Sunday, July 3, 2016

Growing Up Weird in Grindrod

(Note: the original version of this article was published in an anniversary issue of the BC Science Fiction and Fantasy Association newsletter,  BCSFAzine)

A confession; long before I had any notion of writing science fiction or fantasy, I was a Fan. Not just a casual reader, but a committed, card-carrying member of International Fandom, represented in North America by the National Fantasy Fan Federation. I learned the secret coded language (BEM- for Bug-Eyed Monster, CON for convention, FEMFEN for female fan) I read subversive magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories. I received mail from far-off places like Toronto and the East Kootenays, bearing cryptic messages (It is a Proud and Lonely Thing to be a CanFan)

That last sentiment was no mere affectation. There are probably more science fiction writers in Canada in 2016 than there were Canadian readers of SF  in 1950.

To be a fan in Grindrod, BC was more than lonely. It was like living on an asteroid somewhere in deep space.

Grindrod does not appear in Dent’s Canadian School Atlas.  Grimshaw, Alberta is there, and Grimsby, Ontario, and even Grindstone Island, Quebec – but Grindrod BC has somehow been overlooked. It sits at the north end of the North Okanagan Valley, on the banks of the Shuswap River, and you may have driven through it if you were headed for Revelstoke. In 1950 it had a population of about three hundred people, and quite a lot of cows. It was still on a CPR branch line in those days, and if you had a ticket to Grindod the train would hesitate just enough for you to jump off.

It was quiet in Grindrod, but not backward. There was electricity, indoor plumbing and even TV Or to be more precise, there was a TV. It belonged to Art Tomkinson, who ran the general store. Art had also been the first man in Grindrod to own a radio. There was no tv transmitter in the valley, and wouldn’t be for at least ten years, but Art believed in keeping up with technology. Every afternoon he would turn on the set and sit patiently watching the screen. From time to time other people would join him. Eventually, they knew, the Honeymooners would appear. People in Grindrod had spare time, and a touching faith in the future. Personally, I preferred the John Deer Equipment movies at the Farmer’s Hall.

We did have radio, and when conditions were right we could pick up some US signals.This was the golden age of radio theatre. On a good week I could tune into The Adventures of Superman, The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Inner Sanctum (my favourite because of the creaking door) Richard Diamond Detective and Mystery Theatre. 

And then there were the comic books—purchased used, in bulk, at the Enderby secondhand store. Superman, Batman, the Marvel Family, Sheena Queen of the Jungle – all of them still around after nearly 70 years. Best of all when you could get it was Tales from the Crypt. Before I was allowed to read any second-hand comics my mother baked them in the oven to kill the polio germs.At some point I discovered the enormous cache of pulp magazines my uncle had left behind in the empty cottage next door to our farmhouse. There, surrounded by cobwebs and peeling mildewed wallpaper, I worked my way methodically through the piles. First, Weird Tales, dating back to the thirties: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, all the greats. Then Black Mask Detective. Finally, when there was nothing else left, Ranch Romances.Here was everything Grindrod noticeably lacked: high adventure, distant planets, exotic landscapes. Decadence. My appetite was insatiable. My uncle, who ran the grocery store, fed my addiction with coverless copies of Thrilling Wonder Stories  and Startling Stories. I discovered Jack Vance, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, A.E. Van Vogt.
 This was better than Art Tomkinson’s TV, the Armstrong Fall Fair and the John Deer Equipment movie all combined.

Reading the letters in the back pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories was a revelation, Apparently in other far-flung parts of the world like Texas and California and even Washington State, other people were reading these magazines. I might be peculiar but perhaps not, after all, unique. I studied these letters and composed one of my own, carefully emulating their brash, flippant style. I didn’t ask for pen-pals, just commented on some of the stories. But once my letter was published, mail began to arrive. I heard from a soldier in Houston Texas, a struggling writer in Florida. A mathematics buff in the remoter reaches of the Kootenays. In those days before internet scams and facebook trolls, a soldier in Huston probably was a soldier. And lived in Huston. My correspondent  in the Kootenays asked if I was interested in ellipses. I was twelve and hadn’t quite figured out the decimal system yet, and I thought he was talking about eclipses, which must have puzzled him.

I was also contacted by – and became a somewhat bewildered member of – The National Fantasy Fan Federation. The members of this organization were prodigious letter writers. For months I was bombarded with mail from something called the Welcommittee. (I vaguely recall that Marion Zimmer Bradley was somehow involved) The mind boggles to think what these people would have done with e-mail and social media.

And so I discovered, in that uptight era of the Korean War, and the Cold War, and McCarthy, that somewhere out there was a vast network of open-minded, endlessly curious, interesting people, ranging in age from about 10 to abut 85, all of whom seemed perfectly at home in hyperspace and the fourth dimension. It was a world in which age, sex, nationality , religion and politics were totally irrelevant. Their only standard of judgment was whether you read and enjoyed speculative fiction. And a great many of these people wrote it, or tried to write it – even 12 year old girls from Grindrod.


Christine Hart said...

In Vernon in the 80's I felt pretty out-there loving sci-fi & fantasy. I was consuming novels, magazines, television, and movies simultaneously. Everything from my school's Roald Dahl collection to my Dad's Wyndham novels. Instead of the Space Channel we had the Science Fiction section at Vernon Video. I remember the first time I tried to write a sci-fi story myself - illustrated of course. I submitted it to a children's contest at Vernon's only library, in person, and discovered I was literally one day late. Even then, everything had been hand-written and hand-drawn. They wouldn't take it and I was heartbroken.

Eileen Kernaghan said...

But Christine, you got over that heartbreak! That's what writers do.

Christine Hart said...

Not only did I get over it, but I consider it a great life lesson. Now I don't miss deadlines, and it didn't take me the intervening three decades to adapt. And I treat rejections more like a catch-and-release situation. It's a fresh chance to send a manuscript back out looking for that perfect match.