Time now for the second in a series of mini-autobiographical essays from Forrest J
Ackerman. Last issue, Forry told us about his early years in fandom, which
culminated in his trip to the 1939 World Science Fiction Convention, in New York.
This issue, his focus is on the 1940s -- time travelers from the future at the 1940
Worldcon in Chicago, timebinding with Robert Heinlein at the 1941 Worldcon in
Denver, and bringing science fiction into World War Two.
The second World Science Fiction Convention was in Chicago in 1940. My futuristic Things to Come costume had gained a certain amount of renown at the first Worldcon the year before, in New York City. So by the Chicon, the notion had caught on, and we now had about 25 fans in costume. Doc Smith, who was the Guest of Honor, was a big fan of Catherine Moore's interplanetary character, Northwest Smith, so he came as Northwest Smith. Morojo -- Myrtle R. Douglas, who used an Esperanto name, and who was my girlfriend for about eight years -- and I actually put on a little dialog from Things to Come. After it was all over, at about 8 o'clock at night, I had a quixotic notion -- I realized that about five blocks away was the major newspaper of Chicago. So I said, "Hey, gang, come with me." I got everybody who was in costume and we went through the streets of Chicago to see the night editor. I became the spokesman; I went up to him with a straight face -- he was looking at these Martians and other futuristic people, and wondered what in the world had hit him -- so with a straight face, I said, "Well, sir, we are time travelers. Tomorrow, we picked up your paper and we found this photograph of ourselves and this interview. So we realized that we'd have to come back in our time machine to be interviewed!"
At that convention, three or four young fellows -- Olen Wiggins being the leader from Denver -- volunteered for the next world convention, never dreaming they would get it. Once they did, they didn't know exactly what to do with it, and one of the burning issues was who would be the Guest of Honor. At that time, and it was just third time around, we could have invited Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.G. Wells or Olaf Stapledon or any of the great names in science fiction. But I was in the enviable position of sort of time traveling six months to a year in advance because I had been invited to Robert Heinlein's home. He was living in Hollywood at the time. I was able to read all his classic manuscripts before they were published -- "The Roads Must Roll," "Coventry," and others. And so I put Heinlein's name in nomination, and indeed, he became the Guest of Honor.
By the way, I want to mention that I named the very first convention, the Nycon, and the second one, the Chicon. And I probably would have called the third one the 'Dencon'. I have to credit Don Wollheim, who came up with the notion of the Denvention, which I thought was an excellent idea.
The 1941 Denvention was a truly interesting convention. I've been to 51 of the 52 World Science Fiction Conventions, and to this day I feel that the talk that Heinlein gave in Denver was really the most extraordinary -- even when looked at from many years later. His Guest of Honor speech was called "The Discovery of the Future"; it was the first any of us had ever heard of 'timebinding'. At the time, Walt Daugherty was the first one to record a convention, on actual phonograph records, and he successfully recorded Heinlein's talk. Afterwards, I took the Daugherty phonograph records home to transcribe them. I sat with one hand on a record and one on the typewriter -- I'd listen a little bit and type in a little bit. Then I stenciled it, mimeographed it, collated it, stapled it, addressed it, stamped it, and mailed it for ten cents a copy. One hundred of them! Four or five years ago, in San Francisco, at an auction, one of these surfaced -- it sold to a dealer for thirteen hundred dollars!
Heinlein made quite an impression on us in other ways, too. He did something that I can't say I approve of in this day and age, but at the time it seemed incredibly cool. He was a very suave individual then, and in the middle of his talk, he stopped for a moment, took out a cigarette, and lit it. It's a wonder that the whole convention didn't start smoking!
Anyway, the word went around that it was Heinlein's birthday in a couple of days, so we all chipped in, and there was enough to buy eight books that his wife told us that he was fond of. He nearly lost control; he nearly broke down and wept at the banquet when he was given the gift. There was a costume contest at the Denvention, and even Heinlein participated. There was a character in a story in Amazing Stories by Eando Binder called "Adam Link", the humanoid robot, and Heinlein came as 'Adam Stink' -- walking kind of stiffly across the floor. E. Everett Evans won a contest in the masquerade as the Birdman from Rhea. He had personally pasted about one thousand colored feathers on a costume, but it took him so long to do that he never finished the rest of the costume. He had to be content just wearing the head...
One further thing about that masquerade -- I got a prize as the 'Hunchbackerman of Notre Dame'. A mask had been created for me by Ray Harryhausen, but in order to make it, he had me come out to Pacific Palisades where he was living. I remember that it was a hellishly hot day; I just lay there and he put this goop all over my face, which in those days took about a half hour to an hour to solidify. Ray left for a while to do some other things while the goop hardened; there was really no reason for him to stick around while I was just lying there baking. It was so hellishly hot that day that the soles of my feet were perspiring, so I took my shoes and stockings off. Well, Ray's great Mastiff dog named Kong came over and got interested in the saline solution. He had a big red raspy tongue -- he would go up and down on the soles of my feet! It was awful! But nobody was around, so nobody came to my rescue...
Before there could be a fourth Worldcon, World War Two intervened. I remember how we fans at LASFS learned about the war. It was on Sunday, the 7th of December, and a now-deceased fan named Arthur Louis Joquel II -- we all called him 'the twoth' -- came into the LASFS club room white-faced, and said, 'My God, the Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor!' But we didn't know exactly what he meant: 'Pearl Harbor? Who was she?' That very night L.A. was in black-out. We didn't know but what the Japanese planes wouldn't come over and bomb us that very night. But a number of us daring fans went down to the center of Los Angeles, and when we looked up, there were thousands of stars! We were never aware of them otherwise...
I was involved for 3 years, 4 months, and 29 days in World War Two. I wound up being a staff sergeant, and editing the second most popular of the two thousand wartime newspapers. It came to be called the 'Army Science Fiction Newspaper that Forry Edits', or something like that. At first, I was just a cub reporter; I would run my legs down to the kneecaps to find somebody and interview them, and bring back a genuine story. The editor would then look it over, and throw away the facts and dictate some kind of phony story. So, after a while, I got the notion, what's the use in knocking myself out? So I'd just pick interesting names off the roster and make up stories to fit the names. Then I even went beyond that -- I even made up names like they do in most of the TV shows nowdays. I would have things like: "Sergeant Ray Bradbury was seen in the company of Captain A. E. van Vogt the other evening..." I even managed to get a science fiction movie still into the newspaper -- it was from a film called Gold -- a 1934 German science fiction film about the artificial transmutation of elements. The photo showed a great, gigantic cathode ray machine; I published it in the newspaper, and said that Sergeant Ray Harryhausen in Germany had uncovered this! Then, once when I was asked to make up an appeal to support the war cause, to buy bonds, I took the same futuristic sans-serif typewriter I had for Voice of the Imagi-Nation and Science Fiction League stationery. I dated it ten years in the future, and said, "Dear Sgt. Ackerman, I am happy to write you from the year 1952 to tell you that because everybody bought bonds, we have satisfactorily concluded the war with Hitler and Japan."
It was one time, I'm embarrassed to say, that my vision of the future was a little too conservative!
NEXT: The post war years -- Worldcons, Fan Funds, Asimov, Heinlein, and more...
All illustrations by Teddy Harvia