This is a reflection on Jim Keith in the very early days, before most of you knew him. It may shed some light on how things later came to pass.
In a green valley long ago and far away... In dusty old Southern California...
...I was a 12-year old science fiction geek in the 7th grade. Now, this was in 1961 -- long before being a science fiction geek could be considered a cool thing. Outside of the school gym one morning a tall, skinny blonde guy whom I'd never seen before casually sauntered up to me, pointed to my notebook and said with a sneer, "Don't you have better things to do with your time than draw bad renditions of the corridor from 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' on the cover of your notebook?"
I really didn't know what to say. I think I stammered something about "just messing around with a rough draft" when he smiled, glanced down at the notebook again and said, "Well, at least you draw a pretty good Martian war machine."
The tall blonde guy was Jim Keith -- and he was a deft critic even then.
We had to become best friends, of course. I mean, there was no one else in all of John Marshall Junior High School who even knew Dr. Caligari had a cabinet, much less what the corridor inside of it looked like.
That became one of our first "in-group jokes" which was something Jim Keith would become notorious for. At the time our "in-group" consisted of only the two of us, but that would soon change. We were completely ostracized from the rest of the student body and these days I take it one is supposed to feel really bad about that, and maybe even pick up a gun and start blowing away people in resentment. But you know what? We didn't resent it -- we REVELED in it! We had secret knowledge and lived lives filled with things far more interesting and exciting than those of the poor adolescent drones around us.
We would hang out at each other's houses over the weekends, watching funky old black and white horror movies and science fiction films from the '40s and '50s. A few were truly great, but most were terrible and we knew it. We did shticks while watching them, doing our own prototype of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" at least 25 years before that show popularized such behavior. In the afternoons we would lounge about the swimming pool in his backyard, washing away those hot, dusty (and smoggy) Southern California days discussing such exotic topics as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Taoist philosophy and the strange reflections the bright sunlight on the surface of the pool cast on the bottom of the deep end or threw across pine fence running beside it.
Being something of a hermit-type, I would have been content to keep our in-group as it small as it was, but Keith had other ideas. His intellect was too expansive to waste on me alone. He began to rope in other likely candidates: Mel Nelson, Russ Brooker and Jerry Smith were notable additions, along with a few other neighborhood types who never quite made the grade. Since we were both named "Jim" the others soon took to calling us by our last names to avoid confusion. Before long we were doing it ourselves and so we became "Keith" and "Schumacher" to each other and most everyone else.
We never slept in those days. Our parents would make us turn off the TV around 3 am, but we would rap on until dawn then get up and walk the deserted streets of Pomona in the errie silence of the sleeping town. That was like being in our own bad science fiction movie... you know, the one where there's only a few people left alive in a deserted city, walking the empty streets for most of the picture? We would walk for hours, aimlessly, and I realize now with some surprise that we thought nothing of covering 15 or 20 miles on foot during these excursions.
Finally the citizens would wake up and open their stores, and we would prowl the junk shops and thrift stores, riffling through stacks of used paperbacks and magazines, uncovering treasures in the form of old science fiction magazines, golden-age paperback novels and short story collections. These were priceless jewels wrapped in lurid covers and the foolish store owners would practically give them away, charging us only a nickel or a dime for each one!
We both amassed sizable collections, although his tended to be larger than mine because we used to wager books and magazines on the outcomes of our chess games -- and Keith won most of the time. Actually, I think he could have always won -- but sometimes he would let me win, just so I would be enticed into placing a larger wager on the next game.
Keith was always in need a larger audience to fully appreciate his genius. I'm not being snide here. That's simply the way he felt about things. It was part of Jim Keith's nature and constituted a good deal of what you could call his charming persona. The thing of it is, he had a fair amount of justification for his attitude: Keith knew more movie and literary trivia than anyone else. He knew more about the rock groups on the radio than anybody. He knew the words to more songs. He made more and better jokes. He was the strongest swimmer and the fastest runner. He could even be more lazy and goof off better than anyone else...
It was hard to surprise Keith -- whenever you revealed something new to him he would inevitably respond with "I already knew that" -- and damn, most of the time he really did!
But then, there was normally a wide vein of humor mitigating his attitude. Keith was often urbane and witty, but he could slip into the positively wacky at the turn of a phrase. He was adept at lacing his jokes with a disparaging edge, so you had to be quick on your toes around him, or you could get cut. He was always seeing hilarious mis-connections with everyone and everything around him. He could take a little quirk and fashion it into a wondrously funny, complex, long-running commentary and thus he became a grand master of the "in-group" joke.
Keith was pretty much aware that he was working on a higher plane and saw no point in embracing a false modesty. In this respect he was more honest in his interpersonal relationships than most. Once he had discovered the I Ching, he was fond of referring to the line admonishing one not to "hide the creative light under a bushel". He felt superior not only to the mundane world around us, but also to the members of our very own in-group! And, when measured by our own internal yardsticks, he was often undeniably right. We generally accepted his approach with knowing sighs of resignation and perhaps a bit of resentment.
Of course, I considered myself to be pretty much his equal in most things (except chess) and didn't hesitate to call him on his attitude and commence to fencing with him if the mood struck me -- and this was surely the reason we were friends for so long. Sadly, it is also just as surely the reason we ultimately fell out and didn't speak to each other for the last 20 years of his life -- but that's another story.
Keith had a repertoire of verbal and psychological ploys he used in dealing with others. If someone was talking what he considered nonsense (which was often) -- or perhaps saying something that simply did not interest him -- he would roll his eyes up and dismiss them with a long moan, drawling out the words "What ARE you on about?!"
I still find myself using that technique to this day. If he was about to reveal a gem of insight -- or simply finish off the obvious fallacy of your argument -- he would begin his pronouncement with the significant phrase "The Thing Of It Is..." (spoken with the capital letters on each word).
I still use that one, too. As a matter of fact, I just used it seven paragraphs back -- and even after all this time I was acutely aware that it was a Keithism when I wrote it.
You see, that was the thing about Keith: What he said tended to stick in your head -- whether you agreed with him or not.
It was Keith who finally decided to send off three dollars to a classified ad we had been wondering about. This ad was always appearing in the back of Amazing Stories and we could tell from our old issues that it had been running for, like, at least ten years with the wording never changing. It was mysterious and enticing. It was from a guy named Seth Johnson who promised to send you a whole stack of something called "fanzines" as an introduction to what he called science fiction "fandom".
The piles of crudely mimeographed publications he sent us opened up another world: We realized there were other oddballs like ourselves scattered around the country -- and that they had found a way of communicating with each other through these self-produced newsletters and magazines. Remember, the internet, email and chat rooms were still 30 years in the future. People, particularly young people, were pretty much restricted to their own small circle of friends for interpersonal communication. Fanzines sent through the mail were essentially the websites and blogs of the time.
Blown away by fanzine concept, we immediately cobbled together our own four-page publication and sent it off to the addresses we found peppered throughout the zines we had received from Seth. To kick things off, we wanted to get lots of letters of comment. Keith postulated that the only way to do this was to manufacture an artificial controversy in the first issue. Ace books had been reissuing Edgar Rice Burrough's novels about Conan and John Cater of Mars with great success. Even though we both liked these type of stories, we came up with a devious plan: If we wrote a scathing, wrong-headed and generally stupid attack on these "sword and sorcery" stories (under a bogus pen-name, of course), we would provoke a knee-jerk, contentious response from our readers. Looking back, I'm not really surprised that it was Keith who conceived of intentionally "trolling" for comments as early as 1964.
But it worked. We got tons of letters, including one from the famous author Roger Zelazny (who was just breaking on the science fiction field in a big way). This was heady stuff for a couple of fifteen-year old kids, but in typical fashion, Keith was not satisfied. He actually had the nerve to write to Zelazny and say that since he liked our first issue so much, why didn't he write us an exclusive short story or article for our second issue?
I was appalled and angry with him for such presumption... and then Zelazny actually sent us an article!
As exciting as this was, something even more significant came about as a result of that first issue of "ai" (which the dictionary defined as "the call of a three-toed tree sloth which roams the woods uttering plaintive cries for members of its own kind"). One day I got a telephone call from a fellow who introduced himself as Dwain Kaiser.
Dwain lived in Upland, a small town 15 miles up the road from where we lived in Pomona. He had seen a copy of our zine and noticed that we lived nearby. He told me that every Thursday evening he rode into downtown Los Angeles with a friend named Fred Whitledge to attend the weekly meetings of something called the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society (LASFS). Dwain wanted to know if Jim and I would be interested in going with them to the next meeting?
It's hard to describe the impact this had on us -- this first in-person encounter with other like-minded types, who had their own organization and sometimes as many as 50 or 60 people showing up for their gatherings every week in the heart of the sprawling metropolis to the west. It was our first step out of the egg shells into a much larger reality. We were still weird fifteen-year old kids, but we were making an independent movement into a world populated with adults. Of course, we didn't think of it like that at the time... We just knew our lives had taken an incredibly cool turn of events.
What happened as a result of Dwain, Fred, Jim and I getting together to go to LASFS is the stuff of our own legend -- it wasn't long until the in-group Keith had put together, along with Dwain and Fred and other people whom Dwain contacted in the valley area morphed into the "valley fandom" known as ValSFA.
Some of you know the rest of the story: Valley fandom rapidly gathered more lost souls into its fold and all of us, at once together and apart, were swept up into the karmic wheels of the kaleidoscope that was the late sixties. Whatever we may think of those times in retrospect, there's no denying the impact that era had on each of our lives.
This then was the genesis our common connection -- the almost inevitable chain of events that started with Jim Keith and his well-known attitude -- when he felt compelled to offer a total stranger an uninvited, opinionated comment on the artistic abilities displayed on the cover of his junior high school notebook.
What would have happened if Keith had not been the way he was: Outspoken... impulsive... demanding and critical of everything he saw? It's safe to say there would have been no first issue of "ai" for Dwain to see and no in-group to form the chrysalis of valley fandom.
Anyway, that's my theory. It's strange -- and somewhat humbling to it say now -- but, well, in the final analysis... it was Keith:
He started it all.
Dinosaur Beach, Florida
October 25, 1999