Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2005-6

 Joe Green’s career at NASA and as an SF writer has been complemented by his career as a host for many of SFdom’s titans. Here’s one.

 

OUR FIVE DAYS WITH
JOHN W. CAMPBELL

Joseph Green

I had spoken with John Campbell only once, briefly, at a convention, but by 1970 I had sold him three science articles, all on the American space program. So I had no hesitation on Monday morning, March 16, when I learned he was coming to Cocoa Beach, in picking up the phone and calling his motel to leave an invitation to dinner.

Except, the desk clerk told me, John had no reservation! Their records indicated a travel agent had called that morning and requested a room for a John W. Campbell, but the huge motel had none available. Nor did any of the other numerous motels and hotels on the Space Coast. Some major space-related events were occurring that week, and there were simply no rooms available.

John was due to check in about six. After work I went home long enough to ask wife Nita to prepare a guest room, and drove to Cocoa Beach. I waited a half-hour until John showed up. He looked tired, after a day of travel followed by the hassles of renting a car and finding his way from Orlando to Cocoa Beach. I stopped him before he reached the check-in counter and introduced myself.

"I'm afraid you have some bad news waiting," I said after we shook hands. He gave me a quizzical look. "But talk to the desk clerk, and then I have a solution that may work."

A few minutes later he was following me home in his rental car, after accepting the unhappy fact that when NASA gave a show, everybody came. The Space Coast might never again see the million-plus visitors on hand for Apollo 11, the first moon landing launch; but it didn't take that many to jam up a small county like Brevard, home of both Cape Canaveral and The Kennedy Space Center.

John wasn't happy. He was traveling alone, on his way (according to my highly fallible memory) to meet wife Peg and relative(s) in the U.S. Virgin Islands the next Saturday for a vacation. He had based his travel plans on seeing the launch of a NASA science satellite (more interesting to him, apparently, than manned missions) during a stopover in Florida, but that launch had been delayed. He had five days of leisure time on his hands.

We discussed what to do over a nice dinner, prepared by Nita. Daughter Rosy, just turned fifteen, ate with us; son Merritt (yes, named after that author; and his first name is William, after Hodgson) was long gone from home. I proposed, since he was here and stuck, that I try to get John in to see an Air Force launch, scheduled for Friday night. It was a Delta, carrying the NATO-A (to become NATO 1 in geosynchronous orbit) communications satellite. The spacecraft was of minor interest to John, but I assured him that watching a big rocket launch in person was far different from seeing it on television. He didn't really buy into that concept, but agreed to go. On Tuesday morning I made the necessary calls, and got us on the AF visitors list.

John was not only tired, he didn't look well. I had to work on Tuesday, as usual. We all went to bed fairly early Monday night.

In the morning Rosy of course had to go to school. But I learned later that Nita got into a discussion with John on some esoteric subject after breakfast, and became so fascinated she ran late to work! It was her usual custom to arrive early. While John was here, she ran late almost every morning.

John had a restful day thumbing through our library and reading/relaxing. Tuesday evening, after the usual quick but excellent dinner Nita served up, we had a long bull session, on subjects that ranged far, wide, and often deep. John had recovered both his energy and his ebullience. I occasionally managed to get in a short comment or observation, as did Nita. Rosy mostly sat in silence, as an over-awed teen-age girl should -- though she was taking in every word.

One discussion I remember was on my favorite ANALOG stories. I named Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" and A. Bertram Chandler's "Giant Killer" as my top choices. But I also explained that while traveling the country since 1955, first as a construction worker and then as a "missile bum" for Boeing -- plus writing at nights and on week-ends -- I had had no magazine subscriptions, and a minimum of reading time. He nodded benignly, apparently forgiving me for not having every issue of ASTOUNDING and ANALOG on hand, and limited our discussion to my two choices.

First, John said, "Giant" was a surprising anomaly for Chandler. This novelette of rats mutating within a spaceship's outer wall and then attacking the human crew was unlike anything Chandler had written before; nor did he ever write such again. His "Rimworld" stories were good solid SF, but not really that original or outstanding. John had no idea what had inspired this exceptional story, except that Chandler (I learned) was an Australian ship captain, and wrote while at sea. Perhaps he had a rodent problem; most ships do.

Second, I learned how strong the hand of the editor can be in shaping a story. John told me he had three times! sent "Cold Equations" back to Godwin, before he got the version he wanted. In the first two re-writes, Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl! Since the strength of this deservedly classic story lies in the fact the life of one young woman must be sacrificed to save the lives of many, it simply wouldn't have the same impact if she had lived.

John wasn't trying to take credit for having shaped one of the masterpieces in the SF field. His attitude and words clearly indicated he simply felt it was the responsibility of an editor to improve on any given story, where possible -- and he had done that.

Another discussion I remember, though I'm not certain it was that same night, was full-time writing as a career. John Campbell said he liked to work with writers who had a reliable outside income. He believed this freed them from the necessity of cranking out so much wordage every month to pay that overdue electric bill. In his view, this left writers free to experiment, be daring, explore brand-new and perhaps controversial ideas. He felt that too much of what he received, and often had to accept, were variations on a theme. He wanted to see more originality.

It was late when we finally went to bed.

John had planned a trip on his own for Wednesday morning, and was coming to KSC that afternoon for a tour. He rose early, skipped breakfast, and was in his rental car before I left for work. When he tried to start it, the engine flooded.

Hearing John cranking the engine, I was almost certain I knew what had happened, but he hadn't a clue. His vast scientific and technical knowledge apparently didn't include much on simple car mechanics. I told him to stop trying, raised the hood, removed the breather cap, and found the automatic choke -- which was of course fully closed. I held it open manually, told John to press the accelerator flat on the floorboard and hold it there, and try again. He followed my directions exactly, and after about a minute the excess gas ran through the engine and it started. John raced the engine a little to keep it going, and I replaced the breather cap and lowered the hood. John gave me another of those quizzical looks, but said not a word before he drove away.

The escorted tour of KSC I had arranged for John Wednesday afternoon was a perfectly legitimate courtesy NASA always extended to editors of major magazines. It wasn't so legitimate for me to make certain I was assigned as his escort, but I did that too. I showed him the huge Complex 39 Saturn V pads from as close as the guards would let us get, the immense Crawler-Transporter that carried those 363-feet tall Apollo-Saturn stacks to the pad -- the largest tracked vehicle then in existence -- and the other giant-scale equipment of the launch system. When we reached the Vehicle Assembly Building, we were denied entrance by a gate guard, despite my badge with the correct access codes and John's visitor badge. I got into it with the security guard, and after a long argument, finally persuaded him that we were entitled to enter the building. It wasn't my first argument with a guard while escorting guests, and it wouldn't be the last. But at least I won that one.

I led John inside, through the usual door on the south side of the low bay, and said, "Now don't look up until I tell you."

John gave me that quizzical glance again, but followed directions. I led him forward along the transfer aisle, an open space that reaches from the south end of the building to the north, past the low bays on both sides where the second and third stages of the Saturn V were checked out, on to the open edge of the high bay. And then I told him to look up.

John raised his gaze, looking up over 500 feet of open space to the roof, then ahead to the four giant bays, two on each side (though one was never actually completed internally), where the three Saturn V stages were assembled, and the Apollo vehicle mounted on top. He said just two words:

"I'm impressed."

I (or at least NASA) had impressed John W. Campbell.

(I learned later that I had impressed John more than I knew at the time. Word got back to me that he told some friends of his visit to the Cape and KSC, after his return from vacation, and that while here he had met a true "renaissance man," a fellow who was competent at almost anything he tried. He cited starting a balky car when he couldn't, out-talking a KSC security guard to get him into a highly restricted area, and the ability to write both science fact and science fiction. Of course John mentioned nothing of this to me directly -- though I received a nice note of thanks later. Nita and Rosy did much better. He sent them each a white Pringle of Scotland cashmere sweater, with crewel design and embroidery done by Margaret Winter Campbell - presumably Peg, John's wife.)

Wednesday night was another long session of talk, of which none of us ever tired. Thursday was a day of work and school for the Green family, and a day at home for John. By Thursday afternoon he was getting a little stir-crazy, and asked if I could invite some local fans over that evening for a good bull session. SF fans were in short supply in Brevard then, but I knew one engineer who read the literature avidly, including ANALOG. When I called him he said he had a friend and fellow engineer who was also an ANALOG reader. The two came over, and we had a long and pleasant talk. The engineers somehow got into the merits of a particular electronic tube and what it could do, and to my amazement, John was intimately familiar with it. The three started discussing it in detail! About this time Nita and Rosy, with glazed expressions, got up and went to bed. And I was treated to thirty minutes of exotic chatter about a subject on which I knew absolutely nothing, until they finally wore that one out and we could get on to themes of more general interest.

The Delta launch was scheduled for just before midnight Friday, so we left about eight p.m. for the AF Press Room -- in the same huge Cocoa Beach motel where John had intended to stay! We were in my car. As we were approaching the Hertz Car Rental office, still open because of the launch, John suddenly looked over at me and said, "Can we stop at the Hertz place? I need to use the bathroom."

I caught the distress in his voice. John was driving a Hertz rental, but it had come from Orlando. I had no idea how the local Hertz folk would react to someone coming in just to use their restroom. I could see the traffic signal in front of our destination, only a quarter-mile ahead, and the traffic was light. I said, "John, we'll be at the motel in just one minute. Can you wait that long?"

He nodded, stone-faced. I drove as fast as I could to the motel, letting him off at the door before I hunted a parking space. He got out and walked inside, moving slowly and with a noticeable stiffness in his gait. I saw him ignore the temporary AF desk set up in the lobby and head for the bathrooms at the rear.

Once inside, I worked my way to the AF official at the desk, explained that I was a staff member of ANALOG Magazine, and that my editor had a problem and had rushed to the bathroom. Our names were on the list, and all was well. I received my badge; John's was waiting for him.

It was a long time, perhaps half an hour, before John came out of the bathroom. I hurried over when I finally saw him, and said, "Something I forgot to mention; the Air Force doesn't recognize free-lance writers, at all. For tonight, I have to be a member of the ANALOG staff."

John gave me that quizzical look again, but said, "Close enough!" He was now walking normally, and apparently feeling much better. He got his badge, and we chatted for a short time before boarding the AF bus that would take us to the launch site on Cape Canaveral.

Sitting together on the bus, John edged into one of those discussions that frayed on my nerve ends, the general subject of slavery. He enjoyed taking the "devil's advocate" position in almost any area, willing to defend even viewpoints with which he disagreed if that led to a livelier debate. (Which also made it difficult to tell when he was sincere, or -- on some specific point -- just egging others on.) He pointed out that the much-maligned "peculiar institution" of slavery in the American South had in fact provided the blacks brought here with a higher standard of living than they had in Africa. As slaves, most of them lived longer lives than their counterparts at home. John quoted the statistics that indicated very short life-spans for the average African tribesman or woman in the 1700 and 1800s. He talked about the primitiveness of the average African's culture in those centuries, the misery of their daily existence, the perennial shortages of food, and so on. On the facts as stated, he made a good case.

At first blush this sounded like one of those controversial positions John often took, just to get a rise out of his debating audience. But I was very much afraid that in fact he was sincere. I had heard, from comments by Asimov, among others -- and some ANALOG editorials I had read -- that John held some racist views, at least in regard to blacks. Not wanting to get into that particular discussion, I cut him off with some hard, fast statements to the effect that there was more to human life than food and medical care, that almost anyone would choose a shorter but happier life in their own culture, compared to a longer one of misery and degradation as a slave in a foreign land. The only thing we managed to agree on was that rapidly increasing farm mechanization after 1850 would have soon rendered slavery obsolete anyway, and it would have been better for the USA to endure it a few more years than suffer the truly horrendous costs of the Civil War.

John saw that I was upset, and moved on to a new topic for the remainder of the ride.

The Air Force had constructed a large, open Observation Platform, about thirty feet high, less than three miles south of the Delta complex on Cape Canaveral. There was a small operations support building near its base. The entire area was well lit, from lights mounted on tall posts. John climbed the steps ahead of me with some difficulty. We stood looking north, to where several large floodlights lit up the vehicle on its pad. That generation of Delta had three stages, with three-strap on solids attached equi-distant around the first. These ignited, along with the liquid propellant first stage engine, to get it off the ground. And the spacecraft had its own small rocket attached, for the final maneuvering to get it into geosynchronous orbit.

We had arrived over an hour ahead of liftoff, planned for 11:46 p.m. John was dressed in slacks and a light jacket. After about twenty minutes he told me he was freezing! It was a surprisingly cold March night, with a fairly stiff breeze blowing in off the Atlantic. Despite the fact the stairs were a problem for him, he wanted to find shelter in the small building on the ground. I went with him, and once inside, where there was a heater, he was soon back to normal -- though complaining loudly to me that he never expected to come to Florida in March and find that he was freezing his ass off!

John had plenty of company. The badged visitors were mostly men, but there were a few women there as well. Every one of the females was cold, and letting the Air Force know it. The AF and contractor PR people endured the complaints, about conditions over which they had no control, in pained silence.

A few minutes before liftoff I persuaded John it would be worth it to climb those stairs again, and he unwillingly preceded me back up them. We arrived just a few seconds before ignition. Many people had chosen to watch from the ground, and the platform wasn't crowded. Right on time the single engine on the Delta first stage flared to life, growing quickly to a raging flame. After a few seconds the three solids ignited, going almost instantly to full thrust; the hold-down clamps released; and in a huge ball of reddish-blue flame that lit up the darkness, the Delta lifted off.

At less than three miles away, the noise was deafening, the light very bright. The thrust of the three solids, burning alongside the first stage engine, had the Delta clawing for the sky. In just seconds it was high overhead, turning east to climb toward the distant, dark horizon. After one minute we saw the three solids burn out, then separate, falling toward a cold and silent Atlantic. The first stage continued to burn, becoming a swiftly diminishing bluish light, finally lost to sight under some distant cloud cover.

"Now," I said, turning to John. "Do you believe what I said about watching a launch on television not being the same as seeing one in person?"

John grinned, and said, "OK, you were right. It IS much better in person."

We made our way to the bus, back to the motel, and home for a short night's sleep. On Saturday morning John packed his single bag, thanked us all profusely for our hospitality, and left for the airport (I gave him very careful and explicit directions). And so ended five of the more interesting and stimulating days of my life.

One item John wanted to accomplish on his travels was rounding up some science articles, of which he had no backlog at all. He asked me one night, while sitting at the cleared dinner table, if I had any ideas. It took me about two seconds to suggest one on Skylab, the follow-on effort to Apollo NASA already had in work. After I described it in some detail, John slapped his hand on the table and made one of those executive decisions for which noted editors are famous: "Let's make it a two-parter!"

And so I came to write a two-part article on Skylab. It was a lot of work, because NASA and contractor engineers made major configuration changes just before I finished. I had to wait six months for the new data, then start all over again. But it was, eventually, a nice check.

That same evening John gave me my one and only "Campbellian story idea." He pointed out that members of a highly advanced civilization might, while on vacation and enjoying primarily physical activities -- hiking, camping, swimming, etc. -- be misjudged as primitives by visiting space-farers. When I asked if he had given this idea to any one else, he looked at me and said, "It doesn't matter. If I gave it to four separate writers, you would all produce stories so different I could run 'em all!"

I wrote that story shortly after he left, and did sell it to John a few months later. "One Man Game" appeared in the February 1972 issue of ANALOG.

John W. Campbell died next year, on July 11, 1971, apparently of a burst blood vessel. He had just turned 61. I have no real understanding of what his physical problems were while here, but it was clear he had serious health issues.

I did get one hint. John told me his doctor had informed him he had two choices: stop smoking, or die. Instead, he did what only a person of idiosyncratic thinking and iron will could: he limited himself to two cigarettes a day. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, he stepped outside our front door and stood in the carport, leisurely enjoying a single cigarette; always in a very long holder. His doctor had also said that two a day wouldn't do any further harm to his already damaged lungs. The number of people who could maintain such a regimen, with a substance as addictive as nicotine, are few and very far between.

Before we left for the WorldCon in Boston over Labor Day in 1971, I received a call from Kay Tarrant, John's long-time assistant editor. She knew we were stopping in New York on our way, and asked if I could come by the office and write the blurb for the Skylab article, which she was then copy-editing; she didn't feel competent to handle the intro. So I sat in John Campbell's editorial chair, used his typewriter, and wrote the blurb; took all of perhaps five minutes.

I don't think any of John W. Campbell's editorial ability rubbed off on me from that brief physical contact, nor any of his brilliant and highly creative imagination. Certainly none of the personal quirks and foibles that made him a fascinating and highly individual human being. But though Nita, Rosy and I met a lot of fascinating people during the three-day parties we threw for most of the manned Apollo launches -- there was not, and will never be, another John W. Campbell.

 

NOTE: This article is based largely on personal memory, and verified by the recorded facts and dates available. Any errors of fact, feeling or impression are entirely the responsibility of the writer.

 

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