Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Heinlein experience

It didn’t mean anything to anyone else.  But it rocked my world.

I want to tell you about something that won’t mean much to you or anyone else, but it knocked me off my feet.  I’m sharing it here in the belief that if it’s so important to me, then maybe my friends, blog readers and radio listeners might also find it interesting.

As all of my close friends know, throughout my life I have only had a few idols.  The biggest one is Robert A. Heinlein.  Many consider him to be the most important American science fiction author of all time.  I also like the other two of the “Big Three”—Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke—and have been reading them since I was a boy.  But for me Heinlein is the undisputed master.   He’s more than just a writer.   His book Space Cadet was the first novel I ever read.  It fired up my young imagination in a major way, and put me on the path for a lifelong love of sci-fi, space exploration, and scientific progress.

I was sort of a wimpy, non-athletic kid, so while my friends were out playing softball or whatnot, I tended to be reading.  Eventually my literary world expanded to take in authors of all kinds, but Heinlein remained my favorite.  I loved his “voice,” which always radiated core values of love, patriotism, and personal responsibility, while spinning a good yarn.  He’s best known for Stranger in a Strange Land, which wound up being a cornerstone of the Free Love movement back in the 60’s—to Heinlein’s immense surprise (he was not of that generation and had no intention of being anyone’s “guru”).   But Heinlein is more enjoyable, and understandable, if you don’t start with that book.  I was fortunate to be able to read Heinlein’s works more or less “in order,” from his early juveniles (which hold up as adult novels) forward to his more experimental adult work.  So I was able to watch his philosophy and world view evolve in real time, in parallel with my own.  I have a copy of absolutely every book and compilation he published, and each volume is well worn.  The man probably had more influence on me than any other human being aside from my parents.  

I never had a chance to meet Heinlein, but in 1982, when I was 25 years old and just starting out as a television news producer, I wrote him a letter—the one and only true fan letter I’ve ever written to anyone.   I poured out my heart to him, letting him know how important his works had been to me.  I did not expect a reply, and didn’t include a stamped, self-addressed envelope.  But I got a reply anyway.     His wife Virginia composed it, but Heinlein signed it.  The letter stated that while Virginia composed all of his correspondence so as to allow him time to write, he did read every letter.  The two of them said that I was receiving a reply precisely because I had asked for nothing.  With so many people in his life demanding slices of his time (which, I would later learn, was a sore subject for him) the fact that I had asked for nothing apparently impressed him and Virginia.   They said they appreciated my comments and were touched by them.

In 2010 William H. Patterson, Jr. published the first of a two-volume authorized biography of Heinlein.  I snapped it up and read it with great interest.   Afterwards, I sent the author a quick email containing two or three lines letting him know how much I had enjoyed learning more about my idol.  I must have given a quick summary of who I was—I was news director at KGUN-TV in Tucson at the time.  Patterson wrote back thanking me for my comments and asking me whether I would do him a favor.  It seems Heinlein had given an interview to KGUN9 in the late 70’s, during a sci-fi convention.  He asked me to see whether that interview still existed.

I agreed to check.  This required a quick trip to the Arizona Historical Society, which maintains the old KGUN archives.  Alas, nothing was there.  I wrote him back with the news.   Patterson asked me to write up a quick article for his journal, which I did.  Afterwards, we maintained a correspondence.  I was eagerly looking forward to the second volume of the biography, and by the end of 2013 Patterson told me he was scrambling to meet his deadlines with the publisher for a book due out that summer.    He completed the work, but alas, he died just before the book came out.  I was very sad to hear that.

I bought the book, of course.  It’s taken me longer this time to get through it, because I have a lot of things going on in my life (starting a new blog and radio show while also trying my hand at writing sci-fi, something I’ve always wanted to do).  When I got to the passage where Patterson mentions Heinlein’s trip to Tucson, I saw that he had referenced a footnote.  So, out of curiosity, I looked it up.

And there was my name.  Patterson had credited me for the tiny bit of regrettably unsuccessful research I’d done trying to track down the Heinlein interview. 

Yes, it is a tiny, tiny, tiny thing.  But words really fail to express its effect on me.  There will be only one authorized biography of Robert Heinlein.  This one is it.  And my name is in it.  Yes, yes, it’s only in a footnote that absolutely no one but the most rigorous scholar or researcher will ever see.  But it’s there, just the same.  My name.  In Heinlein’s official biography.

You may think it is the rankest exercise of ego to crow about this.  I can’t say you’re wrong.  But this is not about showing how important I am.   This incident is marvelous precisely because I am so unimportant.  The miracle is that a nobody like me could wind up being named in book about his personal idol, a man who happens to be one of the most influential writers of our age.

So that this can serve as a review of the Patterson books, let me also say that if you are a scholar or a die-hard Heinlein fan, as I am, these works are fabulous and indispensible to an understanding of the man, his life, and his works.   Parenthetically, one of the things I learned was that my favorite Heinlein short story, The Man Who Traveled in Elephants, was also his favorite.  And one of his hardest to sell.  The book is filled gems of that nature that will be important to the true fans and to researchers.

The experience and thrill of seeing my name in that tiny, inconsequential little footnote has left me feeling as if I’ve experienced real magic.  It’s impossible to explain, really, why I would feel that way.  But I’ve spent my entire life admiring this person.   If there has been a steady guiding star in my life, Heinlein is it.  And once again, I find that my orbit has intersected—briefly, admittedly insignificantly, but definitely—with a major public figure who has been so important to me, and to the lives of countless others.

It reinforces, once again, what a wonderfully interconnected and mysterious place our universe really is.


©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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