With the 5th Chicago Worldcon now
only a little more than a year away, here's a bit of fan history about the first
Chicon, some 50 years ago this year. In the Noreascon Three Souvenir Book from last
year's Worldcon, Forry Ackerman, in describing Chicon I wrote, "There were
heroic efforts made to get to the Worldcons in those days. Dave Kyle and Dick Wilson
traveled with other fans from New York in an automobile that had 30 flat tires en
route!" Here is the tale of that adventure...
I've told this story, on request, from time to time at sf gatherings. Ad libbing, without notes, though, results in the recalled details fading in and out of my mind. There may have been minor inconsistencies in the telling, but the spirit was always there.
The four science fiction fans who made that glorious 1940 pilgrimage to that shifting sf temple of worship -- the Worldcon -- were Dick Wilson, Jack Gillespie, Chester Cohen, and myself. We were all bound together by the intimate brotherhood of 'The Ivory Tower', a Brooklyn apartment and haven for the ex-pubescent metropolitan fannish band of young sf men. The Ivory Tower in September 1939 was the successor to 'Futurian House' -- a short-lived communal project of a month earlier which established the famous/infamous Futurian Society -- and the forerunner of the Futurians' 'Prime Base' and other such exotic locales. The Three Men of 1889 had an extra companion, Montmorency, a dog. The Four Youths of 1940 also had a companion, Jenny, a big-square-box of a car. Montmorency was a rather pleasant contributor to the excitement of the boat trip; Jenny was very much the vexatious contributor to the excitement of our auto trip.
Although a Chicon appearance had always been in our minds, who-when-and-how (the 'how' meaning $$) had not been settled. Dick had bought a rather old but substantial car, a four-door sedan which he named Jenny, and had been practicing driving it. He and I hoped, somehow, to be there in Chicago on Sunday morning, the official opening, for the two days. He was working in NYC and I was back in Monticello (90 miles northwest of New York), at work at the new daily paper there. We were, nevertheless, in close touch. On Friday night, August 30th, Dick and I were at the Ivory Tower to check up on the plans of others who were bound for Chica-go. We were determined to go, but we needed passengers. The Ivory Tower was virtually deserted, as I recall. Undoubtedly Jack and Chester were there. (The wall newspaper informed all that only Don Wollheim and his affianced Elsie were making the trip, with a couple of passengers in Elsie's car.) "Who will go with us and share expenses?" we asked. Jack had only a few bucks, but that made him eligible; he'd go. Chester? Chester had no money; Chester never had any money. But a fourth in the party would keep one driver awake, either Dick or me, so we agreed that Chester should go. Thus was the con delegate team of four youths created.
On Saturday morning, August 31st, we assembled in Dick Wilson's family home at Richmond Hill, Long Island. The launch pad was well chosen: Jenny lived there, and furthermore that was where, before departure, we would get a substantial breakfast prepared by Felicitas K. Wilson, Dick's concerned mother -- the only real meal we might have until our return after Labor Day. We studied the maps closely, for in those days there were no Interstate superhighways. We decided to strike out due west across New Jersey towards Stroudsburg where we would pick up U.S. Route 6 for a direct run to Chicago. We figured, 800 maybe 900 miles one way. And so we ate, gassed up, kicked the four good tires, and left late in the morning. Chicon or Bust! And bust we did -- time and time again!
We expected the drive to take twenty-four hours at most. That figured to a modest pace of 45 miles per hour for less than a thousand miles, sleeping in the car and eating Mrs. Wilson's food. Our arrival, therefore, would be at the hotel early Sunday morning in plenty of time for the festivities.
The trouble began in western Pennsylvania that Saturday afternoon with our first flat tire. We had a spare wheel which rode in the well over a front fender. The spare looked to have a dubious future, but we were confident that in an emergency it would get us to the nearest gas station. And it did. We picked a few nails out of the tire's carcass, assuming one of them to be the culprit. The airless tube, already much battle-scarred with patches, was patched again and we were once more on our way.
An hour later, we had another flat. We changed to the spare. A short while later, that went half-flat. We hand pumped it up. Later, another half-flat to be pumped up again. This happened many times.
During one of those stops, some place in Pennsylvania or Ohio, we stocked up on dozens of ears of corn. I remember being parked at the side of the road with cornfields stretching out on both sides as far as the eye could see -- lush green stalks loaded with plump ears. While repairs were going on, Chester ran into the fields, disappearing into the waving greenery. We could hear him fade into the distance. And then we could hear him running back to us, accompanied by Snap! Snap! Snap-snap! He burst into sight with an armful of corn, threw the load onto the rear floor, and dashed back down between the rows. Again he disappeared and, with more snap-snapping, reappeared with more corn. When we left, two pairs of feet rested on a stock of fresh produce guaranteed to protect us from starvation.
When we reached a garage near Cleveland, we had the regular tire fixed. By then we were experiencing the same trouble with that 'good' tire -- loss of air. Several times we stopped to pump it up and finally, late that evening in or around Cleveland, we found a garage where a helpful mechanic identified our problem. We learned that the tire contained a 'boot', which is a pad inserted in the tire casing to cover a slash or break in the casing; this boot would protect the tire tube from stress against the cut inner wall of the casing. It was apparent to him that the boot was moving slowly away from the area it was supposed to protect, exposing the tube to damage. Additionally, the boot was dislodging old tube patches and causing them to leak. The obvious remedy was to buy a new tire. He could sell us one, but he had no used tires in our size. He did the best he could do -- he glued the boot in place and wished us luck.
Well, yes, come to think of it, said Dick, the week before he had hit a curb rather hard and caused a flat. The repairman had told him not to worry about the tire cut because he had fixed it up almost as good as new. To begin with, the tire already was "almost as good as new," which should have given pause for thought, but Dick hadn't questioned the evaluation. Not that it would have mattered to us, anyway.
By now it was after midnight and I was driving. The suburbs of Cleveland thinned out, and the highway became lonely flat country. We felt more confident than we had all evening that our problem was solved. In fact, we traveled for several hours before the exasperating trouble reappeared. The boot had slipped and a patch had loosened -- another flat. The spare went back on, and we repaired the regular tire while traveling. The spare lasted a while before we had to make a switch, but soon after that the regular tire was again develop-ing a slow leak. So in the darkness, we simply stopped every so often, resigned to pumping it up the rest of the night. By now we were approaching two dozen tire failures, and we were frustrated and exhausted. Our decision was to buy another tire, second hand, of course, and as soon as possible. But it was night, and we would have to bear up the best we could until morning.
While driving sometime about dawn, near Bowling Green, Ohio (a name which will always haunt me), I spotted a used tire lot. There was a shack of an office in front of a wire-fenced enclosure, and inside were hundreds of tires. It was a treasure trove! I parked the car and dozed off, awaiting the fulfilling of a sign's promise: "Open Sunday 7 A.M."
When I was finally in the back lot, surrounded by all those tires, I felt the miracle had happened to give us good fortune at last. A number of tires were the proper size. One tire was particularly good looking, with a fine tread and a famous name. I eagerly poured the water out of the casing and confirmed that it was as cheap in price as the others; it was something like three bucks (a bargain, I thought). Also, we did the right thing and bought an almost new tube for another dollar (a bit of an extravagance, I felt, but necessary). We mounted the tire, fixed up the old one as a spare, and discarded the worthless original spare. We drove away happy, confident now that we would get to Chicago and the con by noontime. I curled up in the right rear corner of the back seat and quickly went to sleep.
I awoke, a horrible noise shattering my dreamless peace.
My befuddled mind registered an explosion, the noise reverberating over the otherwise quiet, peaceful countryside. A shuddering Jenny was staggering to a halt, half off the road. Seconds later, the clear sky was raining down bits of black rubber and bits of red rubber. We were on a straight stretch of road with widely spaced houses with pleasant lawns; bushes and flowers lined the rural highway. One moment, as my eyes focused, the only movement was the rubbery rain, then into the deserted scene rushed people from their houses. Mothers and fathers and many children were out on their lawns. Faces peered out of windows. All obviously expected to view some kind of catastrophe. They didn't know that...
...Our 'new' tire had blown up!
We had come to a halt, a shuddering one, of course, half on the road and half on the shoulder. Dick had successfully fought the steering wheel for control, a relatively easy task considering the practice he and I had had during the previous twelve hours.
In those days, the front fenders were really just mud guards, and the wheels were very much exposed. It made tire changing relatively easy. It also permitted a self-destructing tire to shoot out every which way. Only two-thirds of the tire was left on the wheel rim. The rubber had quite literally disintegrated around the blowout in the center of the tread. I could now easily see that the rubber had been rotten. Huge chunks of the casing lay about on the road and ground. After examining those pieces and pulling on the remnants of the still deceptively impressive tread, I marveled at the remarkable fact that we had actually traveled about thirty or forty miles be-fore its spectacular demise. I was tired and I was mad. I knew that the tire dealer had known we were buying a piece of junk. Though we were practically at the Indiana state line, I decided immediately that we had to go back and fight for satisfaction. Our trip now depended on the fair play of a tire dealer. The others shrugged and agreed.
One of the men, looking as though he was dressed for church and who had come out to view our strickened Jenny, wanted very much to help. It was obvious that we wouldn't get very far on our poor, old, worn-out spare. If it also died, out on the empty highway, we would really be in trouble. He offered us the best help possible. He went to his flower bed in the center of his lawn and there, embracing a mass of flowers, was a discarded tire, a typical old-fashion garden improvisation. He urged us to take it: "It might help out you boys." "It's the wrong size," I said, knowing that it could even be as rotten as the one we'd bought. "Well," he said, "take it anyhow; it might somehow help," and before we could object more strenuously, he had pulled it up and carried it to our car. Meanwhile, our spare tire was back on the front wheel and when the man (I remember him as a farmer) put his old tire in the tire well, we were ready to go. We drove away, with pieces of the mangled tire on the back floor as evidence and the garden tire reincarnated as part of Jenny, and we had some living flowers as good luck charms waving in the bottom of that farmer's old tire.
When we pulled up in front of the tire store, our grim faces must have been obvious. No argument was necessary. All I said was that the tire we had just bought had blown up, and the man simply told us to pick out another one. Not entirely mollified, I complained that our tire tube was also destroyed. Well, pick out a used tube too, he said. No charge. And that was that. We were on our way once more. At the scene of our earlier explosion, the farmer's tire, having been out in the world for a brief adventure, was returned -- once again, I imagine, to embrace the bed of flowers.
We had no further trouble. The saga of Four Youths in a Car ended at the afternoon session of Chicon. What happened there, when I met Doc Smith for the first time, and won an Amazing Stories cover original for wearing a "Ming the Merciless" costume (a Worldcon first), and paraded to a newspaper office as part of Forry Ackerman's idea to get con publicity, has been told in other reports. The costume, incidentally, was made by Leslie Perri, later to become Dick Wilson's wife. She made it for Don Wollheim, but he considered it too undignified so I wore it instead. Don and Elsie brought the costume to Chicago. And, oh yes, they had their own car troubles. En route they had an accident, but fortunately were not injured and, although delayed, pushed on.
Okay, we were in Chicago, but our budget, really insufficient to start with, could not be stretched to get us back East. We had spent a very modest amount for a flop house (definitely not The Chicagoan, site of the con meeting room), where the walls and doors were thin and the stairs squeaked all night with comings and goings. Our toughest question was whether or not to pay for the "banquet," an inexpensive meal (and our only one in days), or to husband our funds for gasoline. If we had no extra expenses on the way back, we concluded, we would have enough money to get us, tired and hungry, halfway through Ohio. But halfway, obviously, wasn't good enough. So, being logical, we decided to eat for the moment and worry later.
The money solution was easier than we could imagine -- we found a mark. He was Elmer Perdue, a well-known fan from California. Elmer was going on to New York from Chicago and had a transcontinental train ticket. Oh, my, we sympathized with him, he ought to be traveling by car with us and see the country. In fact, we even had room for him! He would save lots of money by cashing in part of his train ticket because we would share the expenses. We were very persuasive, perhaps desperately persuasive, and Elmer agreed. So, when we left Chicago, Dick and I were in the front seat and Elmer was comfortably squeezed between Chester and Jack in the back seat. At our first gas stop on the outskirts of Chicago, we nonchalantly spent our entire fortune on a tank of gas, carefully noted down the statistics, and headed for Indiana.
The day was still bright, although evening was coming on, when we had to stop for more gasoline. Now came the harsh reality of the situation for us all -- Elmer was about to learn the horrible truth. As the gas was being pumped, I turned to Dick and asked for some money. Dick informed me that there was none left in the kitty. Did Jack have any money? Jack pointed out that he had earlier put all his money in the kitty. I looked at Chester. Dick looked at Chester. Jack looked at Chester. "Don't look at me, guys!" Chester objected. "You know I didn't have any money when we started this trip!" So we all looked at Elmer. Elmer simply looked bewildered.
It took a moment for the truth to sink in -- Elmer was our banker. Now that his inescapably vital role was established, we reassured him. He'd pay for all the gas and oil, and when we finally arrived we would "draw money out of the bank," tally up the pro-rated cost, and pay him. Elmer, of course, went along with the idea -- he had no other choice! Out came his pocket purse; he unsnapped it and doled out the funds. At first there was that slow, hesitant, reluctant response by our banker, but with each passing occasion, Elmer became less inhibited. Fortunately, his money supply seemed inexhaustible. Feeding Jenny, however, didn't mean feeding us. We still had a bag of canned foods brought along for the trip, and we were still eating from that dwindling pantry (with our corn supply in reserve). We offered to share with Elmer, but Elmer preferred for us to stop and buy more traditional meals. We explained that we certainly would stop for him to get things but weren't in a position to join him. As a result, Elmer was resigned at first to eating alone at a counter stool. After that initial experience, he would buy a bag of things he wanted and generously offer to share his supply with us. We nobly declined at first -- but not for long.
The truly devastating experience, which was the worst blow to Elmer, came when Jenny had her mechanical breakdown. We had driven through Indiana and Ohio for most of the night and had stopped when there was concern that we would run out of gas while no gas stations were open. Also, this gave us a few hours sleep. We had no more flat tires, the facts about which we hadn't wanted to trouble Elmer, and our expectation was to be home by the end of that day. Outside the crowded heart of Cleveland, Jenny began the long climb up the hill in Cleveland Heights. Jenny was really struggling upward, slowly losing power, when suddenly there was a clunk and a halt, and we started rolling backward. The brake held us in place, but the accelerator would only race the motor and the rear wheels were powerless. By now, the sun was high, perhaps eight in the morning, and traffic was light. Using gravity and muscle power, we turned Jenny around and coasted back down the hill to reach, by another minor miracle, an open garage at the bottom of the hill.
Jenny had a broken rear axle.
The part was available, the mechanic was available, the time was available and the repair could be done that day. Not available, however, was the money. The price was a bargain and Elmer would have loaned us the money, but even he wasn't that affluent. Trusting once more in Providence, we ordered the repair -- then phoned for extra funds, explaining our delay.
We spent a half day at a nearby CCC picnic grounds, a fine place to cook our corn. (The Depression-bred Civilian Conservation Corps had made picnic grounds in various parts of the country.) Under a fire, we attempted roasted corn. Over the flames, we heated a pot of canned spaghetti mixed with corn kernels cut from the cobs. (Two disasters! The pot of porridge became a disgusting, inedible, scorched mess. Within the charred corn husks, the ears were still raw.) Other supplies assuaged our hunger, but oh, the humiliation -- plus the waste of spaghetti! However, the day, filled with trees and grass and blue skies and a stream, was beautiful and the car repairs were being made, and we were young, so the memory is a funny and pleasant one.
The money arrived with ten dollars extra, I believe, which was fortunate because it just covered the legitimate extra expense to ransom Jenny. We drove onward with optimism. Elmer, in recognition of our meager larder, bought a bag of groceries for the five of us to share. His properly frugal behavior was about to give way utterly. On the second morning, at an early breakfast time, Elmer felt compelled to have a real meal. We stopped at a roadside restaurant and all went in to sit, with dignity, at a table and be served. The four of us could have stayed in the car and eaten the rolls we had, but there was a need to be near cooked food and to enjoy the ambiance of the place. Elmer ordered a full, genuinely American breakfast, from juice to the extra cup of coffee, or whatever it was that his craving for genuine food demanded. And we pretended to be satisfied with a cold glass of water in a sensuously pleasing, thick restaurant glass. Elmer's food came and he began to eat, and we chattered among ourselves, struggling not to watch. Then Elmer cracked. "Look, fellows," he said, "order what you want. The treat's on me. You deserve at least one decent meal today before we get to New York." We half-heartedly protested, but we were really hungry. We accepted and had four orders of what Elmer was eating. And when his purse appeared, and he unclicked it, the sound was friendly.
Within the hour the bad luck returned -- the 'new' tire had a blowout, and the new string of flats began. They happened, I suppose, because thin and deteriorated rubber couldn't prevent punctures. We'd had maybe two dozen deflated tires going west. By the sixth change of wheels on the return trip, we were fed up and ready for a drastic solution. Elmer suggested we buy a new tire, a really new tire! The cost would go into our little account book as a loan. We did so in Scranton, I believe, at a discount tire store. And that was the last of all our troubles.
Our agonies were over. A few hours later, Jenny took me to the door of my Monticello home. The ears of corn which lined the floor of the back seat, mixed with our tire changing tools and smeared with oil, were thoughtfully unloaded and put on the back porch of my house for my mother. Then I was transported to work (a day late), borrowed some money to rebuild the kitty, and said my goodbyes. Jenny got Elmer to New York with no further adventures.
That evening when I came home for supper, I expected to have fresh corn. No, it had been thrown in the trash. I argued that the motor oil hadn't penetrated the husks, that the corn was still edible. My father, a lawyer who had been raised on a farm, explained. "You had field corn. Field corn is grown for cattle feed, not for humans." Well, nevertheless, if we'd cooked it properly I know I would have enjoyed it on our unscheduled picnic outside Cleveland.
# # # #
As a postscript, I should mention that Dick Wilson went on to win a Nebula Award, and died in 1987. Jack Gillespie married my former girl friend Lois, who was 'Miss Science Fiction of 1949', and disappeared into Pennsylvania. Chester Cohen, I heard, had some tough times. About once a decade I saw Elmer, wearing his notoriously garish ties. I wish I could recall more of the details of that unique Chicago trip. I wonder if old fanzines might have had reports about it. Maybe somebody knows or remembers more than I have just told or can correct me on my dimly remembered facts. If so, I'd love to have them drag my thoughts back to that time of the Chicon a half a century ago.
All illustrations by Kurt Erichsen