RETRO: OF MOSCON AND HEINLEIN AND VERNA

Figure 1 – MosCon 1 Program book cover (excerpt) by Schomburg

Like many SF fans — at least those of my generation, before SF/F (known as “sci-fi” by the general public) became ubiquitous in film and TV — I was a solitary reader of the stuff. You who have grown up in the last 30 years or so probably won’t get it, but we were mocked, ridiculed and bullied if we were even a little bit different — which, in those days, could mean a geek, a gay person, a fat person, a person who wore glasses, or just someone who read “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” The socially awkward and inept, more or less.

My dad was in the US Air Force (one reason I joined the Navy when it was time), and I grew up in a number of different states and two different countries. Many of my friends — and most of my friends were only my friends for a few years, because either I moved or they did — had lived in more countries than I had! But those of us who read SF/F (plus, let’s face it, the geeky, the gay, the “unloved”) tended to stick together; we found each other in an almost pheromonal way: after you’d moved to a new place (or someone new moved to your school — no matter what age) you would somehow know, without even checking, who were “your people.” And many of us who read SF/F belonged to one or more of the above categories; we were the ones who attended few football games, who didn’t have an athletics letter sweater, who joined the chess club or the math club, who read on the bus; like the kids in Stephen King’s IT!, we clung together for self-protection — and when we found fandom, we were ecstatic. I moved to Pullman, Washington — home of Washington State University — in about 1972, shortly after getting married — my wife was on the WSU Library Faculty — and very shortly thereafter found my friend Jon Gustafson by playing pool (pocket billiards) in the Student Union Building — the Compton Union Building, or CUB.

Figure 2 – Jon Gustafson (left) and Jon and Vicki Mitchell Gustafson (right)

Jon was an interesting guy; about my height (a bit over 1.8m), but much larger; he was a terrific pool player and worked for the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU as an illustrator. Over the next couple of years we, as fellow science-fiction buffs, became fast friends; and when we discovered Paul Brians’s “Free University,” I started a “class” in Science Fiction as a way to pull SF fans out of the woodwork, so to speak. (Paul Brians taught English at WSU and retired a few years ago.) After a couple of semesters, Jon joined me as co-teacher, and soon the class became just the Palouse Empire Science Fiction Association, or PESFA. One PESFAn brought some fanzines — which I’d heard about, but never seen — to a meeting, and we were instant fans.

I bought a small offset press, and we began producing our own fanzine (New Venture) — heavy on the fanfic for the first issue, but we began to improve. In 1975, I — along with Jon, Dan Mullen and George (last name forgotten, sorry) headed off to Oakland, California for our first-ever SF convention, which was Westercon 28. Upon our return, I began my chant, which lasted for the next several years: “We gotta put on a con!” — but alas, there was no hotel in Pullman or Moscow big enough to hold even a small con. Until, in 1978 or so, the Best Western University Inn opened in Moscow, Idaho (home of the University of Idaho) — about 8 miles away from Pullman as the crow flies. We spent a lot of time debating who to ask as our first GOH, but I was insistent — go for the gold! We knew the odds of getting Robert A. Heinlein weren’t all that hot, but I had his address — having corresponded with him before — and actually, Jon and I had spent a few hours talking to him and Virginia in Seattle at PSST!-CON II. So I wrote him a letter, telling him that we’d met them, and we’d love to have him as our first GOH. His reply is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 -Heinlein Letter

Over the next few months, we learned from him that E.E. “Doc” Smith had graduated from the University of Idaho, and that Heinlein actually intended to be at the convention, so we did a little advance publicity that said he was going to be our GOH depending on his health. (It’s hard for me to believe that I’m now only a year younger than he was when he wrote the letter in Figure 3. And I’m in pretty good health, too!) I wrote one letter telling him that we’d decided, based on his information and what we were able to dig up at the University (props to Mike Finkbiner and Beth Toerne for that, I believe), that we were going to informally dedicate the convention to the memory of Doc. (We weren’t sure of the propriety of dedicating a con to someone other than the first GOH.) Heinlein was all for it — in fact, he wrote the following letter:

Dear Steve,                                29 Oct 1978 

You’re right; there is no legitimate way that you can advertise me as a drawing card for your convention–or any convention ever again unless the advertising makes quite plain that appearance is subject to the precarious health of an elderly semi-invalid.

I’m delighted to hear that the convention is to be “informally dedicated to” E.E.Smith–but why not “formally”? Make it BIG! No, I don’t think you are “showing your lack of literary taste”–but there are many yokels showing their lack of taste by poking fun at Dr. Smith’s stories and style.

In the past six months I have reread, in proper sequence, every Lensman novel–with renewed pleasure. The style is literate; the grammar is correct; the dialogue is appropriate to the characters. As for the Gray Lensman .. he is E. E. Smith. I knew Doc intimmtely from 1940 until his death 25 years later; he was the Perfect Knight “sans peur et sans reproche” in his character, in his manners, in his chivalrous attitudes and behavior. Besides that, in his wealth of knowledge and his skill both with hands and with brain I have never met his peer. (If I am able to attend, I will talk about Dr. Smith, the man and the stories–and I won’t need notes!)

Have you considered E. E. Smith’s daughter as a guest of honor? Verna Smith Trestrail- Mrs. Albert Trestrail, Rt. 1, Box 522, Leesburg, Indiana 46538? Doc’s wife is dead, so is his other daughter, and his son is very ill (not likely to recover)–but Verna looks and acts healthy and almost certainly knows more about her father than any other living person. She teaches English and one of her courses is SF. There might be conflict with her teaching schedule but it cannot hurt to ask.

A blood drive at a convention honoring E.E.Smith is especially appropriate. As I recall, at least six of his family (counting in-laws) have had their lives saved or extended by transfusions.

I think you are very lucky in living in the path of totality of the 26 Feb 79 solar eclipse. That is another trip that I will have to decide on later–my surgeon has me grounded until May ’79.

Good Luck to MosCon I!
<signed> Robert A. Heinlein

Figure 4 – Ben Bova, Verna, Isaac Asimov in NYC 1978

Well, a suggestion from RAH was, for us, as good as a command from the President! Before you could turn around, I had written to Verna, and gotten her enthusiastic response, which was “Yes!” Not only did we dedicate Moscon to Doc in perpetuity—that is, as long as the convention lasted, which was over 20 years!—but Verna, with or without her husband Al, became our perennial guest from Indiana; and her enthusiasm for her father and for science fiction became a fixture on the MosCon scene. (By the way, speaking of blood drives, since our blood drive was held in concert with at least one of the Universities’ own, we had a record donation weekend, surprising and delighting Heinlein. Unfortunately, his health was never good enough for him to visit MosCon. He did, however, write a tribute to Doc, called “Larger Than Life,” for our program book. (Later, he reused that article in his book Expanded Universe.) Two years later, he wrote this letter to Verna:

Mrs. Albert Trestrail                                13 June 1981

Dear Verna,

I hasten to answer your Christmas note.

That’s right. “–hasten–” I used the exact word.  Ginny always answers most of the mail  that comes into this house but when 1  start writing a story she answers all of it, except a very few that I hold out to answer myself after I have finished the current writing job. I started writing a novel last December. Two weeks ago I sent Xeroxes of the final manuscript to my agent–131,156 words, 542 MS pages–and turned my attention to answering a backlog of mail.

I was pleased to add to my collection of Trestrail pictures and surprised and pleased to receive the clipping from the campus newspaper (?) with the 1914 photograph of Doc, and quite a bit of data about him new to me. Also, I was gratified by the fact that Mr. <sic> N. K. Hoffman appreciated Doc’s stature. [Note: Nina Kiriki Hoffman, who also wrote for the U of I campus newspaper, had written an article about MosCon and Doc.]

At least half of my pique against soi-disant literary critics lies in their treatment of Doc’s work. I expressed some of that in the tribute to Doc I wrote for that MosCon program–although it is a bit difficult to separate this from my feelings on my own account, since in recent years it has become customary to attack me on the same grounds on which they attack Doc–i.e., I can’t write dialog, my characters are all alike, I don’t understand females, etc., etcetera ad nauseum.

I go right ahead writing to suit me. I’m durned if I will ever write about hopheads, born losers, liars and thieves, and treat them as heroes. Doc’s heroes were always superior people in every way. It is no accident that my central characters follow that pattern. Damn it, heroes should be heroic.

I think Doc’s literary reputation will now continue to grow, and his detractors will be seen as the trivial muckrakers they are. While we have fallen on evil times, I do not think they can persist.  In the long run, courage, honesty, patriotism, knowledge, gallantry, honor, and courtesy will again be recognized as the eternal values they are… and the cult of the inferior and the mean will no longer rule.

We have no special news. We have been home from our last trip around the world a little over a year now and we are begining to be restless. l hope that we will be able to spend the coming winter at sea but we have no firm plans as yet. The house and grounds are demanding much upkeep and repair. Once that is out of the way I think that we will again follow the Wild Goose.

Our love to you and yours,
<signed> Robert

Verna had sent me a photocopy of Heinlein’s letter, urging me to share it with the group; I don’t think she’d have minded my sharing it with all of you. The last time I saw Robert A. Heinlein, he was signing autographs at a table at the Worldcon in Denver (Denvention II) in 1981, and next to him was C.L. Moore, also signing. (In case you don’t know who Catherine L. Moore was, she was well known as an SF/F writer; especially for her “Northwest Smith” books and for Shambleau and Jirel of Joiry. The lines for the two writers stretched a long way—to get Heinlein’s autograph, you had to have proof that you had donated blood—and, although I had bought a first edition of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in the dealers’ room, I didn’t want to stand in line for an hour or more; I wasn’t certain he’d be signing that long. I never saw him again. Figure 4 shows Verna between Ben Bova and her beloved “Uncle Ike” Asimov in New York at a convention in 1978. I lost touch with Verna after I moved to Canada and got divorced, which is one of my enduring sadnesses. The above letter, however, expresses some of Heinlein’s literary tastes–which are, in many ways, similar to mine; no surprise, when you figure I grew up reading Heinlein.

If you can, please comment on this week’s column. If you haven’t already registered, please register and comment here. Or you can comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. Your comments are all welcome, and don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment; my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

Related Posts

VCON, HOWDERSHELT REVIEW AND MORE ON SELF-PUBLISHING!

VCON, HOWDERSHELT REVIEW AND MORE ON SELF-PUBLISHING!

Un Diálogo ameno con Daína Chaviano por M. C. Carper

Un Diálogo ameno con Daína Chaviano por M. C. Carper

VIEWS & REVIEWS: TV, BOOK and MOVIE (wish I had some news too!)

VIEWS & REVIEWS: TV, BOOK and MOVIE (wish I had some news too!)

Leave a Reply