Appeared in TANGENT, Spring 1995
It was a cold winter day in 1951 as the young boy stood before the drugstore’s few remaining magazines. Puddles formed around his boots. A foot of snow had fallen the night before, thick upon the fields, clogging the county roads, closing the schools, and giving him an entire, glorious day to read.
Bud’s eyes hungrily searched the rack, looking for a fresh copy of True, or maybe Argosy, any magazine that might contain a decent story or two – anything to fill the afternoon. But only the previous month’s issues sat in the rack, magazines he’d already read. His eyes scanned the remaining magazines; looking, searching, hoping.
The cover of a small magazine, a picture of an ancient, battered spaceship, there, on the bottom shelf, drew his attention. “Astounding Science Fiction,” the magazine’s title shouted.
Wondering what sort of stories could lie behind such a strange cover, Bud idly fanned the pages. The line illustrations of spacemen and aliens were the first things to strike his eyes; visions completely foreign to his limited experience. Eager to learn more about them, he quickly browsed the stories. What he read filled him with a rising sense of excitement. These words were the stuff of dreams, of adventures and ideas far from the mundane existence of home and school.
The tiny magazine cost thirty-five cents, a small price to pay for an afternoon’s pleasure, he thought as he stuffed it into the side pocket of his heavy coat, along with the package of cough drops his mother needed.
The rest of that remarkable afternoon was spent in silent wonder at each crisp page, as the words expanded a universe of endless possibilities in his mind. These were Bud’s first exploratory steps, steps on a journey of discovery that would continue for the rest of his life.
When Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” came out as a Ballentine double, the stack of chemistry texts on his desk weighed more heavily on John’s mind than the bookshelf full of pulp magazines, old Astoundings from the thirties and forties that he had discovered in a front for a bookie joint in nearby south Baltimore, and nearly every paperback that had seen print since Bud, his younger self, had discovered science fiction on a snowy afternoon.
Sadly, schoolwork left little time for prowling the public library in search of the latest science fiction novels,and even less for reading any fiction other than his monthly subscriptions to Astounding and Galaxy. The curriculum at Hopkins was hard, too hard to waste time on reading anything other than math and chemistry.
John was a young man with a degree in Mathematics from the University of Maryland when he left his teacher wife for the promise of an Air Force commission, embarking on a career that was his only alternative to the draft, with a copy of Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” in hand.
By the time he read Brunner’s “Stand on Zanzibar” the military had moved him half a dozen times, sent him across numerous borders with a wife, daughter, and son in tow. The outwardly bound spaceship that had first caught his eye lay years in the past, a partially forgotten icon.
John found time to become an avid reader of science fiction. He avidly read every novel, anthology, and every month’s issue of Astounding through an unbroken subscription that he’d held ever he bought that first copy. When his second daughter was born he discovered that Laumer had probably written his drafts at the very library table where he was reading the Retief stories.
Herbert’s “Dune” appeared in Astounding as he was moving to Japan and “Dangerous Visions” became evening entertainment on several cold, snowy nights in northern Asia. Reading the stories awakened a sense of wonder unequalled since that first glimpse of that spaceship, too many years before. Each of those stories spoke to the boy within him, restoring a sense of wonder that had lain dormant for too many years.
Harlan’s introductory and concluding remarks about each writer’s story struck a chord deep within John’s breast, awakening the boy inside. After completing the volume he was surprised when Bud’s youthful voice demanded that he write a science fiction story. “We could do this,” John replied, unknowing of how amateurish and awkward his first attempt would be.
A dozen failed stories followed, for Bud was unrelenting in his newly awakened need to add to the science fiction canon. He forced John to agonizingly draft story after story. Undaunted by rejection after rejection, the two of them persevered.
But inside, a speck of doubt began to grow.
Analog’s acceptance of “The Tompkins Battery Case” was signed by Ben Bova, himself! Unbelievable! No joy ever tasted so sweet as reading that first, simple acceptance letter.
Except for the second letter that came a few months later.
But, John told Bud at that point, they had adult obligations and duties, overriding responsibilities to family and career. For the next several years it could only be graduate school in the evenings and weekends, while working full time during the day. This, and the pressures of family, would leave no time for the trivial, time-consuming business of writing stories.
“It is only for a little while,” John promised Bud. “After the thesis is finished there will be time to write, I promise.”
But promises that adults make to little boys can’t always be honored. John’s separation from the Air Force, and thirteen years of earning a living in information systems while raising a family, acquiring house, dogs, cars, sailboat, and putting all three kids through college kept him occupied and away from the typewriter.
Bud’s unused creative drive went unused for so long that the speck of doubt grew into a mountain. Bud’s earlier science fiction stories became a fond memory, represented by a few fading magazines on his bookshelf, and his spaceship,ignored, gathered dust.
Then he wrote a story for a local sailing magazine that was immediately accepted. A second sailing fantasy piece followed.
The younger Bud awakened and suggested, with a drowsy murmur, that they should try science fiction once more. Perhaps the engines of their battered old spaceship could be restarted.
John considered how hard writing might be after so many years, the mountain of doubt looming large in his mind . He worried that he wouldn’t be able to regain the thought process. Maybe he’d be unable to recover the techniques, the style. And he dreaded that he wouldn’t be able to produce something acceptable, something that editors wouldn’t reject. Fearful that Bud’s dreams would never be possible, that they were doomed to disappointment, John procrastinated: Better the memories than the reality of rejection.
Recovery from an operation provided the opportunity to recall the old skills, provided the time for Bud’s voice to regain its strength, and provided weeks of quiet time to rebuild the partnership, produce a story, print it, and, finally, get it in the mail.
That very first submission elicited a nice response from Stan Schmidt that said, “Welcome back Bud, glad to see you writing again.” Along with a rejection, of course.
Two more stories failed to find a willing editor before another acceptance arrived. The skills were coming back, the ideas were flowing. Half of everything John and Bud wrote seemed to be accepted and published. Those manuscripts that didn’t sell were kept in circulation on the hopes that sheer persistence would wring a sale from some editor sick of seeing it cross his desk. It was an application of Ellison’s principle.
Bud and John felt in firm control of the process, prospecting dozens of ideas, some of which they fabricated into finished stories. The best ones grew organically and, through countless revisions, were polished until they glistened like iridium dreams. Rejection letters began to contain encouraging comments, although each one stung like darts to the soul.
John allowed Bud to occasionally visit fans at conventions, at parties, and at the other strange places where science fiction readers discover one another with mutual wonder. From each occasion childish things stir to become a hurricane of a story that is hopefully launched, seeking an editor willing to pass the thrill of discovery along to a wider audience.
Today the snow lies deep and white upon the wood outside the window of my study, as cold and bright as that crisp January day so many years before when I found that small magazine in the drugstore. As we, the man I am and the boy I was, put these words to paper we are still following that ancient spaceship on a voyage that appears to have, instead of an end, only new beginnings.
And inside the adult I’ve become, that boy who thrilled to his first glimpse of wonder so many years ago gleefully claps his hands as we continue on our journey of discovery.