I Came Here by Accident
[Published in Dick Smith and Leah Zeldes Smith, eds., Contact! (Spirits of Things Past 4), October 2001]
True, I bore the “genetic code” for fannishness. From an early age, I much preferred reading to socializing, had no hesitation about proclaiming idiosyncratic opinions, impatiently waited for humanity to emerge from its terrestrial womb and, of course, devoured science fiction. I could have wandered into Tricon (my family was living in Cleveland in 1966) or discovered Chambanacon (just starting up when I was a law student in Champaign) or encountered Fandom in some other probable, predictable way. But I didn’t. The maze was full of twisty tunnels, all different, and it is only thanks to the Ghod of Strange Coincidences that I am now typing this reminiscence rather than a political manifesto or a theological tract or a translation of a Greek poem or a set of wargame rules or what have you.
My nearest deliberate approach to Fandom came as an undergraduate, when I founded the Yale Science Fiction Society. Well, let us be precise: I announced the formation of the Society and then waited for it to spring up without further effort on my part. The tenuous organization’s only visible activity was to persuade a campus political group to stage a debate on whether military service should be a precondition to the right to vote, á la Starship Troopers. The debate turned into an argument about whether Earth had overreacted to the Bugs’ slightly clumsy diplomacy. This was, after all, the Vietnam era, and it was unfashionable to be a warmonger.
Nonetheless, despite the failure of the direct approach, my undergraduate years were the first link in the chain of happenstance. It was then that my fuzzy adolescent political opinions coalesced into a point of view that happened to be very much in the minority among college students. Being part of a tiny minority has its drawbacks, but, on the positive side, there is little competition for leadership roles. Despite my utter unsuitability for serious political activity, I was elected to various positions within my own little faction. Indeed, when that faction proved not small enough, I founded my own (which still exists as an undergraduate organization thirty-odd years later).
With that background, it was natural that, when I went off to law school, I would plunge into the even less hospitable political sea of the University of Illinois. Compared to Yale, my ideological accomplices were fewer and more widely scattered. Naturally, we were delighted to find one another - a delight similar, I imagine, to that of scorned SF readers stumbling across simpatico souls in the Thirties or Forties.
Among the people whom I met in this manner were two undergraduates, Greg Bennett and Becky Thomas. They were engaged when I first knew them. Right after Greg’s graduation, they married and moved to Seattle, where he worked for Boeing and she finished her degree. I went to the other coast, taking a job with a law firm in New York. We kept in touch, however, and it became customary for me and other of their Illini friends to visit them in Seattle each Fourth of July.
A few readers may recognize Greg Bennett’s name. At that point, though an enthusiastic science fiction reader, he was not a fan. He and Becky (also a reader) made contact with Fandom in one of the conventional ways, though more by accident than design.
In August 1976 the young Bennetts drove to Illinois to visit their families. Having read about a “World Science Fiction Convention” scheduled for Kansas City over Labor Day weekend, they decided to drop by for a day on their way back to Seattle.
Arrived at the Radisson Muehlbach Hotel, they located convention registration. While Greg went forward to purchase admittance, Becky, rather shy of crowds, hung about the fringes of the gathering. She quickly noticed that many of those present were wearing hospital bracelets, from which she concluded that a nearby institution must have brought patients there for an outing. That was, she thought, an interesting mode of therapy. (Now a graduate student in Pharmacy, she was interested in medical topics.)
When Greg rejoined her, she learned that the bracelets were MidAmericon’s (never imitated) concept of a badge. Not knowing any better, neither of them found the idea odd. They went on to spend four days in Kansas City rather than the intended one, walked Robert Heinlein home from the Hugo Banquet (after he had evaded his handlers), had a thoroughly wonderful time and returned to the Pacific Northwest as enthusiasts for Roscoe.
Not being the sort to let any enthusiasm die aborning, the Bennetts set to work to create a local fandom. (It was only later that they learned of the older generation of Seattle fen, who were far from active recruiters.) They founded the Northwest Science Fiction Society, which in turn founded Norwescon and launched, of all things, a Seattle in ‘81 Worldcon bid.
These events came to my notice when I made my annual Fourth of July visit in 1977. In addition to the usual festivities, such as making patriotic toasts and bellowing songs from 1776, a half dozen of us traveled to Vancouver to attend Westercon XXX, my first science fiction convention. (See photos.)
One con does not make a fan. While Westercon was full of interest, I felt no compulsion to track down similar events closer to home. The indirect approach continued.
Greg went to Suncon that year, where he spent a lot of time with Ross Pavlac and received much unsolicited advice concerning the fledgling Seattle Worldcon bid. Over the next several months, Greg, Ross and Becky discussed fannish matters over the telephone at inordinate length. As the bid grew more substantial, Greg thought that it would look good to have a lawyer on the committee and asked permission to use my name. That was fine with me. I’m sure that I did the bid no good, but I heard a great deal about it from Greg’s phone calls, which, due to some unhappy personal developments, gradually became longer and more frequent.
In April 1979, after being mugged for the third time and deciding that the experience wasn’t fun any more, I left New York for Chicago. At roughly the same time, Ross Pavlac moved there from Columbus, largely for the purpose of heading a Chicago in ‘82 Worldcon bid. If his earlier bid, for Columbus in 1976, had won, I would never have wandered into Fandom. Ohio being off the route between Illinois and Washington State, the Bennetts would have missed the 1976 Worldcon. Even if they had somehow found their way there, Ross would not have later bid for Chicago and thus would not have been looking for Chicago area fans to lend assistance.
To call me a “Chicago fan” was not just an exaggeration but a manifest untruth. Nevertheless, conversations with Greg convinced Ross that I was a person whom he should approach. His efforts were not immediately successful. I can’t recall precisely when or where we met, but it was probably not until well into 1980, after Seattle had lost to Denver and my frail tie to Fandom had thereby dissolved.
Once we did meet, Ross simply took it for granted that I knew far more about Fandom than I really did. And his assumption that I was already a fan had the effect of making me feel like one. At least, I felt enough like one to buy a plane ticket to Boston at the last possible moment and show up at Noreascon 2.
Noreascon proved to be a crash course in fanac. I crashed in the Chicago party suite, set up the big Friday night bid party, worked as a catcher in the Masquerade, stayed up all night Saturday typing membership data for Chicon IV, and even participated in my first fannish practical joke (of which Larry Propp was the victim).
Most importantly, I met a host of Chicago fans at Noreascon and found myself incorporated into their society. Within a year I was hotel liaison for Windycon, then for Chicon IV, from which my career has proceeded to my present happy state of obsolescence and curmudgeonity. In many parallel universes, though, I don’t know Foo from fubar.