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by Roy Lavender

{ n a v i g a t i o n   m e n u }

Picture a time when two fabric covered biplanes buzzing overhead in a single day rated front page notice in the local paper. A time before "Star Trek," before Mercury and Apollo, before Buck Rogers and certainly before "science fiction" became an acceptable literature. Hugo Gernsback called it scientifiction. The name, science fiction, hadn't been invented.

Long before I started to school, I read everything with printing on it. The Brownie Books. Grandma's "penny dreadfuls" about Buffalo Bill and Jesse James. The comics, of course. Years later, when Buck Rogers appeared, I saved the daily strip. Shoe boxes full.

In my Uncle Dewey's library, I met Jules Verne's Captain Nemo "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas," H. G. Wells "Time Machine" and "Invisible Man." Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars stories in All Story Weekly.

Then Amazing Stories appeared.

I couldn't afford new ones. The battered copies I scrounged from the trash behind the Allen Hotel caused enough family squabbles. They also involved walking two miles to town and back. It was years before I had a bicycle.

Mother complained about me bringing home "that trash." "What if the neighbors saw you?"

Grandma was on my side and calmed her down. From then on, I sneaked magazines home under my shirt. The ink came off on my belly. I didn't get it all off. My secret was revealed when I stripped for my Saturday night bath in a wash tub in the middle of the kitchen floor. The bright light of the Aladin Ray-O kerosene lamp revealed all and I caught it again.

The fact I read the stuff remained a shameful family secret. The idea of "science fiction fan" hadn't been invented.

Doc Smith's "Skylark of Space" captured me. I settled back in Grandpa's big Morris rocker. I didn't read it, I fell into the story and watched the action flow by.

My favorite trash bin failed to produce the third installment and the original stack of six at the hotel news stand dwindled down to one. I was so caught up in the story of Seaton and Crane that I used my allowance and bought the last copy new. My allowance was twenty five cents a week, with ten cents already budgeted for the Saturday matinee at the Star.

The show always included a western, a newsreel, a chapter of a serial and a second feature. I had to miss the show one week, but it was worth it.

I was nine when I fell out of the granary and broke my leg. I spent a couple of months in the hospital and every day, my grandmother brought me two or three books from the library. She brought everything resembling science fiction from the children's stacks. When the children's stacks ran dry, she worked her way through the adult side. We were even into the books the librarian kept in her lower right hand desk drawer.

They weren't science fiction, but Grandma didn't see that Bostonian taste applied in Delaware, Ohio.

One result of the extended reading session was, I became near sighted. My teacher noticed me squinting and my grandmother took me to the optometrist. I wanted to play with all those lenses. Grandma promised me any magazine I wanted from the Allen Hotel if I would behave.

The magazine was Science Wonder Quarterly, Winter edition, 1929. Volume 1, number 1. It cost fifty cents, at a time when one dollar a day was pretty good wages.

The cover had one of Frank R. Paul's cast iron spaceships with fan fold wings and men in space suits floating around on the ends of their air hoses. It illustrated a scene from "The Shot Into Infinity," by Otto Willi Gail, the story of a three stage rocket to the Moon. I went along on the trip.

Years later, I saw "Destination Moon," with screen play by Robert Heinlein and went along again.

More years later, working on the Apollo Project to get that tin teepee up to the Moon, I complained, "What took you so long?"

By the time I was in high school, other SF magazines appeared in the news stand at the Allen and I augmented my income by ridding the neighbor's fields of groundhogs, at a quarter apiece.

Those lurid covers by Earle Bergey had the hero in a space suit, fighting a drooling bug eyed monster (BEM), while the heroine cowered in a brass bra and not much else. They upset my mother and even my grandmother didn't want her church group to see them. I kept them in the back of my closet.

My grandmother moved into town and all through high school, I stayed with her during the school year.

It's a lonely feeling when none of the other kids are interested in the things that are important, like science fiction.

Somewhere about this time, I woke up to the possibilities of the names appearing in the letter columns. I wrote to several. Unfortunately, none of them lived in the middle of Ohio.

The man at the Allen Hotel news stand worried about selling "that Buck Rogers stuff" to anyone my age, but he let slip another kid also bought it. A wonderful discovery. Someone else in Delaware, Ohio, bought SF magazines.

Don Ford was in my classes at school and we became friends. From then on, we coordinated our purchases and doubled our reading. We coordinated in a lot of non-SF deviltry, too. Fortunately, we seldom got caught.

Our senior year, Don moved to Columbus. I hitch hiked down to visit as often as I could. When he discovered a second hand magazine store, the neighbor's groundhogs took a beating.

I replaced all the issues my mother had managed to lose. The large size Amazing and Wonder were a dime, or three for a quarter. I always restacked them carefully, in order. The proprietor recognized my interest and allowed me to check through the ones in his back room, before he put them out front.

Don found an extra issue of Amazing Stories, Volume 1, Number 1, and sold it to another collector for a dollar. He made the mistake of mentioning it to the proprietor. From then on, Don was denied access. He didn't appreciate the magazines.

Then came college. I had $2700 and it was either get the degree or be a farmer. Cramming a four year engineering course into twenty seven months left no time for reading science fiction, or much of anything else. A hundred a month, supplemented with pearl diving at the local College Inn, had to cover everything. It did, barely.

There was a fan group at Fort Wayne where I got to meetings a few times. They included Ted Dikty and Marty Greenberg and about a half dozen others whose names I forget.

My first job after graduation was "doodlebugging" (seismic prospecting for oil), around the Gulf Coast. In Lafayette, Louisiana, I met and married Deedee. She was more a fan of detective story and fantasy than science fiction fan, but she genuinely liked people, even the strange types known as science fiction fans. She put up with my odd hobby for the next 43 years. Wonderful years.

Time out for a tour of duty as communications chief in the Combat Engineers, then back to civilian life and a job in research at Battelle Memorial Institute.

It was a wonderful place to work, with advanced work going on in hundreds of fields. Unfortunately, the pay did not match.

I was officially in charge of the industrial x-ray lab. Unofficially, I was gadget designer for the physics department. Happily, the department also had Dr. C. M. Schwartz, one of those rare Ph.Ds. who can put it in English.

For those of you who remember tube type radios, he is the man who invented gettering. He taught me to "think vacuum," resulting in my building the first automated vacuum system and a paper in Review of Scientific Instruments.

Together, we assembled the first electron microscope sold by RCA. It came in crates, packed in straw, with no instructions. A few months later, Bill Durett, RCA's first field rep, came to see how we did it and stayed to write the manual. He was also a science fiction fan.

Don got out of the Air Force about that time and, with his wife, Margaret, settled in Cincinnati.

Don discovered the Cincinnati Fantasy Group, headed by the writer, Charlie Tanner. His Tumithak stories appeared in the old, large size Amazing. Deedee and I were new parents, but we did manage the one hundred twenty five miles down to Cinci once or twice a month.

In 1948, at Torcon One, there was no responsible bid for the next world science fiction convention. Doc Barrett called us at the CFG meeting and asked if we would put in a bid. With many doubts and zero experience, we did. One year later, we put on the Cinvention.

Deedee and I wrote a letter to every author whose name appeared in a US science fiction magazine. We used a distinctive letterhead and kept it brief. In three paragraphs, we asked them to come, to pay their own way and appear on a panel. We uncovered a lot of pen names and house names, but about thirty professionals came.

Don and Lou Tabakow kept a firm grip on the purse strings and handled the hotel arrangements. Stan Skirvin took over the program book. He had a generous budget of five dollars. He made it self supporting by selling ads to businesses within walking distance of the Metropole. The neighborhood being what it was, it included a lot of beer joints.

The Cinvention was the first world SF con to pay out and first to have television coverage. Viewers as far away as West Virginia saw our costume show. We even made the Sunday supplement in the Cincinnati paper.

Bea Mahaffey was one of the CFG members. Ray Palmer met and hired her at the Cinvention to edit his new magazine, Other Worlds.

As the convention committee, what we didn't get to do was visit with Ted Carnell, our guest of honor. We were just too busy. The following weekend, Ted was visiting at Doc Barrett's cottage at Indian Lake, Ohio. He invited the con committee and a few other Ohio fans and we visited Ted. That was so much fun we decided to do it again and the Midwestcon was born.

It is the original relaxicon, with no panels and no programming.

Midwestcon is still happening the last weekend in June and was still a chance to talk with other strange creatures who actually read the stuff. A weekend long bull session.

Many of those earlier fans are now professionals in the field, but for the Midwestcon, they are just fans. They pay their own way, with no concom (convention committee) asking them to appear on a panel.

It is my family picnic.

Fortunately, my own career stayed on the leading edge of technology. After the pay scale at Battelle forced a move, for a time I was in advanced design with Curtiss Wright, developing inertial guidance systems. I gained practical experience in hydrostatic bearing systems and flexures. That came in handy, later. We even had a V2 rocket on loan and suddenly that Buck Rogers stuff became acceptable.

Only now it was classified and we couldn't talk about it.

Curtiss Wright disappeared in a stock manipulation. At the time of its demise, besides three different working inertial guidance designs, it was ready to produce a drive through freighter plane and a canard type intercepter.

The Ascender was so maneuverable that the original design required the pilot to lie prone. It was featured recently on the TV program, "Wings."

For a short time I worked for Ranco as an inspector, later as production engineer. The company produced car heater controls, 11,000,000 a year, with the month of July off for model change. I learned some of the techniques of mass production. Then E. C. Raney (the founder) died and an assortment of relatives took over. There were cuts and an anticipating control (mechanical) died. I left.

The Korean war was in motion and North American Aviation moved into the Columbus plant vacated by C-W.

For a time, I did Master Lines while we put the F-86 into production. During a strike, I was able to transfer to engineering and for a time, worked in the fuselage group.

The Chief Engineer, Mac Blair, picked me to start the wind tunnel model design group. For the next few months, I was a one man "group."

The A3J Vigilante was the Columbus division's first all new design. The design of the wind tunnel model tracked the new ship through advanced design as it went from subsonic to transsonic to supersonic. A carrier based, supersonic twin jet attack bomber, it was the first plane designed from scratch with the crew in full pressure (space) suits, first with rocket driven ejection seats, first with horizontal ramp inlets, (now standard on the highest performance carrier based planes) and first with rear ejection of payload.

They were later converted for reconnaissance as the RA5C and served throughout the Viet Nam war, with zero casualties. They are fast.

We also built a new wind tunnel. Another first, it had two test sections. The low speed one was designed to work with VSTOL (Vertical and Short Takeoff and Landing) models.

The VSTOL project required a simulation lab to train pilots to fly a new type of aircraft. My connection with it was minimal at the time, but later, when it was converted to simulate a lunar lander, I was drawn in to redesign the optical system.

That led to designing for the simulation lab, where pilots could practice flying airplanes that hadn't been built. Truly science fiction come alive.

On the West Coast, the Apollo program was in motion and in need of simulators to train astronauts. NAA transferred us out. My first job was designing models and optics for the simulators, before any real space craft existed.

The current buzz word for simulation is virtual reality.

Incidentally, every astronaut we worked with was also a science fiction reader, if not a fan.

The first name mentioned was usually Robert Heinlein.

Also on the boards at the same time as the Apollo proposal was a proposal for a wheel type space station to be launched in one shot. A SF fan's dream come true.

I designed a large hydrostatic bearing for the "rotating facility," a ground simulator used to study the effects of rotation on astronauts. As you might expect, some got sick.

Others didn't.

No one at NASA noticed there are people who make their living running a merry-go-round.

The president said we're going to the Moon and the station died. There was the advantage that the second stage could be renamed Saturn.

By the time the Apollo went up, I was fed up with NASA's multiple layer matrix management and managed a transfer to the unmanned spacecraft world of satellites.

It was another science fiction fan's dream job.

There was interest in discovering if there was life on Mars. One proposal was to bring back a chunk of Mars, the other was to send the lab there.

I still think the Mars sample return made better sense. It didn't require that you know in advance what you need to test for, so you can design the lab.

My part in our proposal was the design of the catcher to capture the basket ball size sample of Mars after it was lifted to Mars orbit.

The energy crisis became political fodder and huge power stations in orbit (locally known as Acres in the Sky) were all the rage, until someone pointed out what wonderful weapons they would be.

We worked on the design of satellites with military functions.

Some fifteen years later, a few of these entered the political news as Star Wars.

X-ray lasers made the news as an example of unsuccessful concepts.

They were never built.

The GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) made accurate mapping possible for the first time. For a few hundred dollars, you can now buy a device the size of a personal CD player which will tell you within ten meters where you are, anywhere on Earth, in three dimensions. Add a cellular phone and your truck or container can call home and report where it is. Insurance companies love it.

Add it to a police car and the dispatcher can instantly locate the cruiser nearest the scene of the crime. It also reveals how many are behind the doughnut shop.

This feature has not been installed on any police car at this time.

It's a wonderful world for a science fiction fan who loves to design gadgets.

Regrets -- a few.

The wheel type space station, pushed aside for a publicity stunt.

The decision that the shuttle was to become a delivery truck instead of following it immediately with the logical next step, the SSO (Single Stage to Orbit).

The scrapping of the MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) after the design was complete and through testing. The launch facility was complete and even the manned tests in a vacuum chamber were complete. I have been inside the assembled MOL. It cost more to cancel than it would have to put it in orbit.

Scrapping the X-15 program, just when it was ready for delta wings and coast to coast suborbital flights as precursor to the single stage to orbit.

Worst of all, Fandom became respectable. Forbidden fruit is sweeter.

Triumphs -- a few.

The incredible luck of finding Deedee. For 43 wonderful years her love of people complemented my gadget designer's world of machines and buffered my contacts with "humans."

The Day the Earth Stood Still publicity tied in with local science fiction fans. I stood on the stage of the Strand theater and introduced the show. And right down front sat a couple who spouted hellfire and brimstone at me for reading that "Buck Rogers stuff."

Gershan Legman published his second volume of dirty limericks and I'm in the credits for a couple with a science fiction slant.

When the Apollo circled the Moon and the astronauts reached into B-3 locker for their cameras, they pulled them from the shock absorbing frame I designed.

On the test stand for the Saturn rockets, cameras look up into the hydrogen flame to photograph the performance (or failure) of the engines. It's a lousy place for a camera. They survive in a protective box I designed.

Of the nineteen hand controllers built to my designs for the simulators, eighteen worked as planned. That other one had a left handed success in that it finished the "design by committee" thinking. That final, nineteenth design survived simulators and centrifuge and is in the Deedee Lavender Space Collection at the Museum of Science and Industry.

It is more rugged than the flight model that went to the Moon.

In 1970, Arthur C. Clarke spoke in Pasadena at Caltec's Beckman Auditorium. The subject was "2001, A Space Odyssey." There was the inevitable tea afterward. Arthur looked up from autographing, waved and said, "Hi, Roy. Is Deedee with you?"

It had been 12 years since we first met at a Midwestcon..

Watching the expression on the face of that blue haired dragon was worth the price of the trip.

Much the same scene repeated when "2010" came out.

I had retired from Rockwell and was working contract at TRW. They like to maintain a campus atmosphere and invite speakers in. Arthur C. Clarke (plus a gaggle of TV people) came and we left the closed area to listen. The publicity hounds were pushing. Arthur was completely unflappable. I was standing in the rear of the crowd. Arthur spotted me. "Hi, Roy. How's Deedee." All heads turned, and there I was, with my CONTRACT badge.

And a big grin.

Science fiction is my way of life. I have friends all over the world. Many I only see at the cons, but it's wonderful to pick up a conversation where we dropped it a year before.

Some are members of First Fandom (Old farts like me).

A dying breed.

Why are they different? I'm not real sure. For one thing, they read.

Changes seldom panic them. When you've watched galactic empires fall, you can take a longer view on local politics.

They've had a glimpse of the world that could be.

The preceding originally appeared on Roy Lavender's personal website:


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