A big tip of a ten-gallon hat to CONtraflow 2011 con chair Rebecca Smith, guest liaison Raymond Boudreau, and the entire convention team for pulling off a very successful maiden event, the first fan-sponsored science fiction convention in the New Orleans area since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Paid attendance was around 300, not bad at all for an event in its first year. Although not advertised as such, the convention had the feel of a weekend-long relaxicon, where formal programming took a back seat to schmoozing, kibitzing, and catching up with old friends.
One opportunity I was extremely happy to be able to take advantage of was to personally thank many fans involved in Gulf Coast fandom, organizers of either CoastCon or MobiCon, for the marvelous and spirit-maintaining support they offered to my family and me during the difficult months following Hurricane Katrina. Despite having suffered monumental personal losses and setbacks themselves, a group of Gulf Coast fans made it their project in September and October of 2005 to track down every fan, writer, and artist they could from the Gulf Coast region to make sure they had made it through the disaster, and to provide encouragement, support, and care packages. My family and I were sheltering in a friend’s uncle’s empty condo down in Surfside, Florida when we received the first of two boxes that had been packed for us by the Gulf Coast fans — vegetarian groceries for Dara and me, and baby care items for our two infant boys. With all the help we received from friends and family (all detailed in the Afterword to The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501), this was the gesture and the effort that touched me the most deeply, and one of the aspects of Katrina I find myself talking about most often.
I heard stories from several longtime New Orleanian fans of what they had lost in the storm. One new friend, comics aficionado Dean Sweatman, told me he’d lost his entire collection of Golden Age and Silver Age comics. Unable to replace them, he’s taken to collecting scans of classic comics from the Internet. I shared my reminiscences of Jack Stocker, fan and book dealer at many local conventions, who’d lost about ten thousand books when his house flooded with nine feet of water. Jack, in his eighties at the time, had borne up under this loss with remarkable grace and optimism and had immediately begun building up his collection of books again, filling the closets of his new apartment in Faubourg Marigny behind the French Quarter, looking forward to selling at regional conventions again. I believe he was still making his book-buying rounds until right before he died.
About half of my formal programming events failed to come off as planned, but it ended up not being much of a big deal, since I always had good company to tide me through (at one panel on Sunday, the other two participants were called away by emergencies, so I ended up talking for much of the hour with an attendee whose grandmother had received food boxes from the senior citizens’ nutrition program I administered for many years in Louisiana). In addition to three discussion panels, I had two readings scheduled, one on Friday and the other on Saturday. I don’t think I was alone among con guests in having their readings attended by either zero or one audience member; readings didn’t turn out to be a popular event-type for the crowd that showed. But on Friday I enjoyed a fun one-on-one chat with Michael “Scotty” Scott, the gaming guest of honor, who, seeing me sitting alone in a function room, took pity on me and ended up telling me a whole bunch about the VulCons of the 1970s in New Orleans and the various games he has designed.
And on Saturday, instead of reading a selection from Fire on Iron, I was able to continue a long conversation with John Guidry, dean emeritus of New Orleans fandom and chair of the 1988 World Science Fiction Convention in New Orleans (NolaCon 2), who told me a boatload of wonderful stories about his friendships and encounters over the years with such genre luminaries as Leigh Brackett, Johnny Weissmuller, Harlan Ellison, Donald A. Wollheim (Guest of Honor at NolaCon 2), and Ray Harryhausen, as well as local New Orleanian friends we had shared in common, the late Jack Stocker and the much-missed George Alec Effinger. With John, I got matters rolling with a question or two and then just shut my trap and listened. His tales of writers and fans in New Orleans stretched all the way back to Depression-era encounters between H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and New Orleans resident E. Hoffmann Price, as well as the legendary Mississippi River raft trip taken by Edmund Hamilton and Jack Williamson to meet Price in the Crescent City. I learned many, many things about the VulCons, Crescent City Cons, and New Orleans Science Fiction and Fantasy Fairs of yore, plus inside dope on the logistical and financial challenges of running a WorldCon. He also told me a great story about how he’d pulled off his successful bid for the 1988 WorldCon — he’d convinced a number of comely young women fen (and one male fan) to dress as harlequins in the party suite, including one young lady who would grow up to become one of the most prominent editors in the science fiction field (hint: she was a guest at CONtraflow).
One of my most pleasant tasks at the convention was to serve as a judge for the costume contest. It was small, with five children and three adults participating, but the kids were all cute and excited, and two of the adult participants had constructed outstanding outfits — an eight-foot-tall werewolf and a zombie Lego man. One of the other judges, Jennie Faries, was a master costumer with lots of WorldCon experience, and the third, the Mysterious Margoli, was a one-time horror hostess from the Jackson, Mississippi area. Had a great time talking old monster movies with her. My old friend Diana Rowland, most recently author of My Life as a White Trash Zombie, and I spent an enjoyable hour together discussing “White Trash Supernaturals.” I moderated another panel on Saturday, “Our Vampires are Different,” and was very pleased to share the stage with Victor Gischler, who received the plum assignment from Marvel Comics of completely revamping (if you’ll pardon the pun) the vampire corner of the Marvel Universe. We talked some about our shared love of Gene Colan’s and Marv Wolfman’s classic Tomb of Dracula series, and I had a chance to clue the audience in on the unacknowledged greatness of the Blacula films. Another highlight for me was my birthday dinner at Kim Son Vietnamese Restaurant, joined by Rob and Cherie Cerio and my old writing workshop buddies Marian Moore, Fritz Ziegler, and Gwen Moore.
But I think my best memories of the con will end up being the time I spent with Ray Boudreau, with whom I share a birthday and a birth year, enthusiastically talking about the TV, cartoon, and movie-watching experiences and convention-going fun we have in common from our childhoods; my chance to do an interview with Scotty as part of his New Orleans fan history project; and the stories I heard from John Guidry. John revealed the very warm, very human sides of a couple of my favorite writers. I always had the impression of Ray Bradbury as being a splendidly happy and grateful man, and John confirmed this for me. Leigh Brackett was one of Ray’s earliest supporters, giving him invaluable encouragement during the years when he was writing his earliest stories and publishing them in Planet Stories. John told me that Leigh had mentioned once that Ray either called or wrote to Leigh every single day for decades to tell her how much he loved her and appreciated her. John also shared an anecdote about Edmund Hamilton, Leigh Brackett’s husband, one of my favorites of the early pulp writers. Ed had written a couple of hundred novellas and novelettes for the Captain Future pulp during the 1940s. John was present when a young boy approached Ed at a convention to tell him how much he’d loved the Captain Future stories. John said he’d watched Ed interact with the little boy, and Ed had treated the youngster like he’d been the only other person in the room, listening with rapt attention. You can’t beat hearing stories like that about a couple of your idols. Thanks, John. You helped make my weekend in New Orleans a memorable one.