There's been an overwhelming request -- my wife Es standing in my office doorway, tapping her foot -- to preserve for posterity the story of the Moon Claim of 1951. I undertake this with no few qualms, partly because there are a number of interrelated threads that you must be aware of. I'll try to be as brief as possible.
There's one other caveat. (It must be age creeping in on little cat feet: I find I can't make a statement without finding several counters to it.) I don't know about your memory, but mine is tricky, constantly betraying me. So I'll only set down here the things I'm sure of. Mostly. I think.
First, I must mention the Elves', Gnomes' and Little Men's Science Fiction, Chowder, and Marching Society, known familiarly as the Little Men. Don't ask where we got the name; it's too long to explain about the comic strip, Barnaby. The Little Men were an extraordinary group, based in Berkeley, with the resources of the University of California to call on. More, we were talented across a broad range of disciplines. We were known as being contentious, and that's true, but those on the outside never knew we hammered on each other far harder than strangers. It was a necessary part of the Little Men's mystique.
I had just been forced to be chairman -- a knowledgeable Little Man didn't run for that office; he usually ran out the door -- and knew what facing a pit of hungry tigers felt like. So when Don Fabun discussed his idea with me, I quickly agreed. Working on it gave me a chance to forget the horror of chairmanship.
Let me digress here to talk about the Fabuns. Don's wife, Gladys, a refreshingly intelligent and humorous lady, owned a circulating rental library where the Little Men met. Don was never a club officer, but he had a printing press and was definitely of the power-behind-the-throne ilk. He also had enough gray matter between his ears to replace three ordinary mortals.
Don's idea? A publicity campaign to claim a piece of the moon. I guess it represented a challenge to him, to see if he could pull it off. He'd tried with other Little Men chairs, but I was the first taker.
Try to remember what the world was like in 1951. No missiles, no lasers, no computers, and John Campbell referred to in a national article as the 'Chief Slan'! Destination Moon, released about a year earlier, was the only sf entertainment around. (However, The Thing was due to be released soon. One day perhaps I'll tell about Es' and my visit to the studio, but I didn't consider The Thing as good sf.) It was the Little Men's mission to stir up the sf pot a little, and here was an ideal vehicle that might have gotten some publicity as far as San Jose, some fifty miles south.
Don, who owned the multilith press on which the club's fanzine, The Rhodomagnetic Digest, was printed... What lousy syntax! Let me begin again: Don never claimed the idea as his. He got most of it from Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon." But what Don brought was big knowledge about publicity. I worked with him because I wanted to know about publicity. I found out.
It was a long effort, something more than six months. I don't know who in the Little Men it was who'd found a wedge for us in U.S. mining law. The way it worked in the rough, tough West was a man staked out a claim, described it, and buried that description in a tin can on his claim. So long as it was never challenged, he did not have to prove he'd been on the land. Incidentally, filing a claim on the moon was old hat; the Bureau of Mines had hundreds of claims on file. But the Little Men's claim was different in two ways: we would file before the U.N. -- anyone of any sense could see that the U.S. Bureau of Mines had no jurisdiction on the moon -- and we would file for a very small piece, not all of the moon; we weren't greedy. Of course, we ran in parallel to U.S. mining law about actually being on the claim -- but no one ever challenged us.
I began by finding an astronomer. This was, after all, Berkeley, and the more exotic professions would drop like ripe fruit when the tree was shaken. The astronomer laid out a survey of an area containing the craters Ritter, Manners, and Sabine (a rough triangular shape) in the Sea of Tranquillity. It was pretty accurate, more than could have been done by a party actually walking the surface because of the moon's extreme curvature.
Given our triangle, I started with a great dollop of imagination, figuring that if this had happened and then that, we'd all be rich. Or smart. I plotted the geology, both areal and in cross-section, coming up with subsurface faulting, a few deposits of lead-silver telluride, and a lot of theory.
My father, who was taking law on the GI bill at the University of San Francisco, did a fairly comprehensive claim statement, writing it in nifty legalese. Just to check Dad, I also got a mining engineer to approve the wording.
We were getting close now. Don Fabun had been a journalism major at Cal and had worked in the profession; he wrote the basic story, the 'who what where & why' that seems to have disappeared in news stories today. Don gave me the job of 'slanting' -- writing a lead paragraph to appeal to the particular slant of the local papers. As examples, the Hearst papers got leads that told about the horrible death and strangulation of someone caught on the moon without a space suit; the Berkeley Gazette learned that this claim was executed on behalf of a Berkeley science fiction group, a home-grown product. Somewhere I must have gotten a little sex into it, but I'm darned if I remember for what paper. Don and his multilith printed a four-page foldover that included the map of the area and the mining claim.
And then came The Letter. Don and I worked on that one at some length. It was to be sent to the head of the U.N. Legal Department, and in it, we offered to cede back 85% of the mineral rights, all of any radioactives found (this was 1951, remember, and the romance with them had not yet fizzled), and perpetual U.N. rights to a presence in the triangular area. All the U.N. had to do was recognize our claim.
Since I, as chairman, acted on behalf of the Little Men, I had to prepare the packages and mail them. Plural packages there: one to Oscar Schacter (of the U.N.) with the letter and the claim, one to Harry Truman (of the U.S.) with the letter and the claim, and ten or so to Bay Area papers with the slanted story and the claim. I think we sent one to the San Jose Mercury, figuring if news was slack, it might run a story on a Bay Area event.
One thing Don cautioned about: we needed luck. If a juicy axe murder happened at the same time, our story would simply disappear. And it looked like the axe murder cameth -- the day after I mailed the stories, nothing.
But the day after that ... !! I worked for a San Francisco oil company in the drafting department, and about 10 AM (February 17, if I recall, 1952), I got called to the phone. It was the Berkeley Gazette, and did I know the story had appeared on the 'A' wire of United Press? They were tearing up their front page and substituting the moon claim. They interviewed me about the Little Men and the claim.
The phone started ringing like there's no tomorrow, and my boss, who'd originally enjoyed what I was doing, got testy. But it kept going and going and going...
I can't remember all the calls. One that sticks in my mind came from New York, and in those days, a long-distance call was pretty hot stuff. The call was from the American correspondent of the London Daily Mail, and he asked intelligent questions. Why, for instance, had we filed before the U.N. instead of the U.S.? (We'd discussed this but never seriously, and not even in our wildest dreams: what would we do if they actually granted the claim? But we weren't interested in land grabs. At the time, everyone and his brother who ever landed in Antarctica had claimed it. This brought about lots of disputes and very little scientific progress. Given the mess, we hoped the U.N. would grant the claim and immediately revoke it; it would show that the U.N., and not a welter of earth nations, had jurisdiction over the moon. We had not the slightest doubt that a moon landing was coming.)
It was a feeling of the roof falling in. The afternoon papers, the morning papers, Atherton, and yes, San José, L.A., St. Louis, Chicago, New York, Boston, South America, Paris, Sydney -- we even heard it was treated fairly in Moscow.
I remember one other neat occurrence: I was still more than two years away from my first professional sale. And Startling Stories ran an editorial called "Les and Es Claim the Moon." It was my first appearance on a contents page, and if that appearance were a little outré, it'd have to do until the real thing came along.
In those days remember, radio was the big medium, and we got three minutes on a national news program, ahead of Winston Churchill's latest pronouncement. TV too: an eastern chain sent a crew to film one of our meetings; we hastily set one up, and Tony Boucher did the speaking honors (I was too nervous), pitching for a space program. (When the cameras weren't shooting, the Little Men jumped all over each other, one faction supporting the claim and the other indignant about it!) The film did not show on the west coast, but someone in the east wrote they'd seen us.
Oh, yes, the claim and the U.N.? It took me two or three letters to Oscar Schacter to get a reply. By then, the news was old hat, but he did mention that the U.N. had no jurisdiction and therefore couldn't do what we asked. A couple of months later, Collier's magazine had a lead article that discussed ownership of the moon in terms of terrestrial nations. Its author was one Oscar Schacter, head of the U.N. legal division. After we got through cursing and laughing, we decided that he probably didn't crib the idea; but it also seemed likely that he had already written his article and must have sweated mightily when our story broke.
In retrospect, it was an incredible three days; Es and I got our 15 minutes of fame. More important, I learned how difficult it is to do a publicity campaign and how one must be lucky enough to have the cooperation of all axe murderers. I'll never cease being grateful to Don Fabun and the Little Men!
# # # #
P.S. Harry Truman never did answer.
P.P.S. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, Es wanted to bill NASA $0.90/hour for parking...
- - - - - - - - - -An interesting postscript to this article is that it was later used as source material by a law student in the United Kingdom who was investigating the history of non-terrestrial territorial claims for a research paper he was writing.
Many of our readers' comments on Les's article marveled how sense-of-wonder the Moon Claim must have been to those involved in it. Ruth Shields wrote that "it's great to envision the hard work they put into this grand hoax, and satisfying to read about the responses it drew," while Alan Sullivan wrote that the story was "absolutely fascinating, and funny, too. This is the kind of legendary prank that can change mundanes to fans, or at least scare them away." Harry Warner, Jr., observed that "I can't think of anything else that has ever happened in fandom that was as carefully planned in advance as a publicity stunt and received so much attention from the mundane media. Just think of how many talk shows Les would have been a guest on, if television in the early 1950s had them in the abundance of today."
The medium of television was actually the topic of another article in Mimosa 18 -- not talk shows, but a cult favorite on the Comedy Central cable network called Mystery Science Theater 3000. MST3K can best be described as a show about bad movies, mad scientists, bad movies, an intrepid space-faring janitor and his wise-cracking robot sidekicks, bad movies, and of course, bad movies. We were big fans! According to a viewers' poll, the best episode of the entire series was MST's lampooning of a dreadful low-budget science fiction/horror film titled Manos: The Hands of Fate. Truly awful movies like Manos tend to become larger than life, so to say, once they attain cult status, but, as Richard Brandt's article from M18 described, the actual making of such a movie is even more fascinating. Here it is again:
All illustrations by Ray Allard