Breakfast in Phoenix with the Heinleins


Memoir by
Kenneth Spell


April 2011


I was nearly eleven when the school librarian wondered why I checked out the same book twenty-two times in a row. It seemed reasonable enough to me. After reading Have Space Suit — Will Travel, I wanted to enjoy the ride again. And again.

Sixteen years later, Bobbye and I sat at a circular table by a pool in Phoenix, having breakfast with the author of that book. There was a Star Trek convention around us, but I came to meet Robert Heinlein, a man who influenced much of my thinking.

I read his most famous novel after graduating high school. Stranger in a Strange Land was about the only survivor of the first expedition to Mars, a young man raised by Martians and returned to Earth twenty-odd years after his birth on another world. He is biologically human, culturally Martian. He literally a Man from Mars, someone outside our culture and customs. To him all human behavior is a mystery.

The novel was as full of questions as I was, suggested their might be other answers to be found. It coined a word, "grok", described something called a waterbed, and had a world leader whose wife consulted an astrologer on all crucial decisions.

Stranger became a classic with the longhairs. You could not find a crash pad or feel around inside a backpack without finding a copy of the paperback. Friends borrowed it, passed it on from longhair to girlfriend to hitchhiker to coffee shop waitress. I am sure at least three of my paperbacks of Stranger wound up in a commune near Bennington, Vermont.

So when I had the chance to meet the man who wrote so many things that affected my thinking, I took it at once. I bought a three-day membership for Ivan Cook's Star Trek, Comic, and Science Fiction Film Convention, and reserved a room at Del Webb's Towne House in Phoenix, Arizona.

We checked into our hotel room around noon on May 28th, 1977. The Towne House had three auditoriums, two of them for movies and old Trek episodes, the other for comic book sellers and other hucksters. This was before VCRs so people would sit in auditoriums to look at reruns of Star Trek episodes on a large screen. There were no Trek movies yet, much less a Next Generation series. Christopher Reeve was still in plain clothes, capeless. Space 1999 was actually considered entertaining.

I know Carl and Bobbye and I saw the last hour of Korda's The Thief of Bagdad, with Sabu, and Rex Ingram as the Jinn. According to the program book, it was on from 11:30 to 1:30 pm. Between that and David Gerrold at 6pm was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in the Cortez "theater", and an afternoon visit by a lesbian couple Bobbye knew from college days.

Before they dropped by, Bobbye warned us there might be a little tension. The young ladies seemed very ... polite, and I whispered to Carl that "they seem to be getting along fairly well". The visit was brief, barely more than an exchange of names. Then ... as the couple left, we heard a thump against the wall of our room. With my usual good sense I went to the door, looked out into the hall. And saw them, two Leather Tuscaderos from Happy Days, slamming each other about like cowboys in a John Ford western saloon.

It could have been worse. At least they waited till they were out the door. When it was quiet we caught The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. We wondered if any of the Trek fans had caught the dramatics. Bobbye made up an imaginary headline for my Vicksburg paper. "Local Lad Slain in Lesbian Love Triangle as Trekkies Look On", accompanied by a photo of two women in leather jackets wielding switchblades in a hallway, my body on the floor, and a crowd of young people with Spock ears and Federation uniforms staring, bewildered.

We caught David Gerrold's speech at six in the evening. He was enthusiastic over a new film called Star Wars, which had premiered only three weeks earlier. He talked about an epic science fiction novel he was working on, then took questions from the audience. A woman asked about The Trouble With Tribbles episode he had written, found it disturbing that Scotty beamed the fuzzy little nuisances into the engine of the Klingon ship. Knowing how cruel Klingons were, wasn't this inhumane to the tribbles?

"Lady, it's only a TV show."

"I know that, but still ..." Mercifully, there were other questions. I asked him about his screenplay adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land. I wanted to know what had been most difficult in treating the novel as a film, what had to go, how long was the script? It never got filmed, but I was curious about process.

As Mr. Gerrold answered, the room got quiet behind me. I looked back, saw an old man, bald with a thin mustache, standing straight as he must have at Annapolis in the 1920s. It was Robert A. Heinlein, nearly 70, walking through the auditorium.

Gerrold turned the podium over to him. Heinlein spoke on behalf of a blood drive. He had a rare blood type, AB+, and transfusions had saved his life. So he made a point of supporting blood banks and honoring donors. He had a rule. He would not give out an autograph unless you gave blood, or had proof you had done so. I recall he joked about the male tendency to faint at needles, and suggested ladies keep an old fashioned hat-pin available as a deterrent.

This was near the beginning of a tradition at science fiction conventions, and continues as the Robert A. Heinlein Memorial Blood Drive.

Later, as Bobbye and I wandered through the crowd outside the auditoriums, I found myself only a few yards from Mr. Heinlein. He was talking to another fan.

I drifted closer, waited my time. He glanced in my direction, and I froze up. I had no idea what to say. Some who know me might recommend I do this more often, take more time not speaking.

I focused, asked a question, had to say something. I asked about cats, as he was a longtime cat lover. About multi-toed cats, and he said it was a fairly common mutation. How a retired Admiral he knew had a six or seven toed cat named "Old Suitcase". I left before I made a complete ass of myself, and followed Bobbye to the nearest elevator.

We shared it with David Gerrold. She complimented him for his time travel novel, The Man Who Folded Himself. He thanked her on behalf of "one of my neglected children", a book that had been well-reviewed but slow to sell.

In our room, she worked on my hair. "I know how important this is for you, so you want to look good." We managed to shape things up. She and Carl went out. I wandered the convention, explored a full scale replica of the Enterprise Bridge. (Yes, I sat in Kirk's chair.) I glimpsed Robert and Virginia Heinlein strolling up to the bio-rhythm machine on display, taking their time there. He whispered something after they gave him the machine reading.

"Oh, Robert ... really!" said Virginia Heinlein.

At 9:30 Sunday morning, Bobbye and I went downstairs, got in line, waited with twelve others for the Heinleins to show up. Or breakfast to be fixed. Well, for something. Moments later Mr. Heinlein arrived, in an orange Hawaiian shirt was nearly audibly loud.

On the way to our tables, two circular ones nudged together in the shape of an eight, we passed a tray of donuts. Heinlein reached for a rich-looking one flavored with coconut. Virginia said, "Robert, you know you're not supposed to eat those on your diet."

He settled for a plain one. "Well, it was fun while it lasted."

I wound up next to Mrs. Heinlein, with Bobbye on my left, right in front of the author. He asked us all to sign our names and addresses on cards, and number them to be easier to remember. Bobbye was number 13, which did not make her more relaxed.

He glanced around. "Has anybody seen an ash tray?"

I don't know if he stopped smoking later that year or cut down, but in May 1977, the man needed an ashtray.

Bobbye saw one at a nearby table, darted over and brought it back. It was like taking a thorn from his paw. Heinlein was fascinated. "He has very piercing eyes", Bobbye told me later.

She filled out her index card, signed it with her stage name. When he read it he looked impressed. "Garnathan Leach ... Garnathan Leach. I've never met anyone with a name like that before," said the man who created Jubal Harshaw, Potiphar Breen, Jonathan Hoag, and Lazarus Long. "Is it a family name?"

"No," said Bobbye. "I wrote a story when I was 12, and the character in it was named Garnathan. I liked it enough that when I began acting, I decided to use it."

He was impressed, either by her name, her answer, or her hair. Bobbye was a redhead. Virginia Heinlein had been. Most of the heroines in his stories were. And being a cat person helped, too.

He noticed from my card I was from Vicksburg. He described how the city was laid out, surrounded by the Civil War battlefield, how nothing could be built on that land. He had seen Gold in the Hills, a melodrama on the stage of our old riverboat, the Sprague. (Burned in 1974. The play goes on, on another steamboat.)

I brought him up to date on some changes around the city. According to the introduction in the Virginia Edition of Friday, he made a trip up river before writing the novel to get the details right.

He had a panama hat with him, was concerned about too much sun. Old spots on his bald head, from time in the tropics in his Navy days. Possible skin cancer concerned him. I recall he said if any of us travelled much, to see Europe soon as it might well go Communist soon.

(This was in 1977, and I do recall reading about "Eurocommunism", Socialism with a Human Face, and other slogans of the time. It wouldn't occur to me that in twelve years the Berlin Wall would come down, the Warsaw Pact dissolve, and in 1991 the USSR dissolve. We were science fiction fans. That would be unrealistic.)

He asked the group how Walter Koenig (Chekov) pronounced his name, Kennig, or Koe-nig, mentioned how one of the convention's special guests, Jack Williamson, had come West in the very last of the covered wagons. Someone asked him why two shuttles in his Future History were named the Flying Dutchman and the Philip Nolan.

The ships never landed but made a circuit from the lunar colony to space station. One was from the Wagner opera, the other was from Edward Everett Hale's "The Man without a Country", where Philip Nolan was sentenced never to see America again.

As for writing for young people, "You simply write your best novel for an adult, but leave out the sex and watch your language.".

Bobbye worried that she had not read his books, but she need not have. With a dozen other fans at the table wanting to ask Great Questions of the Universe, she was a relief. A pretty young lady to smoke with and talk about cats and rare breeds. I thought she made me look better, less awkward.

Mrs. Heinlein and I talked about ancestry. A German-American coworker of mine back in Vicksburg was heavy on Heinlein's German ancestry. She pointed out all the other strains. I mentioned that one good thing about my being adopted was that I have no real idea exactly what my ancestry is, and could therefore not feel entirely left out of any cultural celebration. After all, I might be descended from the group involved.

She told me Harlan Ellison once said he found her intimidating. I was happy to hear that anybody could intimidate Mr. Ellison. Bobbye told her how she found the coastline up toward Santa Cruz beautiful and admired the landscape there. We offered them a kitten, just in case. She said no thank you, politely.

(Bobbye and I agreed later to name the kitten Podkayne.)

That evening Carl drove us back to Los Angeles. Monday was a work day for both of them, but this was an event for me to catch. I later flew back to Mississippi pleased to have met my favorite author, though I knew he was old and not at full strength.

I learned later from Expanded Universe that around this time he was sleeping sixteen hours a day and "wasn't worth much of a hoot the other eight hours".

His writing had slowed down. While vacationing in Tahiti in 1978 he had a TIA, was on his way to a stroke. He had one of the early carotid bypass operations, went back to writing full time, invigorated and mind fully active.

I mailed him copies of James Branch Cabell, including one of Cabell's correspondence with friends, and a collection called Between Dawn and Sunrise.

Bobbye later got into his stories, read The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, Double Star, The Door into Summer. She was impressed by the style and thanked me for introducing her to his books. The last story she read before she passed was "Lost Legacy" from Assignment in Eternity.


© 2011 Kenneth Spell

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