I Was a Teenage Octogenarian
Harry Warner, Jr., without question the preeminent fanzine letterhack of all time, spent his working life as a newspaper reporter in Hagerstown, Maryland. This article, from Irish fan John Berry's Retribution, recounts the strains and perils of living a life half fan and half mundane. Harry long endured, however, loccing more ishes than most of us could find time to read. He died on February 17, 2003, at age 80.
The net closed around me the night that the squirrel who was afraid of trees came into the office. During the 14 years that I had been employed by the newspaper, I had successfully concealed my double life, as a normal person while in the office and as a science fiction fan while out of the office.
The squirrel had nothing to do with the situation, directly, but it provides a convenient mnemonic device. A young married couple had found the squirrel several weeks before, as the tiny rodent was stumbling away from a tree on wobbly legs. They assumed that it had fallen from its nest, took it home, fed it with an eyedropper, and made a pet of it. Soon the couple learned that the squirrel became terrified when it saw a tree. They took it out for fresh air at night, so that the trees just outside the house wouldn’t be too visible. The squirrel was a fine household pet except for one trait. It insisted on using a 20-gallon brass pot as a chic sale. The squirrel’s mistress was happy to have no mess to clean up in her apartment, but she regretted having the pot, purchased as an antique, in the house when the squirrel moved it. It was a lot of work to empty it every day.
The couple brought in the squirrel because they thought it would be a good item for the newspaper. I agreed, but I said the wrong thing. The squirrel’s master was proud to have figured out some squirrel psychology. He thought that the animal was afraid of trees because of the traumatic condition induced by the fall from the nest in the tree. I demolished that theory by suggesting that the squirrel might have been afraid of trees from birth and jumped from its nest as soon as it had the strength to climb overboard. I advised him to keep it away from other squirrels, lest a mutated race of tree-fearing squirrels be loosed upon the nation. The couple left before I had finished painting the horrors of squirrels that crept into cellars like cockroaches or mice instead of peacefully hopping around lawns and climbing trees.
Then one of the other reporters said to me: “What’s this about you selling science fiction stories?”
Now, there are several reasons why I had never talked much about my love for science fiction and my efforts to write it, to my business associates and the majority of my friends in Hagerstown. You may remember another article, in which I have chronicled the difficulties that I faced in explaining the presence of Berry in Hagerstown and the nature of the conversations that I had with him.
One reason involves well-meaning people who want to help aspiring young authors. For instance, there is a young accountant in Hagerstown who discovered somehow or other that I made money out of fiction, probably through a peek at my federal income tax return. He plopped down beside me at a lunch counter one evening, put his mouth a half-inch from my ear, and said in the most impressive whisper that he could muster that he had a wonderful story suggestion for me.
“Of course,” he said, “I could write this myself and make a lot of money out of it, because I know exactly how to write good stories, only I never get time to write any. So I’m going to turn it over to you, no charge or anything. You know Ferry Hill, that big house down on the Veverton Road, near the Potomac River? You’ve got egg on your chin; that’s better. Well, now, this house has been there more than a hundred years, and there’s been one family after another living in it, some real rich people in the past. Now, it would make a wonderful story, what the house has seen over the years . . . wars and different kinds of people and everything.”
I waited as long as I dared, and then asked cautiously: “Is that it?”
“Hell, yes, man. It’s the sort of thing that makes great literature. But you’ve got to write it yourself. I’ve given it to you, now all you’ve got to do is put it down on paper.”
He looks at me reproachfully, every time he sees me, because I haven’t created a new Jalna series. And worst of it is, if I ever should write a story in which an old house plays a prominent part, he would claim credit as co-author or would seek part of the money because he did everything but write it. Strike one against letting it be known you try to write fiction: You get too many suggestions.
Then there’s the peculiar wage structure of the company for which I work. The salaries here are based to a great extent on what the management imagines the need of the employee to be. One man who has been with the company for forty years is earning half as much as I do because he inherited twenty thousand dollars or so ten years ago at the death of a relative. I attribute the modest wages that I receive to my heroic abstinence from new clothing: I purchase a new suit only upon receipt of a raise, to prove how badly I needed the money. Since the word started to get around town, there has been no hint of a raise for me: The first time that I land in an anthology will undoubtedly mean a reduction in my weekly check. Strike two against blowing one’s own trumpet about the ability to use plotto as the creator intended.
And Hagerstown is a small town, limiting sharply the number of persons who could imagine themselves to be depicted in the stories that I write. For example, “Earth Aflame” in Science Fiction Adventures contained a heroine who had a big nose. If I lived in Indianapolis or Belfast, it is hardly likely that any of my acquaintances would assume that any particular person had been the model for the heroine. But in Hagerstown, there are only five or six women who are acquainted with me, and possess a proboscis of more than ample proportions. One of them used to be the social page editor, until she started to suffer from a bad case of pregnancy, another is a secretary at a local high school, and there’s a clerk at a dime store, to name three. Each of them would assume that she was the only large-nosed person of my acquaintance and would believe that I had modeled Katherine after her, which would be disastrous, considering how unbearable a person Katherine was. Actually, I can determine precisely the direct reason that Katherine came into being and can guess at the subconscious reason. Directly, I wrote the story because my interest in the taming of the shrew theme was aroused by an argument I’d been having with Marion Zimmer Bradley over the validity of the feminine psychology involved in this theme. Subconsciously, the story may have sprung from the fact that I had been riding the last bus home with a telephone operator named Catherine; we would wait for the early morning bus in an apparently deserted, lifeless Hagerstown, frequently would be the only passengers on the bus; and she was a very nice, extremely engaged girl. Deep inside, I might have been imagining her and me as the only two persons left out of all humanity, which would have solved the problem of her fiancé. She didn’t have a big nose or a shrewish character, but if all my big-nosed female friends had suddenly begun to sue me for libel of character, I could hardly have explained this subconscious motivation. Strike three.
I could see the catastrophe closing in around me for some months before the net descended. For instance, there was the night that I was covering a production of “The Potting Shed” at the local little theatre. Between acts, a large woman previously unknown to me descended upon me, looking mad. “I wanted to talk to you about something,” she said. “I took a vacation last year. I wanted to get away from this damned town and every damned person in it. So I went to the West Indies and I stopped at the crummiest damned hotel that I could find, just so I wouldn’t run into anybody else I knew who might be traveling. And the first evening I was in the hotel, I picked up an American magazine and opened it and I saw your damned name and a note saying you were from Hagerstown and I was so mad that I just went ahead and read your damned story. There, I feel better now.” She walked away.
And then there was a narrow escape when the local library scheduled Willy Ley as its speaker for the celebration of National Library Week. I’ve never met Willy, but he had written me several times about this or that matter back in the days when I was publishing SPACEWAYS. He seems to have a mind like flypaper, never releasing any subject that happens to land in his memory. It was pretty clear what would happen. He would be met in Hagerstown by a reception committee and make a morsel of conversation to break the awkward silence that always follows the first handshakes. Willy would say: “Hagerstown. This is the city where a fellow published a fanzine some time ago. Maybe you still know him. His name. . . .” And this would be repeated with everyone who would be introduced to Willy. Fortunately, Willy got a more lucrative offer to speak in the Midwest, canceled his engagement in Hagerstown, and the sword still hung over my head by an unbroken thread.
Four months ago, another science fiction fan came to work in my office. She is a fan only in embryo, not yet conscious of the fact, but she has every characteristic of the full-fledged fan and it is only a matter of time until she will send for a fanzine or meet an active fan and break out of her shell into the greater world of fandom. It was torture, to sit and listen to her chatter to this or that reporter about the wonderful story she had just read by Jim Blish or Fred Pohl, and wonder how long it might be until she ran across Jack of Eagles with its reference to me on the flyleaf or saw my name under a story in a prozine. She was quite a girl: After high school graduation, she had gone to college because she didn’t want to earn her living; she had enlisted in the Woman Marines after a year of college, to get away from studying; then she found she didn’t like the Marines and chose the only way that permitted discharge after only three months of service: marriage; she got a job, so that she wouldn’t have to be around her husband; and she now spends most of her time in the office reading science fiction stories so she won’t have to do any work.
As far as I can determine, the operative incident that ended my double life was “Earth Aflame”, to which Larry Shaw appended a brief note about my whereabouts, occupation and intentions. One of the linotype men saw a copy of the magazine, and talked to the reporter, causing him to say to me: “What’s this about you selling science fiction stories?”
I must say that I took it calmly. I had always wondered what I would reply when the question was put to me in public, in front of everyone. I had never been able to think of the proper retort that would restore me to the previous condition of enigmatism that I had always enjoyed. When the actual test came, I passed it beautifully. I answered: “Well, one story slipped by under my own name. I always use a pen name, you know.”
Now the other reporters buy every issue of the Saturday Evening Post, Playboy, and Startling Detective, reading every story in them, attempting to find themselves in print as characters in those works of fiction, wondering if I write the entire contents of each issue of every magazine or just parts of them.
What has all this to do with the title of this article? Well, it was one way to keep you reading until the end, to try to find a link between the title and the text, wasn’t it?