Thursday, January 24, 2008

Anaphylaxis

Most of my first 18 years on this planet were spent in Donelson, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville. If you’ve heard of Donelson, it’s probably because it is home to Opryland, a theme park area built to hold the Grand Old Opry country music icon, after it moved from the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville. I spent only two years of my childhood not living in Donelson; I started grammar school with a year in Summerfield, NC, and finished grammar school with a year in Russelville, KY, both honest-to-god small-town-America towns. I’ll no doubt write more about those places sometime, but not now.

One major feature of my early existence was bible thumpers. There were and still are several in my mother’s family, mostly Methodists, which is actually a pretty progressive religion, having come out against slavery before the Civil War. My great-grandfather in fact was a Methodist minister until he was read out of the church for “gambling,” which is to say that he bought some shares of stock. Or at least so the family story goes. But I have kin who are creationists, and worse, with all the small-mindedness that comes along with it.

In “Inherit the Wind” the writer Hornbeck refers to the town (Hillsboro in the play, Dayton, TN in the actual Scopes trial), as “the buckle on the Bible Belt.” But the town of the Scopes trial is too small to actually be a buckle. If you want something big and brassy that holds chinches the belt to hold the pants up, that would probably be Nashville. When I was young, country music was actually the third largest industry in Nashville, the first being insurance and the second being religious publishing. I’ve been told that a majority of bibles printed in the U.S. are printed in Nashville, and it’s easy to believe.

In Nashville, Methodists were the “liberals.” Baptists were the moderates. Then you had the Church of Christ. A few miles from Donelson is a town called Mt. Juliet. There was an ongoing battle in Mt. Juliet High School each year as to whether or not to hold the Senior Prom. Dancing was considered sinful by the Church of Christ, so about every other year—no prom.

Once a year, when my mother was working for an otherwise sane and sensible photographer, said photographer would sit her down and try to convert her to Church of Christ. Doctrine for C of C was very specific: if you are not a member of the Church of Christ, you are going to Hell. It wasn’t enough to be good; it wasn’t even enough to be Christian; it was C of C or burn forever. So my mother’s boss thought it his duty to try to save my mother’s soul. From his point of view, what else could he do?

I mean, look, you can talk about Dover, PA and the Kansas school board all you want, but when (and where) I went to high school, the Scopes law was still in effect. It was illegal to teach evolution in my high school. School prayer wasn’t just legal; it was mandatory. We had Blue Laws that were still in effect, so no stores were open on Sunday. Some of my teachers were also ministers, and saw no particular conflict in using biblical arguments in class.

And yes, I hated it, and got out as fast as I could. Because there is a world of difference between a religious nut, and a religious nut with power. You may think that the religious right has too much power in government at the moment (and I do agree), but try living in a place where they are the government, and most of everything else.

On the other hand, stripped of power and majority status, many religious groups become less obnoxious. For example, I’ve heard that the Church of Christ, outside of it cradle area, is more benign.

A few years back, a Worldcon (in Philadelphia, I think), happened to occur at the same time as a United Church of Christ conference. At one point, Amy and I were watching a table for someone in one of the foot traffic areas, I’ve forgotten the what and why, but it doesn’t matter. Some of the passers-by were fans, and some of them C of C, with some of the latter obviously fascinated by this strange collection of people they were sharing some space with.

At one point a Sweet Young Thing of probably 16 or 17 came over and began asking us questions about the convention. Amy was in here Madame Ovary persona and doing a bit of her act, showing the SYT her tools, some of the soft sculpture puppets and running a line of patter. Eventually, SYT began doing a pretty good Margaret Hamilton Wicked Witch of the West impression, and I began to wonder when the girl was going to run off to join the circus.

More likely, of course, she’d wait until college, join the local theater group and what came after that would be a matter luck or destiny. Or maybe she’d find a corner of fandom to play around in. Fandom also can be mighty seductive.

In the early 80s, the Church of Scientology decided to burnish founder L. Ron Hubbard’s reputation as a science fiction writer. To that end they established a publishing house, Bridge Publications, and hired A. J. Budrys to manage their connections to science fiction fandom. A. J. cut a pretty good deal and enforced it with some determination: benefit writers and artists, don’t interfere, and if you ever try to proselytize, it’s over.

So in addition to the Battlefield Earth series, we got the Writers/Artists of the Future project, which I’ll argue is a pretty sweet deal. At least it has the money flowing toward the writers and artists, which is a good start. A. J. also told them how to have an appreciated presence at conventions (low key parties with plenty of good food). Initially, there were two key Bridge personnel at conventions, Simone and Fred. I’ve heard rumors that Simone was the model for the original cover of Fortune of Fear, one of the Mission Earth series, and I can’t argue against it. She was tall, blonde, very striking, and just the sort of fan boy bait to work a crowd.

Fred was another thing entirely, neither smooth nor particularly memorable. But he was giving it his best shot, and I liked his nerdy little persona in a way that probably bespoke nostalgia for my younger, nerdy little persona. In the early days of Bridge there were all sorts of reactions from the fans, mostly negative, because, well, it was Scientology, after all. Scientology has always been a bit of an embarrassment for fandom, as well it probably should be, since its early days of Dianetics had a number of fans (and writers) behaving quite foolishly. Besides, they were Up to No Good. Some rumors had them plotting to hijack the Hugos by having a lot of Scientologists join the Worldcon and block vote for Battlefield Earth, etc.

All of which I found amusing. I was actually sort of hoping they’d do the block voting thing. How much would it have cost, $50-100K maybe? If they’d wanted to do it, they could have, and I've even heard rumors about someone giving it a bit of a try, but given the result, it was at best half-hearted, and probably not officially sanctioned.

In any case, I was more interested in the reaction of fandom to the “interlopers,” and the mental gymnastics that were coming into play as a result. I also thought that A. J. was doing a fine job of managing the dance and told him so. I also decided to be nice to Fred, because he had a tough job and didn’t deserve to be excoriated just because he was trying to do it.

Besides, I was interested in watching the effect that fandom was having on the Bridge personnel.

Some years later, at a Worldcon in Boston, I was at one of the Bridge parties. Simone was no longer attending conventions; I heard a few rumors as to why, but none from sources I trusted and I never asked A. J. about it. But Fred was still there, hosting the party, flitting about, smiling, actually Having a Good Time. The initial reactions had settled down by this time, and plenty of fans now knew that the Bridge parties were where to go for dessert, if nothing else. That particular night, Edgar Winter (another Scientologist) was over in the corner, having just finished a gig. I was sitting on one of the couches, talking to A. J.

So I said to Fred, as he came around for the nth time, “You know, Fred, when you first started coming to conventions you were pretty stiff, almost robotic, meaning no insult. You’ve loosened up quite a bit. You’re a lot more relaxed these days. Easier to be around.”

Fred smiled and looked over at A. J. “Is that right?” he asked. “Have I gotten a lot looser?”

A. J. nodded and said, “Yes, pretty much.”

Fred’s smile got a lot wider and he continued on his way, making sure that the strawberries were out, and that the dipping chocolate was in the right place.

I leaned over to A. J. and whispered, “I’m not sure that he understands that I meant that as a warning.” A. J. just nodded.

That was the last time I saw Fred. I expect he’s okay. I hope so, because I’d grown quite fond of him.

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