Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Forge of History

I want to talk about the part of New York State I grew up in, which was a resort area in the southern part of the Catskill Mountains usually known as the Borsht Belt.

I'm sure that when Hillary Clinton was running for a seat as one of New York's senators that some called her a carpetbagger. People with longer memories or a historical perspective remember that she wasn't the first. Robert Kennedy also won a New York senate seat back in the 1960s, back in the days when helping the poor people of Appalachia was a big issue.

Sometime after he was elected, a big bill to aid Appalachia was being put together, with many states getting pieces of the pie. To the surprise of many, RFK spoke up, urging some of the money be allocated to some of the counties in New York State he represented. Appalachia, he pointed out, did not stop at the West Virginia -- Maryland border; there were blighted and neglected mountain regions running northward, even north of the New Jersey -- New York border.

Now, some might have thought RFK was stretching a point to buy votes. Poverty on the level of West Virginia? Almost within sight of the Hudson River? But it was a good call; RFK's staffers had done their homework. Some of the counties surprisingly close to the New York suburbs are poor, poor, poor even today. They may be relatively poorer today than they used to be in 1950s, 1960s, and part of the 1970s because the once-booming resort industry, which had been attracting customers from New York's Jewish community and growing since the 1930s, suffered a major crash that has left the ruins of abandoned hotels, camps, and bungalow colonies scattered through parts of Ulster, Sullivan, and Orange Counties.

Go find a map website or a paper road atlas and look for a map of the area in Ulster County around a little no-stoplight hamlet called Kerhonkson, NY. I grew up there in a house up on a hill above a major highway, Route 209, and about a half a mile from the town. Route 209 runs from a town on the Hudson River called Kingston, meanders southwest across the New York--Pennsylvania state line at Port Jervis, and finally ends in central Pennsylvania. It's a snake of a highway, very scenic, but a brutal drive if one is used to driving wide and relatively flat Interstates.

In my pre-teen and early teen years I used to walk down the shoulder of 209 or in the concrete ditches alongside the two-lane concrete highway and carry home groceries from the small stores in town. The town had concrete sidewalks, about as wide as standard sidewalks are now. Would you believe me if I told you that there were times in the summer during "the season" when I was literally pushed off the sidewalk into the street by the crush of adult tourists in town from nearby hotels and bugalow colonies?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Since I noticed in WIRED that blogging is so almost-pre-Y2K, I felt I had to start one.

My name is Sanford Zane Meschkow. I grew up about 100 miles north of New York and I have been a potential science fiction fan since a little after I learned to read and an active fan since the early 1960s. So I remember an era of science fiction fandom, especially New York and Philadelphia fandom, that is soon going to fade from living memory. Excuse me while I drop a few names.

Hey, I helped collate one of the early issues of that great newszine, LOCUS , before Charles N. Brown moved it to the West Coast. I helped several fans move belongings out of James Blish's apartment when he was moving to England. I was president of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society early in the 1970s when I invited Keith Laumer to be our Principal Speaker and had Kelly Freas do a portrait of him for the program book. (I hope one of his kids still has it -- it was great!) I have my very own Harlan Ellison story. And I remember when Star Trek fans tore the world of SF fandom in two! Yes, I saw a little fannish history and it might be of some interest to some of you.

And I also worked for a short time in the space program ("Pass the word! Secret Minuteman launch tonight at 8:00 PM!"). I want to tell you all something about that. Zero Defects, everybody! Did you know that some of the Apollo contractor community used to say that "NASA" stood for "Northern Alabama Salvation Army" or "Never Absolutely Sure of Anything"?

So, what do I intend to do in this blog?? Well, for one thing, preserve some history of science fiction fandom as it was a generation ago before blogs, e-mail, print on demand, word processing, laser printers, and most desktop IT in general. I also want to comment on some favorite books, authors, and trends. (For example, I think Isaac Asimov's effort to link his Foundation and robot series was a big mistake.)

I also want to react to the sciencefictionalization of our culture -- TV ads are full of SF themes! -- and shed a few tears about the space program we don't have.

I plan to ramble on about my life, too. I remember the lost world of the Catskill Mountain Borsht Belt hotels in the 1960s and 1970s and I would like to comment on why and how they passed away. I once worked for a not-for-profit research outfit called The Franklin Institute Research Laboratories in Philadelphia and saw and did some interesting things, including an effort during the Carter administration to get solar energy off the ground. I learned what it was like to have people eagerly crowding around you because they think you can get them a solar energy project development grant. It can go to your head! Perhaps under the Obama administration the days of the National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center I worked at will come back. But I hope they won't repeat our mistakes. And I once worked for a publication that served the amusement park, carnival, and theme park industry. Wow, were those trade shows fun!!
Just one of the things I want to comment on is how the desktop computer revolution sucked up some of the creative energy that should have gone into the post-Apollo space program, but how modern hardware and software makes small and cheap commercial space programs possible. So don't let me forget that. And I want to tip my hat to absent friends, like old-time radio programs I remember (Gunsmoke, Space Patrol, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet [ did Robert Heinlein have something to do with that program or did he just sell the name? Does anyone know for sure?], the B-Bar-B Riders, etc.). And maybe do an appreciation of Jean Shepherd, who used to broadcast on WOR in New York before he published in Playboy. Weirdly enough, I feel that some of Rush Limbaugh's on-the-air style comes from Ol' Shep. Perhaps they just share a Midwest storyteller's style -- or did El Rushbo swipe some of Ol' Shep's shtick? Well, there's a lot to cover.

So, here's hoping I can attract the attention of some of you out in cyberspace and enlighten or amuse you. For those of you that find me, comments are invited!