We jump ahead a decade or so for another tale about science fiction fans in the days
before they found their way into science fiction fandom. It probably isn't
surprising to see that, for a young fan, the sense of wonder inherent to science
fiction can fill in for a lack of outside fannish contacts. But it still helps to
have a steadying influence like the subject of the following article...
Every young fan should know a Mr. Melvin.
Join me in a trip down memory lane. Way down memory lane, actually -- back to when I was fourteen years old. I lived in Lynn Haven, Florida, a town of maybe 3,000 population at the time, and a few miles north of Panama City.
First, let me elaborate on the setting. Across the street was a building that was old even then; a two-story frame building owned by a splinter group of the Masons called 'Odd Fellows'. (Isn't it appropriate? A young fan living near an Odd Fellows building...) The building was about fifty feet wide by one hundred feet deep and its upper floor was the Odd Fellows' Hall; to the front of the downstairs was Lloyd's Country Store. Mr. Lloyd was the stereotypical jolly fat man who would stand behind the counter when things were busy. Otherwise, he sat in the middle of the store in an old rocking chair, rocking slowly and fanning himself with a cardboard fan that advertised Dental Snuff. He would sometimes slip kids a piece of bubblegum or a lollipop -- if his wife, Miz Kitty, wasn't watching.
There was a little bit of everything in the high-ceilinged, cavernous store; from hardware to bolts of cloth, a soda fountain, a slanted glass case displaying colorful candies -- and comic books.
They didn't carry what Miz Kitty called 'those trashy pulp magazines'. Which, since they did carry Westerns and Detective pulps, I easily translated to mean she disdained science fiction.
I learned speed reading at the comic book rack. I'd quickly leaf through two or three (under Miz Kitty's baleful eye) before selecting one, and I developed the art of rapid comprehension so that, for the price of one, I could read three or four.
Lloyd's took up three-fourths of the first floor. At first, I thought it was the most important part of the building.
Then I met Mr. Melvin.
The remaining quarter of the first floor was to the rear, across the street from where I lived. I had seen a white-haired old man come out of that door at times and paid him little attention, other than to recognize he was tall, broad-shouldered, and not stooped. For no reason other than we lived near the Gulf of Mexico, I fancied him to be a retired sailor.
Winter had been mild, with occasional warm days, then came summer, and the temperature rose. One day I was crossing the street with a buddy of mine. The old man's door was open, and he was in a ladderback chair, sitting on the sidewalk. (The front of the building and this side had a porch roof over the sidewalk, held up by wooden four-by-four columns.)
My friend stopped in the middle of the street and nudged me. "Look what he's reading!" he whispered.
Mr. Melvin was holding a yellowed copy of a Gernsback Amazing Stories!
His attention attracted by our huddling in the middle of the street, Mr. Melvin looked at us. His broad mouth curved in a gentle smile. He held up the magazine. "You boys recognize this?" he asked. "Come on over," he added, getting up. "Two more chairs, right away."
We couldn't resist.
He brought out two collapsible chairs, one a rather rusty metal one and the other a worn wooden one. "As I'm alone, I never bothered to get furniture in sets," he later told me.
He had three old Amazing Stories magazines, a couple of early issues of Weird Tales, and many other old magazines: National Geographic, Liberty, Colliers -- and many I don't remember.
After that, I visited often. The interior of his place was lit by only a few light bulbs hanging on long cords from the high ceiling. Such ceilings were common in old buildings; it helped them stay a few degrees cooler in our semi-tropical temperatures. Mysterious (yet comfortable) shadows always hovered protectively above us.
Mr. Melvin had other antiques: an old Olivetti typewriter that had its keys curved up on each side of the machine, instead of hidden behind the keyboard. He had another typewriter of more standard appearance -- but its keys weren't arranged the same as modern machines. Mr. Melvin explained to me that it had been an early attempt to improve keyboard layout.
He had several old radios, two of which still worked; radios with many dials and knobs for adjusting reception, volume, tone; fine-tuning that allowed the listener to change the radio as reception conditions changed.
And he had ancient books, including a set of encyclopedia over forty years old, a geography book from before World War I, something from the Rosicrucians, and -- of course -- H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.
One of the Wells books was his Outline of History. This was my first knowledge that Wells wrote non-fiction. I later found a copy of that book for my own pleasure. Yes, pleasure; before that, all history I had read had been dry textbooks in school, crammed with dates. Dry, uninteresting. Maybe it was just because I liked his fiction, but Wells made it interesting.
Mr. Melvin was self-taught. He had an exploring mind, uninhibited by restrictions of thought imposed by formal schooling. That meant he entertained thoughts that would be scoffed at -- sometimes, deservedly so -- by the educational elitists. Sometimes he would spend a long time talking about thought transference, and vibrations in the ether that could pick up and reflect thoughts, explaining (he said) why a new theory or invention would occur to men on different parts of the globe at the same time.
"The patent office often gets requests for patents for the same thing from two or more people the same week," he informed me. "It's because of thought vibrations reflected back from the ether."
Sounded good to a fourteen-year-old.
At another time, Mr. Melvin said: "Let your mind run wild. Don't worry about what people say is impossible. Visualize, building from your own foundations." Then he gave a soft chuckle. "You can get a great high from that, but be careful -- when you come back down to earth, better watch who you tell your ideas to, unless you can back your fancies up with something others will recognize. Great discoveries can be made that way, but you can't depend on a skyhook to hold your ideas up. Get your ideas, but then try to build a foundation that will attach them to the ground.
"But don't let reality stop you from dreaming!"
What better mentor could a young fan have than a Mr. Melvin?
Title illustration by Diana Harlan Stein