A fanzine column from BSFAN #16, editor Elaine Stiles, Summer 1987

Early this spring, just before the cicada invasion noisily burst upon Maryland, Elaine and I visited the Baltimore Science Fiction Society  in their basement on St. Paul street in hopes of soliciting material for the club's fanzine, BSFAN. Specifically, Elaine was asking for anecdotal essays on the theme "My Most Bizarre Experience In Fandom." We thought this would be a natural --we're talking about science fiction fandom here, after all.

We passed out 60 xeroxed forms to the membership, confidently expecting a flood of club members' anecdotes to soon pour into the clubhouse's mailbox. Eventually there were three of them, so there went another bright idea.

Maybe the assignment had proven harder than I had guessed. After all, many anecdotes fall into the "You had to be there" category (like the time writer Bob Toomey had accidentally sat on my first wife's face --twice). And then, there's the humiliation factor: do even fans really want to embarrass their friends? Reveal hilarious secret misdeeds, assignations, follies? These are real people being dissed! And some of them may have lawyers....

So it falls to me....

One of My Bizarre Experiences in S.F. Fandom

Oddly enough, aside from leaving 24 bottles of urine at Ted White's place, a lot of the truly grotesque events in my life,  absolutely insane happenings that would send me reeling back to Alan Watts for a saner perspective, took place in the Real World, boring old mundania --which has, for example, a lot more guns than science fiction fandom (which may explain why I still remain mired in our subculture).  Still, our microcosm has a few odd occurrences to offer, and here's the first that I encountered....

I was just sixteen years old back in 1959, and I had been in fandom for almost two years, or, rather, I was just nibbling around its edges, content to limiting myself to receiving a handful of fanzines and contact with just a few local fan friends mostly in my own age bracket. I was still living at home with with my parents, good solid New York Southern Baptists, and while Protestant fundamentalists are not quite as insular as the Haredim (at least not back then), there are some similarities: I knew that science fiction fandom and Southern Baptists were unequally yoked, not like, say, fandom and Unitarians, Ethical Culturists, or Reconstructionists.

It may come as a surprise to you, but fundamentalists just aren't hep to the idea of flying around to the other planets. It's the old Tower of Babel thing. But if science fiction itself was suspect, I knew enough to realize that many N.Y. fans themselves (atheistic, liberal, bohemian) were completely beyond the pale. Best to keep most of them at arms length while I still lived at home.

And then one day I got a letter from one Henry Ackerman. It had been forwarded to me by the National Fan Federation, an organization dedicated to bringing fans together. I hadn't asked to get a letter from Henry Ackerman but there it was, and from the look of it --simplistic writing and crude hand lettering-- I guessed that Henry was about two years my junior. I exchanged a few letters with the kid and thought that was the end of it.

So imagine my chagrin when Ackerman turned up at my parents' apartment, unannounced and uninvited, as a man in his mid sixties with an unruly shock of silver hair and a noticeable lisp. Needless to say, my father was quite hostile to homosexuality and considered a noticeable lisp as a sure sign that some aspects of ancient Greece were still with us.

I have no idea what Henry's sexual preferences were, but it turned out that Ackerman had been a pro writer during the early day of the pulps, churning out potboilers with titles like Reptile Men of Jupiter and The Pirate's of Saturn's Rings, and like that. Or he had been, until some editor noticed he had been plagiarizing all his stories --maybe only the planets had been changed.

I didn't know all that then. I only knew that I had to get Ackerman out of my father's sight as soon as possible. In no time at all I had dragged him over to Dick and Pat Lupoff's penthouse apartment --unannounced and uninvited-- and dumped him there, hastily making my exit.

That's what friends are for, right?

(They eventually forgave me.)

The punch line of this little story is that the Lupoffs, accompanied by Ted and Sylvia White and Pete Graham, took Henry to Chinatown, where they dined at N.Y. fandom's favorite restaurant, a place known for its culinary delight and sophistication.

Ackerman ordered a cup of hot chocolate and a cheeseburger. Now that'sbizarre!

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SYNCHRONISM: That can be pretty bizarre as well, but I've always enjoyed those little coincidences in my life during those times when all of existence subjectively feels like an underdone potato pancake sweating with unmotivated optimism (to use an obvious metaphor). I'm sure we all have moments like that, when a small dose of coincidence can infuse life with new shades of meaning, no matter how confusing or illusory. Here are some of my favorites:

1.)  I'm strolling around Paris with my first wife, just a few days after we had that ugly fight in the Palace of Versailles, no less, screaming obscenities at each other in The Hall of Mirrors -- sheesh! A figure from a nearby sidewalk cafe calls out to us. It's our friend Fred Haskell from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

2.)   I'm stationed in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, sitting on my bunk drawing up some doodles for a fanzine. Another soldier wanders over and comments that a GI on the second floor of our barracks frequently does similar drawings. That other GI turns out to be Colin Cameron, my west coast counterpart: we had been living together, unknowingly, in the same barracks for six months. (Colin went on to portray a Juicy Fruit in Paul Williams' movie, Phantom of Paradise, and is a much sought-after professional guitarist.)

3.)  Back when she was in her early teens my wife Elaine went to summer camp with Jon White, fanzine fan and editor of INSIDE. Years later, even more years before I met Elaine, Jon and I became good friends.

4.)  Linda Solomon was a young folkie in the early sixties when she was asked to arbitrate a musical dispute between Ted White and Harlan Ellison, a wager which caused Ellison to (temporally) forfeit his entire record collection. Over twenty years later, Solomon would turn up at our wedding as a guest of Elaine's family, although neither Ted White (my Best Man) or I realized it at the time.

5.)  I'm at the Ft. Leonard Wood's officer's obstacle course and firing my M-60 machine gun just a wee bit over the heads of the new lieutenants crawling through the barbed wire and squishy muck. I'm having the most fun I've had in the army to date! As I pause to reload, I notice one of the mud covered officers completing the course has brushed the mud off his uniform's name tag: it reads "T.H. Milton."

The first fanzine fan I had ever corresponded with.

What are the odds for any of these five coincidences?  They must be vast. Arethere coincidence? Are these coincidences?  If you're a science fiction fan, you know where this is headed: Yes, or are these just fractures in some Phil Dick-type illusion of reality? Kind of a cliché situation in the space-time continuum, in other words. For all I know,  in the reality that actually is, I may be typing this on an electric typewriter while staring at a tube showing I Love Lucy reruns.

And my floppys are all just beer coasters.

If my reality is in some Philip K. Dick ballpark, I retain all the movie rights.

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Incidentally, there's a follow-up to 5.).  Although Lt. T.H. Milton, former editor of The Buddha's Bulletin in the late 1950s, proved to be a likable human, he did confess to something that had happened in 1957, when we were exchanging letters. Tom, via the mail, had introduced me to two of his local fan friends, Paul Shingleton and Peter Skilton. Soon the four of us were running up a vast amount of postage in a round robin. After I while I noticed that Pete had dropped out.

Tom and Paul explained that Peter had contracted some fatal disease. His life was ebbing away in the hospital. I quickly wrote back, asking if there was anything I could to do to make his months or weeks more endurable.

I was advised that even though Peter was dying, it would probably take some time, and he'd appreciate any reading material I might have lying around. Any old prozines, for example, to take his mind off his impending demise.

I had to wrestle with my conscience, but in the end I rejected all the relatively cheap crap, the pot-boiler Ace Doubles --well, most of it!-- and culled some particularly fine goodies from my collection. I mailed them off to the doomed wretch.

Maybe my eyes were a bit moist on the way to the post office. I never heard from Peter Skilton again.

That was because, Tom told me there at Ft. Leonard Wood, Peter Skilton never existed.

It is an exaggeration to say that for a split second I wished that my M-60 wasn't on a fixed mount. But not too big an exaggeration.

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HUBRIS: A flaw in great minds and a virtue in small ones. I've got plenty of it. I haven't given up all hopes of becoming the next great writer/artist/cartoonist, just the reasonable expectation of it. And yet I do have one modest claim to fame: I like to think I added one small footnote to the philosophy of Western civilization. I'd like the recognition.

*I* am the originator of the famous phrase "Death is Nature's way of telling you when to stop."

Yes, that's right! You've heard it for years, you seen it scribbled on lavatory walls, and yet you may never have wondered  where and how it originated. I'm here to tell you that it came from me, Steve Stiles, in the hopes that some future historian will read this column.

It came about at a N.Y. Fanoclast meeting in the early 1960s. We were tossing around variations of the old MAD schticks, the reverse cliché, for it is well known that we Fanoclasts were a jovial bunch, and I tossed that one out. Andy Porter jotted down "Death is..." and subsequently used it as an interlineation in one of his fanzines.

Which enabled Bill Rotsler to see it and use the line in his column, "Quotes By Famous People, Quotes By Unknowns," in the now defunct Pageant magazine. I even signed a release form for it.

Bill was using a lot of pithy witticisms by the likes of Heddy Lamarr, Chili Williams, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, as well as by Elmer Perdue, Charles Burbee, and Lee Jacobs. I felt pleased to be included in the latter group, and now I was public, just like Zsa Zsa.

I was startled, a few weeks later after its publication, to hear "Death is..." repeated by a disc jockey. The following week a comedian used it on the Carson show. I began keeping a record of its usage. Eventually it was even engraved on the drinking fountain of a trendy L.A. nightspot. I grew tired of keeping a file and gave up on the effort after the 32nd entry. Shortly after that, the graffiti craze hit and "Death is..." wound up in the first two graffiti collections.

I've never been able to prove my claim, of course, and peoples' eyes glaze over when I brag about it. Bill Rotsler was working on a quote book, and wrote up the incident in his introduction, but after his death the manuscript disappeared. But all this really isn't about my vanity... no, no... I'm going into this to make a point. And that is that anybody, no matter how small and insignificant, has the possibility of actually making an impact on that great bland Out There.

So whenever I'm feeling particularly negligible, I can bring up that thought: It can happen again!

Next time around I hope to make a few bucks out of it.

--Steve Stiles