was tolerant of my reading habits. One of the professors at Washington State University, Paul Brians of the English Department, had started what he called the “Free University”—anyone could “teach” any subject they desired, and there was no fee except for materials if it was, for example, an art class. Jon and I saw each other nearly daily, and were best friends, but we lamented the lack of other SF people. One day I got it into my head to teach a class about science fiction at the Free U. After all, I reasoned, I’d been reading it since I was about 6, beginning with the futuristic Dan Dare strip by Frank Hampton in England’s Eagle weekly for boys. (My father had been in the Air Force, and we’d lived in England for three and a half years.) Jon thought that was a capital idea, and that we’d pull SF people out of the woodwork, if there were any.

So my SF class was duly advertised as part of the Free U’s fall offering in 1974, I believe, and for the first couple of weeks I tried actually teaching about SF, using Brian Aldiss’s Billion-Year Spree as a kind of textbook, and bringing select items from my collection—and from Jon’s, as he was as big a collector as I—for “show and tell.” We attracted about 8 people, as I recall. After the third week I gave it up; we were all just interested in talking about SF, and it became what we eventually—although we kept it as a Free U class for a number of semesters—called PESFA: the Palouse Empire Science Fiction Association. (The “Palouse Empire” is what the Pullman/Moscow area likes to be called; Moscow is—or used to be—the world headquarters for the Appaloosa horse association. Hey, it’s farming country!) PESFA eventually grew to about 15 people.

The core group was still about 8 people for the first year: Jon, the Finkbiners, Dave Christie, Dan and Suzanne Mullins, Dan Yeomans, Bob Phillips, Mike Main, Anita Jackson; there were probably more, but my mind is drawing a blank. And George, whose last name has completely disappeared from memory—George is responsible for my getting the idea of doing a fanzine, because he brought some to one of the meetings. By 1975, the idea of putting out a zine was paramount in our minds and, since I was working for a company (Addressograph-Multigraph International) that made offset lithography machines, among others, we decided to skip the mimeo stage and go straight to offset. Although our college town had a couple of copiers, like Kinko’s—they seemed to flourish in those communities—we decided to buy our own, and thus New Venture was born. I was the editor, Jon was the Art Editor. We had our resident artists—Kelly Akins was part of our group, and Jon worked with an extremely talented artist named Clint Keller. Kelly did the cover of NV #1 (and 2) and we were extremely lucky that it came out. We had decided on expensive clay-coated glossy stock, unaware that it was extremely hard to get a good print with our tiny printer, but we did succeed.

New Venture Number 1 cover by Kelly Akins

New Venture Number 1 cover by Kelly Akins

That first issue is mostly a curiosity; it includes several pretty forgettable stories by group members, as well as a reprint of a speech Harry Harrison gave at the University of Idaho (only 8 miles away from Pullman, Washington). Jon, Dan Mullens and I spent a fun evening talking to Harry over pizza and beer; aside from Frank Herbert, who I knew when I lived in Seattle, Harry was one of the first real SF authors I’d ever met. (Much later, when it was too late, I learned that David Duncan, author of Beyond Eden, and the screenplays for George Pal’s The Time Machine and Fantastic Voyage, had lived in Everett while I was there. Not the Canadian author Dave Duncan, btw.) There was also a film critique, a book review and an editorial by yours truly, and Jon’s “Serpent’s Tooth” SF art column, which he was writing for Richard E. Geis’s Science Fiction Review.

But we were excited: whatever its failings, we had actually produced something. We sent off copies to various notable SF people and sat back to wait for the kudos, which were not long in coming—Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov all sent very nice letters. (Looking back over issue number one, I feel there must have been a certain amount of noblesse oblige to those letters, but it was very kind of them nonetheless.) But where to get the maximum amount of exposure for our little zine?

Wait a minute! Wasn’t there an ad or an article or something in one of the other fanzines for something called a “con” or convention, at which we might reasonably find a bunch of other SF readers, who might be persuaded to part with a buck for our little offering? Yes, there was! Something called “Westercon,” which was going to be held in July in Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco, a city I knew well and loved! With absolutely NO idea of what we were doing, but excited to be doing it, we five (me, Jon, Dan, George and, I think Dave) piled into my Opel—with the slightly bemused blessings of my spouse—and headed for the Bay Area with a trunk full of New Ventures and luggage.

The car was not new; it was a couple of years old, and it had been suffering from thermostat issues for a few months. (Meaning it overheated, and often. Our local mechanic had showed me how to take out the thermostat and reset it with a screwdriver, and I’d been doing that for some months.) On the way out of Pullman, chugging up a very steep hill, it overheated again; this time I took the thermostat out of the engine and threw it, as hard as I could, away from the car. (That wasn’t the only issue… on the Bayshore Freeway the fan belt broke; fortunately, I found an old pair of L’Eggs nylons in the trunk and did a temporary replacement by the side of the road.) We finally checked in to the Hotel Leamington and headed out in various directions to see what we could see. The first “famous” person I met in the lobby was, I believe, Karen Anderson, who was wearing a jacket covered with various badges. Later that day, I met Poul Anderson—one of my favourite authors by virtue of his having written Three Hearts and Three Lions, which had been published by the SF book club when we were living in Florida, in about 1961.)

Poul Anderson at Westercon 28

Poul Anderson at Westercon 28

Considering it was nearly forty years ago, I can’t remember all the people we met; I have a number of slides (I was using an old Argus C3 camera with an optical viewfinder, not an SLR, so a number of my photos from that time are quite a bit offset from what I thought I was capturing!) but haven’t found and/or scanned them all. Many of the slides were unusable not only for that reason, but also because some of my film was old, and I didn’t have a very good flash. Plus, at that point I was a lousy photographer. I might as well admit it. I’ve gotten somewhat better since then. I met Emil Petaja, of the Bokanalia Foundation, and an author in his own right, and bought some Bok prints and a couple of hardcover books from him; I met Gordon Dickson and Michael Kurland and Philip Klass, who wrote under the name of William Tenn—if you’ve never read any William Tenn, you should go look for it; I met D.C. (Dorothy) Fontana, who wrote for a series I hadn’t really watched when it was on. (I’m referring, of course, to Star Trek. Because TV Guide had described it, before it came on, as “Wagon Train in Space” I had never watched it when it was new. Later, at Forry Ackerman’s house, I met Ricky Schwartz, who called himself “The kid who saved Star Trek.” I thought, “That’s nice; maybe I should watch it some day.”) We met David Gerrold, who had given the keynote speech (“Stomp the Shadowman,” about the difference between the person everyone talks about and the real person). We later published (with David’s permission, of course, the speech in New Venture.)

One person we (Jon and I) met, who we were both in awe of because of his writing, was Avram Davidson.

Avram Davidson at Westercon 28

Avram Davidson at Westercon 28

Avram Davidson had written any number of novels (The Kar-Chee Reign, The Phoenix and the Mirror, Masters of the Maze, etc.), short stories (Or All The Seas With Oysters and What Strange Stars and Skies are two of his several collections), and had edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or F&SF, putting out several “Best of” anthologies for them. I was overwhelmed by his writing skill, and style. He was unique (and I still miss him) and to meet him was an honour. (I was later honoured to become friends with him.) In fact, Jon and I bought a short story from him which we later serialized (probably the first short story ever serialized) in NV; and we got his nephew, John Howarth, to illustrate it. We had this photo screened in black and white so we could publish it in New Venture, and Avram wrote to me to tell me that it must have been a photo of a lookalike, because his doctor had forbidden him to smoke. *cough*

I also got to meet Michael Whelan, Bill Rotsler and a number of other artists. I bought a Whelan B/W illo from the “Dray Prescott” series of books by “Alan Burt Akers” (actually a pseudonym for Kenneth Bulmer, though I didn’t know it at the time.) I still have that, along with the EMSH (Ed Emshwiller) b/w illo from Keith Laumer’s Plague of Demons, which was published in If magazine. I still have that one, too! Jon got Avram to autograph a couple of the F&SFs he edited.

Jon Gustafson and Avram Davidson

Jon Gustafson and Avram Davidson

This was—except for the Harry Harrison speech, and my meeting with Frank Herbert–one of the few times any of us had talked to real SF authors, and even though I now write the stuff myself and have met and become friends with many authors and artists, it remains a high-water mark in my memory, even though some of that memory has, as memories sometimes do, slipped away with time. Alas! Many of the people I met at the con are no longer with us–but many, happily, like David Gerrold, are still around and still friends!

I’d be happy to hear your opinions on this column; you can either comment here on the Amazing Stories website—if you’re registered, but registration only takes a few seconds—or on Facebook, where I also post a link in several fan. My opinion is only mine and does not necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories—unless something is a matter of fact and record, then you can’t really dispute it, can you? Until next week, then, and Happy New Year again!

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