Fritz Leiber - Catch That Zeppelin

By Gail Wood,2014-11-24 14:51
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Fritz Leiber - Catch That Zeppelin


Fritz Leiber

    Fritz Leiber has been writing and selling science-fiction, supernatural-horror, and heroic-fantasy stories for thirty-seven years. During some of that time he was a resident of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. For the past six years, however, he has lived in San Francisco in a small downtown apartment building, from the seventh-story roof of which he observes the stars through a three-inch refracting telescope. What with San Francisco‟s fogs, lights, highrises and other aerial apparitions (seagulls, he says, like shooting stars before dawn and aircraft seeming UFO‟s in sunset glow) this viewing has led to an equal interest in meterology and the roofscapes and general anatomy and ecology of large citiesone thing leading to another.

    Afternoons he spends in walks about the romantic hilly city.

    His growing engrossment in San Francisco has led him to write his first full-scale supernatural-horror novel since 1943‟s Conjure Wife. It

    concerns Thibaut de Castries, a modern black magician who has created a new brand of the occult based on the malign influences and “black music” generated by tall buildings and large cities. Our Lady of Darkness (the full-length novel to be published later in 1977 by Putnam‟s/Berkley after the appearance of a two-part excerpt, “The Pale Brown Thing,”

    earlier in the year in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) will involve not only the influences of large cities but also

    real-life characters such as Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Isadora Duncan, Dashiell Hammett and Clark Ashton Smith. Nor will his new novel be the first example of Fritz Leiber‟s fascination with real-live

    real-dead personae. Read on:

    This year on a trip to New York City to visit my son, who is a social historian at a leading municipal university there, I had a very unsettling experience. At black moments, of which at my age I have quite a few, it still makes me distrust profoundly those absolute boundaries in Space and Time which are our sole protection against Chaos, and fear that my mindno, my entire individual existencemay at any moment at

    all and without any warning whatsoever be blown by a sudden gust of Cosmic Wind to an entirely different spot in a Universe of Infinite Possibilities. Or, rather, into another Universe altogether. And that my mind and individuality will be changed to fit.

    But at other moments, which are still in the majority, I believe that my unsettling experience was only one of those remarkably vivid waking dreams to which old people become increasingly susceptible, generally waking dreams about the past, and especially waking dreams about a past in which at some crucial point one made an entirely different and braver choice than one actually did, or in which the whole world made such a decision, with a completely different future resulting. Golden glowing might-have-beens nag increasingly at the minds of some older people.

    In line with this interpretation I must admit that my whole unsettling experience was structured very much like a dream. It began with startling flashes of a changed world. It continued into a longer period when I completely accepted the changed world and delighted in it and, despite fleeting quivers of uneasiness, wished I could bask in its glow forever. And it ended in horrors, or nightmares, which I hate to mention, let alone discuss, until I must.

    Opposing this dream notion, there are times when I am completely convinced that what happened to me in Manhattan and in a certain famous building there was no dream at all, but absolutely real, and that I did indeed visit another Time Stream.

    Finally, I must point out that what I am about to tell you I am necessarily describing in retrospect, highly aware of several transitions involved and, whether I want to or not, commenting on them and making deductions that never once occurred to me at the time.

No, at the time it happened to meand now at this moment of writing

    I am convinced that it did happen and was absolutely realone instant

    simply succeeded another in the most natural way possible. I questioned nothing.

    As to why it all happened to me, and what particular mechanism was involved, well, I am convinced that every man or woman has rare, brief moments of extreme sensitivity, or rather vulnerability, when his mind and entire being may be blown by the Change Winds to Somewhere Else. And then, by what I call the Law of the Conservation of Reality, blown back again.

    I was walking down Broadway somewhere near 34th Street. It was a chilly day, sunny despite the smoga bracing dayand I suddenly began to stride

    along more briskly than is my cautious habit, throwing my feet ahead of me with a faint suggestion of the goose step. I also threw back my shoulders and took deep breaths, ignoring the fumes which tickled my nostrils. Beside me, traffic growled and snarled, rising at times to a machine-gun rata-tat-tat, while pedestrians were scuttling about with that desperate ratlike urgency characteristic of all big American cities, but which reaches its ultimate in New York. I cheerfully ignored that too. I even smiled at the sight of a ragged bum and a fur-coated gray-haired society lady both independently dodging across the street through the hurtling traffic with a cool practiced skill one sees only in America‟s biggest metropolis.

    Just then I noticed a dark, wide shadow athwart the street ahead of me. It could not be that of a cloud, for it did not move. I craned my neck sharply and looked straight up like the veriest yokel, a regular Hans-Kopf-in-die-Luft (Hans-Head-in-the-Air, a German figure of comedy).

    My gaze had to climb up the giddy 102 stories of the tallest building in the world, the Empire State. My gaze was strangely accompanied by the vision of a gigantic, long-fanged ape making the same ascent with a beautiful girl in one pawoh, yes, I was recollecting the charming

    American fantasy-film King Kong, or as they name it in Sweden, Kong King.

    And then my gaze clambered higher still, up the 222-foot sturdy tower, to the top of which was moored the nose of the vast, breathtakingly beautiful, streamlined, silvery shape which was making the shadow.

    Now here is a most important point. I was not at the time in the least startled by what I saw. I knew at once that it was simply the bow section of the German zeppelin Ostwald, named for the great German pioneer of physical chemistry and electrochemistry, and queen of the mighty passenger and light-freight fleet of luxury airliners working out of Berlin, Baden-Baden, and Bremerhaven. That matchless Armada of Peace, each titanic airship named for a world-famous German scientistthe Mach,

    the Nernst, the Humbolt, the Fritz Haber, the French-named Antoine Henri Becquerel, the American-named Edison, the Polish-named T. Sklodowska Edison, and even the Jewish-named Einstein! The great humanitarian navy in which I held a not unimportant position as international sales consultant and FachmannI mean expert. My chest swelled with justified pride at this edelnobleachievement of der Vaterland.

    I knew also without any mind-searching or surprise that the length of the Ostwald was more than one half the 1,472-foot height of the Empire State Building plus its mooring tower, thick enough to hold an elevator. And my heart swelled again with the thought that the Berlin Zeppelinturm (dirigible tower) was only a few meters less high. Germany, I told myself, need not strain for mere numerical recordsher sweeping scientific and

    technical achievements speak for themselves to the entire planet.

    All this literally took little more than a second, and I never broke my snappy stride. As my gaze descended, I cheerfully hummed under my breath Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles.

    The Broadway I saw was utterly transformed, though at the time this seemed every bit as natural as the serene presence of the Ostwald high overhead, vast ellipsoid held aloft by helium. Silvery electric trucks and buses and private cars innumerable purred along far more evenly and quietly, and almost as swiftly, as had the noisy, stenchful, jerky gasoline-powered vehicles only moments before, though to me now the latter were completely forgotten. About two blocks ahead, an occasional

    gleaming electric car smoothly swung into the wide silver arch of a quick-battery-change station, while others emerged from under the arch to rejoin the almost dreamlike stream of traffic.

    The air I gratefully inhaled was fresh and clean, without trace of smog.

    The somewhat fewer pedestrians around me still moved quite swiftly, but with a dignity and courtesy largely absent before, with the numerous blackamoors among them quite as well dressed and exuding the same quiet confidence as the Caucasians.

    The only slightly jarring note was struck by a tall, pale, rather emaciated man in black dress and with unmistakably Hebraic features. His somber clothing was somewhat shabby, though well kept, and his thin shoulders were hunched. I got the impression he had been looking closely at me, and then instantly glancing away as my eyes sought his. For some reason I recalled what my son had told me about the City College of New YorkCCNYbeing referred to surreptitiously and jokingly as Christian College Now Yiddish. I couldn‟t help chuckling a bit at that

    witticism, though I am glad to say it was a genial little guffaw rather than a malicious snicker. Germany in her well-known tolerance and noble-mindedness has completely outgrown her old, disfiguring anti-Semitismafter all, we must admit in all fairness that perhaps a third of our great men are Jews or carry Jewish genes, Haber and Einstein among themdespite what dark and, yes, wicked memories may lurk in the subconscious minds of oldsters like myself and occasionally briefly surface into awareness like submarines bent on ship murder.

    My happily self-satisfied mood immediately reasserted itself, and with a smart, almost military gesture I brushed to either side with a thumbnail the short, horizontal black mustache which decorates my upper lip, and I automatically swept back into place the thick comma of black hair (I confess I dye it) which tends to fall down across my forehead.

    I stole another glance up at the Ostwald, which made me think of the matchless amenities of that wondrous deluxe airliner: the softly purring motors that powered its propellerselectric motors, naturally,

    energized by banks of lightweight TSE batteries and as safe as its helium; the Grand Corridor running the length of the passenger deck from the Bow Observatory to the stern‟s like-windowed Games Room, which becomes

    the Grand Ballroom at night; the other peerless rooms letting off that corridor—the Gesellschaftsraum der Kapitän (Captain‟s Lounge) with its dark woodwork, manly cigar smoke and Damentische (Tables for Ladies), the Premier Dining Room with its linen napery and silverplated aluminum

    dining service, the Ladies‟ Retiring Room always set out profusely with fresh flowers, the Schwartzwald bar, the gambling casino with its roulette, baccarat, chemmy, blackjack (vingt-et-un), its tables for skat and bridge and dominoes and sixty-six, its chess tables presided over by the delightfully eccentric world‟s champion Nimzowitch, who would defeat you blindfold, but always brilliantly, simultaneously or one at a time, in charmingly baroque brief games for only two gold pieces per person per game (one gold piece to nutsy Nimzy, one to the DLG), and the supremely luxurious staterooms with costly veneers of mahogany over balsa; the hosts of attentive stewards, either as short and skinny as jockeys or else actual dwarfs, both types chosen to save weight; and the titanium elevator rising through the countless bags of helium to the two-decked Zenith Observatory, the sun deck wind-screened but roofless to let in the ever-changing clouds, the mysterious fog, the rays of the stars and good old Sol, and all the heavens. Ah, where else on land or sea could you buy such high living?

    I called to mind in detail the single cabin which was always mine when I sailed on the Ostwaldmeine Stammkabine. I visualized the Grand

    Corridor thronged with wealthy passengers in evening dress, the handsome officers, the unobtrusive, ever-attentive stewards, the gleam of white shirt fronts, the glow of bare shoulders, the muted dazzle of jewels, the music of conversations like string quartets, the lilting low laughter that traveled along.

    Exactly on time I did a neat “Links, marchieren!” (“To the left, march!”) and passed through the impressive portals of the Empire State and across its towering lobby to the mutedly silver-doored banks of elevators. On my way I noted the silver-glowing date: 6 May 1937 and the time of day: 1:07 P.M. Good!since the Ostwald did not cast off until the tick of 3:00 P.M., I would be left plenty of time for a leisurely lunch and good talk with my son, if he had remembered to meet meand there was

    actually no doubt of that, since he is the most considerate and orderly minded of sons, a real German mentality, though I say it myself.

    I headed for the express bank, enjoying my passage through the clusters of high-class people who thronged the lobby without any unseemly crowding, and placed myself before the doors designated “Dirigible Departure Lounge” and in briefer German “Zum Zeppelin.”

    The elevator hostess was an attractive Japanese girl in skirt of dull silver with the DLG, Double Eagle and Dirigible insignia of the German Airship Union emblazoned in small on the left breast of her mutedly silver jacket. I noted with unvoiced approval that she appeared to have

    an excellent command of both German and English and was uniformly courteous to the passengers in her smiling but unemotional Nipponese fashion, which is so like our German scientific precision of speech, though without the latter‟s warm underlying passion. How good that our

    two federations, at opposite sides of the globe, have strong commercial and behavioral ties!

    My fellow passengers in the lift, chiefly Americans and Germans, were of the finest type, very well dressedexcept that just as the doors

    were about to close, there pressed in my doleful Jew in black. He seemed ill at ease, perhaps because of his shabby clothing. I was surprised, but made a point of being particularly polite toward him, giving him a slight bow and brief but friendly smile, while flashing my eyes. Jews have as much right to the acme of luxury travel as any other people on the planet, if they have the moneyand most of them do.

    During our uninterrupted and infinitely smooth passage upward, I touched my outside left breast pocket to reassure myself that my ticketfirst class on the Ostwald!and my papers were there. But

    actually I got far more reassurance and even secret joy from the feel and thought of the documents in my tightly zippered inside left breast pocket: the signed preliminary agreements that would launch America herself into the manufacture of passenger zeppelins. Modern Germany is always generous in sharing her great technical achievements with responsible sister nations, supremely confident that the genius of her scientists and engineers will continue to keep her well ahead of all other lands; and after all, the genius of two Americans, father and son, had made vital though indirect contributions to the development of safe airship travel (and not forgetting the part played by the Polish-born wife of the one and mother of the other).

    The obtaining of those documents had been the chief and official reason for my trip to New York City, though I had been able to combine it most pleasurably with a long overdue visit with my son, the social historian, and with his charming wife.

    These happy reflections were cut short by the jarless arrival of our elevator at its lofty terminus on the one hundredth floor. The journey old love-smitten King Kong had made only after exhausting exertion we had accomplished effortlessly. The silvery doors spread wide. My fellow passengers hung back for a moment in awe and perhaps a little trepidation at the thought of the awesome journey ahead of them, and Iseasoned

    airship traveler that I amwas the first to step out, favoring with

    a smile and nod of approval my pert yet cool Japanese fellow employee

of the lower echelons.

    Hardly sparing a glance toward the great, fleckless window confronting the doors and showing a matchless view of Manhattan from an elevation of 1,250 feet minus two stories, I briskly turned, not right to the portals of the Departure Lounge and tower elevator, but left to those of the superb German restaurant Krähenest (“Crow‟s Nest”).

    I passed between the flanking three-foot-high bronze statuettes of Thomas Edison and, Marie Sklodowska Edison niched in one wall and those of Count von Zeppelin and Thomas Sklodowska Edison facing them from the other, and entered the select precincts of the finest German dining place outside the Fatherland. I paused while my eyes traveled searchingly around the room with its restful dark wood paneling deeply carved with beautiful representations of the Black Forest and its grotesque supernatural denizenskobolds, elves, gnomes, dryads

    (tastefully sexy), and the like. They interested me since I am what Americans call a Sunday painter, though almost my sole subject matter is zeppelins seen against blue sky and airy, soaring clouds.

    The Oberkellner came hurrying toward me with menu tucked under his left elbow and saying, “Mein Herr! Charmed to see you once more! I have a perfect table-for-one with porthole looking out across the Hudson.”

    But just then a youthful figure rose springily from behind a table set against the far wall, and a dear and familiar voice rang out to me with “Hier, Papa!”

    “Nein, Herr Ober,” I smilingly told the headwaiter as I walked past him, “heute hab ich ein Gesellschafter, Mein Sohn.”

    I confidently made my way between tables occupied by well-dressed folk, both white and black.

    My son wrung my hand with fierce family affection, though we had last parted only that morning. He insisted that I take the wide, dark, leather-upholstered seat against the wall, which gave me a fine view of the entire restaurant, while he took the facing chair.

    “Because during this meal I wish to look only on you, Papa,” he assured me with manly tenderness. “And we have at least an hour and a half together, PapaI have checked your luggage through, and it is likely already aboard the Ostwald.” Thoughtful, dependable boy!

    “And now, Papa, what shall it be?” he continued after we had settled ourselves. “I see that today‟s special is Sauerbraten mit Spatzel and sweet-sour red cabbage. But there is also Paprikahuhn and—”

    “Leave the chicken to flaunt her paprika in lonely red splendor today,” I interrupted him. “Sauerbraten sounds fine.”

    Ordered by my Herr Ober, the aged wine waiter had already approached our table. I was about to give him direction when my son took upon himself that task with an authority and a hostfulness that warmed my heart. He scanned the wine menu rapidly but thoroughly.

    “The Zinfandel 1933,” he ordered with decision, though glancing my way to see if I concurred with his judgment. I smiled and nodded.

“And perhaps ein Tropfchen Schnapps to begin with?” he suggested.

    “A brandy?—yes!” I replied. “And not just a drop, either. Make it a double. It is not every day I lunch with that distinguished scholar, my son.”

    “Oh, Papa,” he protested, dropping his eyes and almost blushing. Then firmly to the bent-backed, white-haired wine waiter, “Schnapps also.

    Doppel.” The old waiter nodded his approval and hurried off.

    We gazed fondly at each other for a few blissful seconds. Then I said, “Now tell me more fully about your achievements as a social historian on an exchange professorship in the New World. I know we have spoken about this several times, but only rather briefly and generally when various of your friends were present, or at least your lovely wife. Now I would like a more leisurely man-to-man account of your great work. Incidentally, do you find the scholarly apparatusbooks, und so weiter

    (“et cetera”)—of the Municipal Universities of New York City adequate to your needs after having enjoyed those of Baden-Baden University and the institutions of high learning in the German Federation?”

    “In some respects they are lacking,” he admitted. “However, for my purposes they have proved completely adequate.” Then once more he dropped his eyes and almost blushed. “But, Papa, you praise my small efforts far too highly.” He lowered his voice. “They do not compare with the victory for international industrial relations you yourself have won in a fortnight.”

“All in a day‟s work for the DLG,” I said self-deprecatingly, though

    once again lightly touching my left chest to establish contact with those most important documents safely stowed in my inside left breast pocket. “But now, no more polite fencing!” I went on briskly. “Tell me all about those „small efforts,‟ as you modestly refer to them.”

His eyes met mine. “Well, Papa,” he began in suddenly matter-of-fact

    fashion, “all my work these last two years has been increasingly dominated by a firm awareness of the fragility of the underpinnings of the good world-society we enjoy today. If certain

    historically-minute key events, or cusps, in only the past one hundred years had been decided differentlyif another course had been chosen

    than the one that wasthen the whole world might now be plunged in wars and worse horrors then we ever dream of. It is a chilling insight, but it bulks continually larger in my entire work, my every paper.”

    I felt the thrilling touch of inspiration. At that moment the wine waiter arrived with our double brandies in small goblets of cut glass. I wove the interruption into the fabric of my inspiration. “Let us drink then to what you name your chilling insight,” I said. “Prosit!”

    The bite and spreading warmth of the excellent schnapps quickened my inspiration further. “I believe I understand exactly what you‟re getting at…” I told my son. I set down my half-emptied goblet and pointed

    at something over my son‟s shoulder.

    He turned his head around, and after one glance back at my pointing finger, which intentionally waggled a tiny bit from side to side, he realized that I was not indicating the entry of the Krähenest, but the four sizable bronze statuettes flanking it.

    “For instance,” I said, “if Thomas Edison and Marie Sklodowska had not married, and especially if they had not had their super-genius son, then Edison‟s knowledge of electricity and hers of radium and other radioactives might never have been joined. There might never have been developed the fabulous T.S. Edison battery, which is the prime mover of all today‟s surface and air traffic. Those pioneering electric tracks introduced by the Saturday Evening Post in Philadelphia might have remained an expensive freak. And the gas helium might never have been produced industrially to supplement earth‟s meager subterranean


    My son‟s eyes brightened with the flame of pure scholarship. “Papa,” he said eagerly, “you are a genius yourself! You have precisely hit on what is perhaps the most important of those cusp-events I referred

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