Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008

 

(Part 1) Wake Up and Smell the Coffin! (Part 2)

a reminiscence of ConFederation and the bid for Nolacon II, 1986

Pre-lims

My secret enemies say I'm paranoid, expecting not only the worst, but the most god-awful worst. So the events of August 1986 did not impress me as mere pockets of putrid luck, as they would a sane person, but as dire portents for the cause for which I had labored for many months: the New Orleans bid for the 1988 World Science Fiction Convention.

Within a single week all of these joys rained upon my head:

I was told that although I was the #1 candidate for a fat promotion at the Unemployment Office, where I then worked, a black woman had gotten the job to silence her affirmative action lawsuit. Since two wrongs do not make one right, especially when one of those wrongs is on me, I was livid with outrage. Unfortunately, I forgot that if two wrongs do not make one right, neither do three, and through my outrage made myself sick. Bronchitis laid my ass low for three whole days before anti-biotics and the cool touch of a lovely lady – my doctor – brought me back from the shores of oblivion.

A few days later, chomping down on stale pizza, I lost a huge filling. Worse, the dentist had implanted a tiny peg in the tooth which, left behind as a lonely sentinel of oral hygiene and regular professional care, ripped the bejasus out of my inquisitive tongue.

Finally, and almost ultimately, on the very day that I had a new filling packed into place, all but one of the studs gripping my car’s right rear wheel to the axle snapped. I came close to losing not only the wheel but the works in the middle of the Mississippi River Bridge.

That night I left my crippled Grand Prix with the Bridge police and caught a ferry home. Lost in dismay, I leaned on a railing and stared forlornly at the passing waters. Despite the recent endorsement of Andy Porter's SF Chronicle and the bountiful optimism of the rest of the Nolacon II krewe, I was worried. Our bid had three rivals. St. Louis was nothing if not tenacious. Cincinnati was rumored to be loaded. (Our shoestring bid was on its last strand.) Neal Rest's Boat Bid – to hold the worldcon on a cruise ship in the Bermuda Triangle – was, according to scuttlebutt, winning convert after convert. I could not help but imagine my personal misfortunes to be harbingers of DOOM DOOM DOOM.

But: the meaningfulness of all events rests in Point of View. X-rays showed my lungs to be as clear as polar air. The dentist charged nothing to refill my tooth. Goodyear gave me new studs & lugs for my tire, and the Bridge cops' mechanic installed them, likewise gratis. Want a real harbinger? Try the grace of unexpected gifts.


My pre-con paranoia about possible defeat at the polls had not infected other Nawlins workers, among them John Guidry, Justin Winston, and Dennis Dolbear – already, as now, friends of a lifetime. But there was plenty to worry about. Could it have been imaginable that in Atlanta, home base of the Coca-Cola empire, not a single Coca-Cola spigot fountain could be found? Due to a Labor Day Jazz Fest and a Jerry Lewis telethon, we could turn up nothing but zippo plus zilch for our Nolacon party. It began to look like New Orleans in '88 would have nothing better to serve than genuine Atlanta tap water.

A more expensive and onerous alternative – to buy discount drinks in NOLa and U-Haul'em up – was decided upon, and done, by NOLa’s noble Dr. Who aficionados, Charlie and Cheryl DuVal. More pressing was the problem of the party locale. Marriott International, to help win a convention for one of their hotels, had promised to comp us a suite at the convention site, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis. Trouble was, they'd given us a smallish, "2-bay" space – utterly inadequate for a bid party. Onto one luckless clod devolved the task of securing the best and biggest space available, the suite which would match all opposition, attract and convince the multitudes – win the worldcon.

Guess which Orleanian would be first to Atlanta? At least my tongue didn't hurt anymore.

The night before my departure was bedlam in the home of Justin Winston. On certain of the New Orleans in '88 flyers a dance had been mentioned, to be held at the Downtowner, Tim Bolgeo's Southern Hospitality hotel. We were told that this notice angered the Marriott managers as it undercut the Marquis (it turned out, of course, that they hadn't even noticed it). Nolacon could not afford to offend the Marriott chain by advertising an event in its nemesis inn. Cringing at having to mutilate my impeccable product, I snipped the vileness from our publicity.

Some of us dealt with pre-convention nerves more productively. John Guidry – whose dream the convention was, and whose political genius had won our bid essential SMOF backing – applied that talent to peeling tape off Mardi Gras beads. Handing out beads and doubloons as a campaign schtick had been John’s idea – and it had worked beautifully. For months Dennis Dolbear had haunted garage sales & flea market auctions, garnering a dozen plump boxes of Carnival treasure to haul to Atlanta. Only a few beads were blighted with masking tape. But John declared each strand essential, and so sat and peeled, far into the night ...

 

The Journey

The Southern Crescent leaves New Orleans at 7:30 A.M., and 11 hours later chuggachuggas into Atlanta, a pretty trip through the pretty South behind it. Asleep on the Crescent on Saturday, 8-23-86, my bliss was shaken to wakefulness by a dirgeful drone, a bassoonish murmur – a black-clad, rooster-necked geezer seated nearby, half-singing/half-moaning gloomy, toneless hymns.

Gad!

I fled to the club car, far from the fuliginous angel of death. There a pompous kid in a Mumford teeshirt broadcast 5-cent thoughts in 50-cent words to a coed, who listened, either adoringly or stunned. Too fannish to bear. Fortunately, as a butterfly tossed its yellow wings beneath Birmingham's I-65 overpass, and a painted clown waved hello from a Golden Flake Potato Chip truck, a family of Mennonites boarded our car. The clarity of their temperament mellowed the day. So pretty the ladies in their simple blue bonnets.

Then: Atlanta. I was met at the tiny station by the statue of Samuel Spencer, 1847-1906, first President of the Southern Railway, and by the living form of mike weber, brother SFPAn and volunteer Lillian-fetcher. "The Office" was our first stop – the Roswell Road HQ of the 44th World Science Fiction Convention. Ever wonder what a worldcon looks like 48 hours before the fact? It looks like an office racked with tables, phones, computers, typewriters, walled with posters, letters, charts, memoranda, stacked with flyers, circulars, freebie magazines and books, the latter being collated by coolie labor into thousands of registration packets. Among the sweatshop slaves were Penny Frierson, remarkably non-crazy for a convention co-chair, the ever beautiful Sue Phillips, pianist Mike Rogers, cane-wielding newlywed Jim Gilpatrick, and the extremely luscious Judy Sutton. All were encouraging to the New Orleans bid, though I was warned, time and again, "It's close! The boat is making its move!" I shuddered – even though I knew that none of those people had seen any ballots.

We jaunted to the SF & Mystery Bookstore, where I was greeted with a hey from owner Mark Stevens, my host for the evening, a handshake from Mike Bishop, a shriek of dismay from Jerry Page, and a plea for a vote from Julian Bond, who wandered in politicking for a seat in Congress. It was a genuine high to meet Bond, whom I thanked for his courage at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Too bad his election didn't go as well as did ours.

When Stevens and I left, I noted a surprising chill to the air – a drop in temperature hardly typical to Atlanta in August. While it made me shiver, the cold was a boon to New Orleans. The Cincinnati bid had been running ads warning conventioneers about murderous Southern heat. This cold snap made that aspersion seem silly. Fortunately, no one mentioned hurricanes …

I crashed that night on Stevens' murderous foldout couch (a.k.a. "The Cruncher"), watching on VCR The Day the Earth Stood Still. The classic film had debuted, appropriately, at the original Nolacon. The next morning I girded in my bestest rags – brought for this very reason – and went forth to do battle for its successor.

 

It’s difficult now to remember the rumors that had pecked and gnawed at the Atlanta worldcon: bad finances, internecine warfare, poor organization. Everyone arrived at the convention expecting disaster – until they got a look at the Marriott lobby. Then sensawunda took over. HOO MALOOKEY what a space! How did fans describe it? "Things to Come!" "Forbidden Planet!" To me, the incredible vault of the Marquis atrium suggested Alien – as if we'd been sucked like so many motes into the lungs of a galactic Giger monster. All pre-convention concerns vanished in the raw cathedral power of the hotel’s 44-floor open atrium, spun with a red cloth Cristo sculpture, awesome, immense, a celebration of vastness. Space – the final frontier. Where better could the science fiction community hold forth?

My problem was where, in that void, should the New Orleans bid place itself?

Our need was for a facility with room for mobs of partygoers and adjoining bedrooms for storage and SMOFfing. Problem: all the 3-bay suites with two adjacent bedrooms were located on the 39th & 40th floors, miles above the convention areas. An elevator trip thither took several minutes – at best –and required a transfer between cars. The 9th floor, on the other hand, was a quick run down a cool spiral staircase from the ConFederation consuite, where all elevators stopped. It boasted a nice 3-bay, room 940. It had a flaw – only one connecting bedroom – but the accessibility argument won me over. Not an ideal situation, but diddly close. I committed us to 940.

That afternoon, the ConFederation concom held a business meeting, and I hung on to observe. Among those in attendance, Rick Albertson, the con's techno-wizard, and Samanda Jeude, champion of the disabled. Her fannish symbol for handicapped rights anchored each of Nawlins' flyers. I loved the way Jim Gilpatrick opened matters – rushing in to place at table's center a pyramid of milky stone – Georgia Cherokee marble – topped by a gleaming chrome rocket. Hot damn! The ConFederation Hugo! Problems, problems ... As co-chairmen Ron Zukowski, Penny Frierson and Co. went over theirs, I mulled ours. It’s the privilege of paranoids to worry, and despite Filthy Pierre's assessment that the '88 race was "a lock," I did just that. Most of the parties were located in the Hilton – should Nolacon have a room there too? Was the inviting elitism of the Boat Bid enough to win it majority allegiance? Fret, fret, fret. And so I went blind.

I have since learned that the technical term is ophthalmic migraine. I get one about once a year, and the one for 1986 came … just then. The familiar inverted neon C grew across my eyesight, blotting everything from my vision, including Judy Sutton, curse the luck. The ragged op-art arc flared and faded, leaving me fogged, drained and seasick. Nauseated as I was, I was still grateful that the migraine had chosen an early moment to strike. And that the next two days would be spent far from this madding crowd.

 

As weber and I left for the train station, we met a blonde lady in the lobby clad in Star Trek regalia. She was, of course, there for the worldcon. Her name was Sue Ryba – and she was the First.

 

Greensboro

I spent those two days in Greensboro, North Carolina. I have never known a lovelier place, with its leafy sights and gentle breezes. People lived there then

and live there still as meaningful to me as most any that walk this world. I saw Beth, my first wife. Since she had not yet voted, I carried her ballot back to ConFederation. Beth is still in Greensboro, and I pray heaven she’s happy.

I was happy about Fred Chappell, my tutor/mentor/advisor for the Masters of Fine Arts I earned at UNC-Greensboro in the early seventies. My M.F.A. hasn't meant squat to me financially, but I'll always value what it did for the inner lad. Fred is him what done it, those two nutty years I spent staring at Marianne Gingher's legs and shooting my mouth off about A*R*T. Fred it was who tweaked my nose and taught me the Lesson of Lessons: listen. In ‘86, this future Poet Laureate of North Carolina was still at UNC-G, a line from Blake on his blackboard, a new novel on his shelves. As a boy, Chappell attended the New Orleans worldcon, and secured Fredric Brown's autograph in his program book. Allowing myself a moment's confidence, I invited him down for II.

The interval over, I choochooed back to Atlanta, reflecting on the title of Fred’s new novel, so true of me and Greensboro and fandom: I Am One of You Forever.

 

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