Another thing that gave 1950s British and Irish fandom its legendry were its fan
dwellings, which became almost as famous as the fans who lived in them. Ella Parker,
mentioned in the previous article, lived in a London apartment that became known
(for obscure reasons) as 'The Penitentiary'. Other famous dwellings of the era
were Walt Willis's home, 'Oblique House', and the apartment shared by Ken Bulmer and
Vincent Clarke, 'The Epicentre'. The most famous fan dwelling of all time, however,
was neither in the United Kingdom nor the decade of the 1950s. It existed for only
a short time in the early 1940s, in the wilds of central Michigan. Here's more
It all happened in the 1940s. In the spring of 1943, perhaps in February, Neil de Jack of Chicago was about to report for military service. I had met Neil when I visited Frank Robinson in Chicago, so when Neil wanted to sell his science fiction collection before he was drafted, I bought it. By arrangement, Neil came to Jackson, Michigan, where I was living, on a Friday evening, spent the night on our sofa, and the following day the two of us went by bus the forty-odd miles to Battle Creek for a two-day session with the Galactic Roamers of that city.
The Galactic Roamers was a fan organization, the centerpiece of which was Dr. Edward Elmer Smith. "Doc" Smith was an industrial chemist at Dawn Donut in Jackson, Michigan, until the war came along, at which time he took a position with the government at the LaPorte, Indiana, ordnance plant where he worked with explosives. He still came back to Michigan on occasion, for example for Michicon II in the fall of 1942, which was my first science fiction convention. He also came up for an occasional Roamers meeting. The club was split between Jackson and Battle Creek, and the more dedicated fans were in the latter: 'fracas river' Walt Liebscher termed it. The location of the meetings alternated between the two cities, usually in the home of some member.
It was this group, which was centered on the household of Al and Abby Lou Ashley, that Neil and I went to visit. Joining the party that weekend at the Ashley apartment was Jack Wiedenbeck, a promising fan artist. We had a ball, talking -- 'fan gabbing' -- and discussing books we had read or comparing notes on writers. I had, for example, chased down in Book Review Digest the real name of Anthony Boucher, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, which was William Anthony Parker White.
We all reveled in fan talk and someone came up with the idea, "Hey, wouldn't it be great if we could get fans together and have our own apartment house?" A.E. Van Vogt's Slan had been published a year or so earlier as a serial in Astounding and someone had almost immediately asked, "Do you suppose fans are Slans?" (Meaning, were we a mutation from the mundane variety of humans? No one took the idea seriously, of course.) But our idea of closer association was promptly named Slan Center.
Our planning included a fanzine room where all occupants would share access to a mimeo, and apartments with northern light for the artists (Jack W.'s idea). What was behind this was the feeling of closeness, of being able to be open in our ideas, that we as fans could express most easily in each other's company. Everyone had experienced the raised eyebrows of mundanes when you tried to discuss science fictional ideas with them. Slan Center would make it possible to be openly fannish any time we were away from work. Before that afternoon at the Ashley's apartment was over, we were all excited about our brainstorm. Not long afterwards, in an issue of his FAPAzine, En Garde, Al Ashley wrote up the plan for discussion.
Fans were then overwhelmingly lower middle-class or working class. Al Ashley drove a taxi; Abby Lou had for a time been a cashier in a meat market. E.E. Evans was part of lower management in a shop in Battle Creek, and among other things did time and motion studies. Jack Wiedenbeck worked at the Coca Cola bottling company, and I worked making depth charge bombs for the U.S. Navy. It is some indication of the state of society there at the end of the Great Depression that fans, whose IQs ran from high to very high, were not in the professions. Part of the reason was the difficulty in getting tertiary education. It simply was not easily available. Ashley, who was only a high school graduate, took a standard achievement test for college graduates and scored at, as I recall, the 97th percentile.
In June 1943, my number came up, and I reported to my draft board. It was my good fortune to be stationed in California, where I could visit the Los Angeles fan gang any time I could get a weekend pass, which was about one Saturday out of three. Twice before going overseas I got two week leaves and on both occasions went back to Michigan to spend as much time as possible with the Battle Creek fans. About the time I was drafted the Ashleys had bought an old house in Battle Creek, and Walt Liebscher, a fan from Joliet, Illinois, who had taken a job with Civil Service at Fort Custer, just outside of Battle Creek, moved in with them. E.E. Evans soon joined them, as did Jack Wiedenbeck. There was also a friend of Abby's, Thelma Morgan, a dark, quiet woman, who loved to read and enjoyed fans, without being one herself.
Slan Center had become Slan Shack and fans from far and wide came by to enjoy the Ashley's hospitality. Frequent visitors were Bob Tucker and his girl friend, Mary Beth Wheeler, and an older fan from Cincinnati, Charles Tanner. Other guests included Oliver Saari of Flint, Michigan, a mechanical engineer working for GM, and the young office boy at Ziff Davis, Frankie Robinson. I was immensely unhappy that I couldn't share in this. In the fall of 1944, when I came home on my last leave before shipping overseas, we all went to Buffalo to visit another fan, Ken Kruger, who hadn't mentioned to his mother that he had invited us. We were joined there by Don Wollheim and Elsie Balter (later Mrs. Wollheim), Damon Knight, and Larry Shaw. Ollie Saari was there, as was Frank Robinson, all the way from Chicago. We promptly called it 'BuffaloCon', and I do believe it was over Labor Day. I promptly fell head over heels in love with Ken's sister, Gladys. Ah, sweet idiocy of youth!
The Los Angeles gang, for the eight or nine months that I could see them, went a long way in making up for the much-missed Roamers. In L.A. at this time were Fran Laney, with whom I had corresponded and whose fanzine, The Acolyte, I had subscribed to, Sam Russell and Phil Bronson, both of whom had attended Michicon II in 1942, and of course 4SJ and Morojo, whose Voice of the Imagi-Nation I had also received. In addition, I met and became good friends with James Kepner and Mel Brown. Jim Kepner later became archivist of the Gay and Lesbian Archives in L.A., but in those days he was just coming to terms with his homosexuality and was looking for an anchor in his life. Later, he became a Marxist and even later, a spokesman for the Gay community. One of the things about fandom in those days was that it was ready to accept the occasional gay fan without making a big deal of it. On the other hand, one of the things I find, in retrospect, to criticize about that early fandom was that there was too much Bohemianism, too much faddishness -- last week it was Esperanto, this week it is Korzybski and General Semantics, and next week it will be Sartre and Existentialism.
Fran Laney was a good friend while I was there, and showed no signs as yet of the homophobia that is said to have later characterized his behavior. He was from the northwest, up near Lewiston, Idaho (I believe), and his dad was a college professor (a geologist). Fran and I talked on one occasion about the concept of a Slan Center and he said, "Only if part of the complex is a bar, where people from off the street can wander in. Fans are so introverted they need non-fans around." Morojo contributed the idea of a limited corporation for Slan Center, with condos.
Laney was right, of course. We all seem, in retrospect, to have been a bunch of misfits looking for a niche in society.
Laney was atypical of those fans. Slim, a born dancer, extroverted and very happy with booze, babes, and tobacco, he loved jazz and had a large collection of records. He had a job working in plastics and saw it as having a big future. Fans of that time tended to be either so introverted they were tongue-tied in the presence of girls, or were puritanical. Not Laney, but on the other hand he never bragged about his conquests. I remember Mel Brown publishing a fanzine in which he said that "Laney came to town a few weeks ago and is busy chasing everything in skirts." Laney read it over Mel's shoulder as he was typing it and complained that he (Laney) and his wife were on the verge of a divorce -- such a statement could end up in court and cost him custody of his two daughters. Upon hearing that, Brown added to his manuscript: "But since the women can run faster with their pants up than Laney can with his down, he has had no luck."
Of the people who made up the Slan Shack, Al and E.E. Evans are gone; Jack Wiedenbeck disappeared in L.A. after the war, and Mary Beth told me once that she was sure he had gone blind, a terrible fate for an artist. Mary Beth is now gone, too, and so is Walt Liebscher. I have been trying in vain for years to locate Abby Lou. Ollie Saari retired, I believe, from Minneapolis Honeywell. Frank Robinson, Tucker, and I are about all that remains of that old group, and none of us were permanent residents of the Shack.
As for me, I stayed on in the military after the war, in Europe. I had found my niche in society. This spring I will turn 75, having soldiered twenty years and taught history for thirty-one. About twenty-five years ago I got back in science fiction fandom, having gafiated for nearly twenty years, a record of sorts I suppose.
All illustrations by Joe Mayhew
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