All Our Yesterdays 21
by Harry Warner Jr.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the great names of the world at one time may have been quite different. For all we know, Paul Revere may have fallen regularly from his horse and lost his way down vague New England roads before he became sufficiently experienced to make that notorious night-time gallop to warn citizens that those people from across the Atlantic weren’t all TAFF winners. Doctor Faustus probably went through a certain stage of life when he didn’t need to raise the devil to seduce a blonde German girl. Even Paul Bunyan must have been a little boy at one time. Keeping this in mind, maybe you’ll take my word for the fact that there was an Al Ashley before Charles Burbee made him famous.
Burbee’s chronicles in various insurgent publications have made Al Ashley a legend. Burbee portrayed Al as an individual with unjustified egotism, given to stupid remarks. But was this the real Al Ashley? For all I know, in person Al may have been the incomplete individual who appears in the Burbee anecdotes. My knowledge of him is based solely on one telephone conversation, a number of letters and postal cards, and a thick stack of Ashley’s publications, plus an imposing assortment of fanzines of the day that contained Ashley contributions. But fandom as a whole may have been blinded by the brilliance of Burb’s characterisation. The real Al Ashley, at least on paper, was one of the most intelligent, fun-to-read, and talented people who has ever been in fandom.
Al Ashley didn’t even always live in Los Angeles. The best years of Al’s fan life were spent in Battle Creek, Mich. It is now a ghost city, as far as fandom is concerned, but during World War Two, it was one of the biggest fan cities in the world. Al was then married to Abby Lu, who was also active in fandom. Also living there were Walt Liebscher, E. Everett Evans, and Jack Wiedenbeck, plus several fringe fans and professionals. Battle Creek even had a house devoted solely to science fiction fans, known as the Slan Shack, which Al purchased in the summer of 1943. They lived there until most of them moved to Los Angeles. The Battle Creek fans were the core of ASP, the Associated Slan Press, which appeared on many of the best fanzines of the day. The emblem depicted an asp, sitting on what might be mistaken for a sunny rock, but was actually intended to be an outstanding part of Cleopatra’s anatomy.
It’s pretty hard to think of anything that could be done in the fandom of the 1940’s that Al didn’t do. He was a leader in FAPA’s first glorious period, turning up in every mailing for years with En Garde, holding all four offices, and setting an activity record that few persons excelled until later years. He was a major part of Nova, a general fanzine that didn’t last too long but was spectacular while it survived. He bobbed up at most of the conferences and conclaves that were staged in the Midwestern and Eastern parts of the nation during the war years, had a fuss with Claude Degler, contributed to almost every fanzine of any repute, collected books and magazines in the old-fashioned way, and I seem to recall that he even dabbled in business as a fantasy book dealer for a while. And in all those activities, there were no evidences of the absurdities that Burbee has related, with two possible exceptions.
One exception was the fact that this highly intelligent person, a leader in fandom, seemingly capable of achieving anything to which he set himself, earned his living in the most unexpected fashion; he drove a taxi cab. I was told by someone or other, not Ashley, that he chose this vocation deliberately, as one that would require no mental exertion on the routine task of earning a living, in order to spare his thinking processes for the more interesting things in life.
The other exception was Al’s pet project, Slan Centre. This was supposed to be something like a lot of Slan Shacks, but bearing the same relationship to a Slan Shack as a small town does to a single country house. There were two unfortunate things about the proposal which may have caused many fans to consider the project a preview of the qualities in Ashley that Burb later immortalised. The use of slan in the title caused some persons to think that Ashley was seriously convinced that fans were slans. And it was just about this time that Degler was talking about his wilderness settlement in the Ozarks where fans would make love and rise above humanity. It may have been difficult to determine whether the Ashley or the Degler proposal was the parody of the other. But the misconceptions were the fault of fans who read hurriedly or incompletely. Al once wrote on the fans-are-slans topic a statement much like the relevant paragraph by Speer in the Fancyclopedia. Al said:
The half-serious use of slan, Al continued, was “a looser and more general sense” than the original meaning. He intended it to refer to such fannish characteristics as interest in fantasy, time-binding ability, interest in many things, ability to express oneself in print, and the strong feeling of kinship between fans.
Speer, I might add, had written from his testing observations
A lengthy article on the Slan Centre project that Al wrote in 1943 convinces me that the idea is not inherently foolish. Fans can get along well with one another in such instances as Berkeley, and there is no intrinsic reason why fans should not make up the population of a city block, if they can run a household. Ashley suggested a location on the outskirts of a large city which would contain “a collection of adjacent individual dwellings sprinkled with a few apartment structures and with a large communal building.” Choice of the site would be made with an eye to the city’s current fan population, to permit some of the city’s current fan population, to permit some of the centre’s inhabitants to avoid a drastic break with familiar surroundings. And it should be understood that this proposal was taken very seriously by level-headed fans, at the time it was made. Art Widner, for instance, wanted immediate appointment of a treasurer who would bank weekly or monthly deposits by prospective inhabitants, as a starter towards construction which couldn’t start until after the war. One other point: the proposal to erect a city block of buildings did not sound as crazy in 1943 as it does in 1959. It was just at this time that war jobs were producing inflated salaries, two or three times as much as they had ever earned before the war, and soldier fans who had no outlet for their salaries except liquor and women could visualise construction operations that would be paid for after a few years’ scrimping.
What kind of a man was Al Ashley in the pre-Burbee era? He once admitted in print that he possessed three physical quirks. He was quite interested in his toe-nails on the little toe of each foot, because they were so vestigial that they could hardly be found by the closest examination. He had four nipples, instead of the normal masculine quota; the second set were smaller but surrounded by the characteristic tuft of hair, and were located about four inches below the standard pair. Finally, he said
Politically, Al once described himself as a rugged individualist, detailing at considerable length the basis for his statement. He possessed the dissatisfaction so common to fans even today with the general national craving for security at all costs:
Al is today a completely staid and conservative person, I understand. Evidence of this can be found in preview form in his fanzine writings. For instance, he was strongly moved to comment whenever unions were the topic. He said he would support any union that “is devoted solely to preventing industry or capital from exploiting labour, and not doing so merely so it can do the exploiting itself”, but he gave the strong impression that he didn’t believe such a critter existed.
He was half-scornful, half-fearful of drink, I suspect. In any event, he claimed that he rarely drank. He didn’t even like the extremity implicit in the philosophy of optimism. Once he told E. Everett Evans:
The excerpts that I’ve quoted might serve as evidence on the merits of Ashley’s style of writing. The best way to describe it might be as an anonymous style. It is the same kind of prose that you might expect to find on the editorial page of a newspaper or in a magazine designed to simplify complex subjects for semi-informed readers. It isn’t an individual kind of writing, and it would be impossible to identify an Ashley article or letter solely by the quirks of style that make distinctive the prose of many fans. On the other hand, Ashley had the ability to write concisely, he used good grammar, spelled correctly, and he was notoriously free from bad habits of syntax.
In fact, the one thing that make Al’s magazines instantly identifiable was the front cover. It is hard to determine how the responsibility for those covers was divided between him and Jack Wiedenback. Jack was the artist in Slan Shack, but on one occasion when he wasn’t available, Al did the cover, and it is almost indistinguishable in general appearance from Jack’s work, aside from confinement to a single colour. The cover process was a kind of silk-screening that has not reappeared in fandom since Al stopped publishing. The colours were by accident or design just a trifle varied from pure greens, blues, reds and greys, giving quite distinctive an appearance.
It’s hard to say how well an Ashley anthology would be received, after all these years and after the transmogrification of his character. Almost all his work for FAPA was ephemeral in theme, depending for full understanding on knowledge of what had gone before and what surrounded it in the mailings. However, a scattered item or two might be worth publication again at this late state. Al once made an impassioned plea for the substitution of tem for fan as the general description of us critters. It’s worth reading for the thoroughness with which he worked out its possibilities, even if you don’t like its derivation: from the Latin tempus, as a symbol of the time-binding ability of science fiction enthusiasts. Also suitable for reprinting would be “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There”, because of its epitomising quality, its faithful explanation of the plight that most of us have suffered at one time or another, when a fan comes calling and shown no signs of saying goodbye. This was the chronicle of Degler’s attempt to attend the 1943 Michicon at Slan Shack.
As an artist, Al had no particular personality, either. He did exhibit a firmness of line and a peculiar preference for tiny drawings that consumed just a small area and occupied that square completely; his work was good in contrast to the extremely low level of fan art that prevailed at the time. I don’t remember that he did much poetry. His fiction was probably his weakest point, usually consisting of a very brief story that existed solely for some kind of jolting surprise in the last line. A sample was the one-pager in Walt Liebscher’s Chanticlear; which ended: “Disgustedly, at last, with her lack of faith, the other toadstool got up and slowly walked away.” Al was very skilful at plucking from the dullest-appearing volumes or ancient magazines passages that appealed for their quaintness or unexpected appositeness to the current situation or times.
I imagine that any reasonably objective fan would have ranked Al Ashley among the top 25 fans of the time during a period of at least three years in the early 1940’s. He had few real enemies while he was in Battle Creek, and at a distance, he imparted a quality of capability at handling any situation, a take-charge ability, and clear-headed sanity that were quite rate in fandom during those hectic days, when maturity was mostly gone to war. I don’t pretend to know what caused him to drop out of fandom after the move to Los Angeles, and I don’t know if Al Ashley — the Al Ashley that Burbee describes — is a man who has changed character or whose true character has come to light or a figment of the Burb imagination. But I wish there were more people in fandom today who possess the qualities in letters and fanzines that Al Ashley had during those halcyon years.
Last revised: 1 March, 2006
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