Stories I Like to Tell


Lunch at My First SciFi Convention

Forry Ackerman

Back in the late 1960s, I went to my first science fiction convention with my sister Fran (Frances Tobol). We were supposed to meet Paula, a friend of Fran's, at the convention, but when we got there, Paula was nowhere to be found. We were wandering around the convention looking totally lost when a distinguished looking gentleman walked up to us, asked if this was our first convention, and invited us to join a group he was getting together for lunch.

We had no idea when we accepted the invitation the the man who invited us was Forry Ackerman, a "first fan" and a photo journalist that specialized in science fiction. Nor did we realize that, until we had sat down at the restaurant with a group of about 20 people, that, amoung the people we had been invited to join, were several of our favorite authors. Some of the more famous authors at that lunch were Poul Anderson (who I later got to know much better in the SCA where he went by the name of Sir Bela of Eastmarch), Randall Garrett and Harry Harrison.

It was a very memorable lunch. The discussions around the table were fascinating, and my sister and I learned just how approachable authors are. This was the first of many wonderful conventions I attended with my sister, but that is a different story.

Dog in Road

After graduating college and before starting work, I decided that I need some alone time to get my head straight. I packed my camping gear into my old International Scout and headed up to the top of Black Mountain (near Idyllwild). I spent 3 days alone on the top to that mountain, thinking and meditating. Then I headed down the mountain and out into the desert and camped near the sand dunes in Joshua Tree National Monument.

I left the Monument to the north had to brake hard for what looked like a large dog lying in the middle of the gravel road. As I came to a stop and the “dog”, actually a California Condor, unfolded and flapped off.

Hotel of Usher

Hotel of Usher

Baycon (World Science Fiction Convention in 1968) was a wonderful convention, unfortunately the hotel where it was held was not. All convention hotels have problems but Hotel Claremont in Berkeley, California had problems.

The problems were not limited to a single aspect of the hotel experience. Nothing about the hotel seemed to be right. The air conditioning blew hot air rather than cold. The water pipes made so much noise that many people could not sleep. The food was awful. The staff was surly. I could go on but I think that you get the idea.

The problems were so bad that a group of people got together one evening and created a "One-Shot Hatezine" called "The Hotel of Usher". After the convention, Lee Klingstein published the fanzine and mailed copies. My sister (Frances Tobol) and I worked on the fanzine. I signed the contributor's page (page 3) as "Nathan, the Black Sorcerer" because of a story that Steve Goldin wrote where I appeared as that character. My sister added "and Sister" below my signature.

A Confused Kitty

When I was in college, a friend of a friend was a test pilot who lived near Mojave. He had two pet cheetahs. He claimed that the cats helped keep his reflexes sharp. Seeing how the cats used to run and jump on him any time he was away for what the cats thought was a long time, I can understand how they kept his reflexes honed. He was always careful to position himself with soft sand behind him and would jump and grab the cat mid-air and allow himself to be knocked back onto the sand where he and the cats would roll around for a few minutes while the cats licked his face.

He drove a small open topped sports car and typically would bring one of the cats with him when he went shopping in Mojave. He would get into the car, start to drive off, and give the command to the cat to "get into the car". The cat would go lope, lope, lope, and jump into the car. Then they would go off to do their shopping.

One day when he was shopping in Mojave with one of his cats on a leash, he came out of a store just in time to see a young man stealing his sports car. He unsnapped the cats leash and told the cat "get into the car". The cat went lope, lope, lope, jumped into the car, and, panting, turned to look at the young man in the driver's seat. The young man made a panic stop in the middle of the street and took off running, leaving a very confused cat in the car. The owner of the cat recovered his car, cat still inside, and told the cat that he was a very good kitty. But the cat seemed confused; he could not understand why the young man had run away.

AA Flight 191

AA191 Crash Site

American Airlines Flight 191 was a regularly scheduled passenger flight from O'Hare International Airport in Chicago to Los Angeles International Airport. It crashed on May 25, 1979 at 3:02 p.m., moments after takeoff from Chicago. The crash killed all 271 passengers and crew, plus two people on the ground. It is the deadliest aviation accident to have occurred in the United States.

I was susposed to be on that flight. I had flown that flight every other Friday for the past two years. I knew all of the flight attendents and the other regulars. I was on the flight several weeks earlier when the engine failed and we had to make an emergency landing in Denver. The improper replacement of the engine is what investigator later determined caused the crash.

The only reason I was not on that flight was that I had just changed jobs within Motorola. Instead of having meetings that week in Schaumburg, Illinois, I was on my way to Massachusetts to go to work for Codex. And the only reason I had changed jobs was that my first wife, Carol, had insisted that we move back east to be closer to her family. An now you know the rest of the story.

Death Valley in August

Saline Valley

One of the stupidest and most memorable things I did while in college was a field trip to Death Valley in August. I all started at a summer party of the Geology club. Someone had put They're Coming to Take Me Away" on a continuous loop and someone else was talking about record break temperatures in Death Valley.

We were all very familiar with Death Valley, and had been there in the fall, winter, and spring. But none of us had been crazy enough to do a field trip to there in the middle of summer. Everyone knows that people die in Death Valley in the summer, especially if they don't stick to the main roads (and we never stuck to the main roads.

About a dozen of us left first thing the next morning in four vehicles. We had lots and water and lots of spare tires, we knew that the "dirt" roads in Death Valley were often more obsidian shards than dirt. All went according to plan until took the "dirt" road (more of a path than a real road) that lead from Death Valley into Saline Valley.

The hot obsidian shards (air temperature was over 120, no idea how hot the black obsidian was) on that road sliced our tires to shreds and we used all of our spares just to reach Saline Valley leaving us with no spares to try to get back to civilization. Fortunately all of the vehicles used the same size of tires. We jacked up three of the vehicles, took off their tires, and loaded those tires, and all of the damaged tires, into the fourth vehical, a truck, and sent two members of our group off to get the tires fixed.

The remainder of our group made camp. We saw a herd of wild burros in the area and one of our people called them Mules. Another person said that they were burros since mules were steril and never found in wild herds. She was so insistent that they were burros that we called the camp "Mule Town" and even made a signpost for the camp.

We spent the next day waiting for the truck to return with supplies, cooking eggs in a black cast iron fry pan heated only by the sun, and studying the topos (topological maps) to determine the best route if we had to hike out. We decided that we would follow the old salt tram path up and over the mountains that surrounded the valley.

Fortunately we did not have to use our escape plan. The truck made it back, we mounted the tires back on the other vehicals, and we all made it out of the valley alive.

Advanced Math Class (Best Teacher)

The best teacher I had in high school did not know the subject matter of the class he was assigned to teach. I know that this sounds like a contradiction of terms, but it is true.

About a week before the semester was scheduled to start, the teacher who was supposed to teach the class died in a traffic accident. On the opening day of school, a math teacher who had never taught this advanced math class was assigned to replace her.

The first thing the teacher (I wish I could remember his name) did at the start of the first day of class was to explain the situation. He told us that his plan was to try to keep a chapter ahead of the class, and asked us to be patient and to help him anyway we could.

Several of my friends, who were also taking the class, and I were all math nerds. We figured that if the teacher was trying to keep one chapter ahead of the class, we should keep two chapters ahead of the class.

For the first week or two, the teacher tried to teach the class. He would go to the blackboard and start writing an explanation of the current assignment. Often he would get to something that he could not make sense of, turn to the class, and ask if any of the students thought that they understood the subject. Some of my math nerd friends and I would raise out hands and the teach would pick one of us, sit down in a vacant student chair, and take notes (he knew that he had to teach the same class next semester), and one of us would come up the blackboard and teach the class.

After that first week of so, the teacher gave up trying to teach the class and would start the class by asking who thought they understood the subject well enough to teach that day. The teacher would then pick one of us, sit down and take notes, and the person the teacher had selected would teach the class.

I taught about a third of the classes and, since I was always studying to be able to teach the class, learned the subject matter very well. I have encountered very few teachers with the wisdom to admit when they do not understand a subject and accept help. If more teachers were line the one that "taught" this math class, schools would be far better places.

An Encounter with a Sidewinder Almost Kills Rima

One evening in the late 1990s, my wife (Amy Tobol a.k.a. Rima) and I were driving my mother back to Desert Hot Springs after we had had dinner in Palm Springs. Suddenly we saw a sidewinder (a type of desert rattlesnake) trying to cross the busy road. We did a quick stop to avoid hitting the snake and Rima jumped out of the car to protect the snake from traffic.

Rima did not have a snake stick, boots, or any other protective gear but she had no intention of letting the sidewinder become road kill. First she tried the herd the snake back to the side of the road it had just left. The snake wanted nothing to do with that idea. So Rima had to create a moving traffic break with her body to allow the snake to cross the road. Finally, the snake made it safely across the road and took off sidewinding on the soft sand on the far side of the road.

The snake never threatened a strike or even rattled, but Rima almost got killed a few time keeping cars from running over the snake. As a side note, sidewinders can move over soft sand faster than people. I guess that is why so few people are ever bitten by them.

A Perfect Sense of Misdirection

Some people have a poor sense of direction. My mother (Lena Tobol) took a poor sense of direction to a whole different level. She had perfect lack of direction.

Mon's sense of direction was so bad that one time, after dropping off sister (Frances Tobol) at the High School, she tried to go around the block to get turned around to take me to the Junior High School. She got so lost that I missed much of first period and my mother had to write a note to the school to explain my tardiness.

Dad (George Tobol) took advantage of mom's poor sense of direction. Anytime he did not know which turn to take, he would ask my mom and do exactly the opposite. He claimed that this method never failed.

Muffin, the Cat that Talked

My ex-wife (Carol) and I found tiny calico kitten. We called kitten Muffin because he was the size and color of a muffin when we found him. The kitten did not get along with our two cats (Bounce and Squeak) and we give the kitten to Carol's brother (Paul Washington) and his wife.

Paul's wife was a speech pathologist. She spent her days trying to teach TMR (Trainable Mentally Retarded) children to talk. One evening, when feeling especially frustrated, she told her husband that the Muffin was smarter than many of the children she was trying to teach and that it would be easier to teach the cat to talk then the children. Her husband suggested that she do just that.

The cat said his first recognizable word in less than a month and eventually gained a vocabulary of more than a dozen words. This sometimes had a disconcerting effect on guests using the bathroom where the cat had his litter box. If the cat needed to use his box, he would stand outside of the bathroom door and say "in" until the door was opened.

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury in 1969

I went to high school (Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles) with Ray Bradbury's daughter. Since he (Ray Bradury) hated technology and never got a driver's license (except to drive on Mars) my mother (Lena Tobol) would pick him up and bring him to the school when he was giving a lecture and take him, his daughter, and me home afterwards.

I was, and still am, a big fan of his writing (Fahrenheit 451 is still one of my favorite books). He was a very nice man and his lectures, unlike most, were fun to attend.

Ray Bradbury with my wif and our cat Firebrat

He was very easy going but there was one thing I remember that he hated and would make a fuss about. He could not stand anyone calling him a Science Fiction Writer. He always made a point that he was a Fantasy Writer, not a Science Fiction Writer.

He mellowed on that topic as he grew older, and when I had the opportunity to attend a lecture he gave just about a year before his death, where he accepted being called a Science Fiction Writer with barely a visible flinch.

After the lecture my wife (Amy), our cat (Firebrat), and I came over to talk with him. Firebrat was intrigued by Bradbury and jumped up into his lap. Bradbury and Firebrat became immediate friends, and Firebrat settled down and let himself be fussed over.

The Watergate Connection

Sunday, June 17, 1972 five burglars (James McCord, Bernard Barker, Frank Sturgis, Eugenio Martinez, and Virgilio Gonzales) caught in the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate in Washington, DC. Shortly thereafter people learned that this burglary was actually part of a much larger effort by President Nixon to undermine his opponents and support his allies through an assortment of illegal activities.

The break-in of the Democratic Headquarters was coordinated by James McCord who made his calls to the White House from a telephone booth in the parking lot of the Blue Fountain Inn (a.k.a. La Fontaine Bleue), a restaurant in Rockville Maryland. The above is history, but there is also a personal connection.

When Carol Washington (the woman who became my first wife) and I were dating, the Blue Fountain Inn Restaurant was one of out favorite places to go for dinner. Often when we left the restaurant we saw a man using the phone booth. It was always the same man and we speculated that he was having the same trouble getting the phone company to install his phone that I had when I moved to Gaithersburg. It was only later, after the story of the Watergate break-in hit the press and pictures of the burglars published that we learned that we had witnessed a piece of history.

On a side note, the phone booth was nominated as a historic landmark to the Maryland Historical Trust in the 1970s, but was rejected because it “could be easily moved.”

A Child's Garden of Model Airplane Glue

I wrote "A Child's Garden of Model Airplane Glue" while sitting in a very boring English class in early high school. Several of my friends liked the story, but I never showed the story to my parents or any of my teachers.

Walk

I wrote "Walk" sometime during my senior year in high school. I considered submitting the story to a science fiction magazine, but decided, based on the reactions of friends that read the story, that it was not good enough.

At the time I wrote this story, my best friend, Steve Goldin, was trying to get published as a science fiction author. He was following the advice of L. Sprague deCamp's "Science-Fiction Handbook" and was writing, and submitting for publication, a short story every week. (deCamp claimed that no one can write 52 bad stories in a single year.)

Steve wallpapered two of the walls of his bedroom with rejection letters and had start on the third wall before he sold his first story. His dedication to writing paid off for him, and he now makes his living selling his science fiction storied.