Chapter 15: THE MAN WHO LAUGHED AT DEATH
We've got some hills, we've got some trees,
We sing in four-part
And now I live in Baltimore,
'Cause that's what Maryland is
Having time to kill on this, the penultimate morning of my TAFF trip, I
decided to pen a reply to Dave Locke's letter of a few days ago. This kept me
occupied until midday, when Avedon drove us the mile or so to Grosvenor Metro
Station, the nearest connection to Washington's big new mass-transit system, to
pick up her friend Ken Josenhans, a local fan. We were heading for Baltimore
(known to its natives as 'Bollmer'), and took Highway 95 rather than the more
"I don't use the parkway any more," said Avedon, "not since a
sniper decided to start taking pot-shots at passing cars. On 95 there are four
lanes. Gives more room to take evasive action."
Another sniper? I thought Avedon might be pulling my leg but, this
being America, who knew?
"On the way to Baltimore," said Avedon, some time later, "is
the road to the future." I assumed she was waxing uncharacteristically
poetic, until I saw the turn-off indicated by the roadsign ahead: Future. Good
We were meeting Dave Ettlin, another old friend of Avedon's, outside the
offices of The Baltimore Sun, the newspaper he worked for. When we got
there, Dave was waiting for us with his wife, Bonnie Schupp, and a couple of
kids (their daughter and a friend, I think), ready to act as a native guide on
our tour of central Baltimore. First, we ambled down to the recently rebuilt
harbour area where a magnificent old sailing ship, The Constellation, was
berthed. As well as giving its name to Baltimore's 1983 Worldcon, which Avedon
had worked on, The Constellation also had a colourful history.
"This baby was a real thorn in you guys' side during the Revolutionary
War back in 1812," Dave told me, with great relish.
I was then shown the conference centre, Hilton, and Hyatt Regency that had
been the venues for CONSTELLATION, which were of just as much interest to this
fanhistorian as more conventionally historical sights. The harbour development
reminded me strongly of New York's similar South Street seaport and also of
London's Docklands, reflecting a particular architectual vogue, I suppose. This
impression was reinforced when we sought somewhere to eat in one of the
harbourside pavilions, which were essentially small malls. We ate in a balcony
area that allowed you to buy from a number of stalls offering different cuisines
and varieties of fast food, the first time I'd encountered this particular
arrangement. I had a calzone. The food was good, but equally important was the
opportunity for conversation. It turned out that Dave worked on the City Desk at
The Baltimore Sun (founded 1837) and so got to report many of the city's
high-profile murder cases.
"Dave just loves grisly murders," explained Avedon, "and
the gorier they are the more he relishes them."
"We had a great one a while back," he laughed, "a real
classic which the cops called 'The Chinese Takeaway Murder'. Don't you just love
the names those guys give these things?"
"So why," I asked, taking the bait, "was it called 'The
Chinese Takeaway Murder'?"
"Because the victim's body was chopped up and packed into the type of
takeaway cartons they give you in Chinese restaurants, of course," he
replied, "which were then dumped all over Baltimore. Isn't that great?"
"Once, back when I worked at the Sun," said Avedon, over Dave's
chuckles, "I walked past when some of the other reporters were arguing over
who'd get to write a particular obituary. I heard one say he was going to call
it 'The Man Who Laughed at Death', so I said: 'You're talking about Ettlin,
aren't you?'. Dave laughed when I told him, and said they were out of luck as
he'd already written it and had it safely stored away."
Dave Ettlin had also been a founder member of the Baltimore Science Fiction
Society. BSFS was the third flowering of organised fandom in Baltimore, the
others having occurred in the early-1940s and late-1950s, and it was born during
a bus journey on 1st January 1963 when, returning from the Washington Science
Fiction Association's New Year's party, the Baltimore fans who'd attended
decided to form their own group. These were Jack Chalker, Dave Ettlin, Mark
Owings, Enid Jacobs, and David Katz (who disappeared from fandom soon
afterwards). Jerry Jacks -- invited by Jacobs, and a student of Chalker's --
attended the first meeting a week later. BSFS lasted until October 1968. Dave
was later part of a slan shack known as Toad Hall (no relation to Geri
Sullivan's later Toad Hall) along with his then-wife Vol, their infant daughter
Jenny, and Jack C. Haldeman. Among those who hung out there were George Alec
Effinger (or 'Piglet', as he was known) and Roger Zelazny.
Dave started work late afternoon/early evening, so before we went he showed
us around the Baltimore Sun building. We started in the newsroom, walked through
the composition room, and finally came to the huge room housing the printing
presses and a sight to gladden the heart of any fanzine fan.
"This is it," said Dave, gesturing expansively, "the
twenty-six million dollar mimeograph! That's how I've always thought of it."
Ah, the fannish spirit! It endured despite Dave having little to do with
fandom anymore. A little later, puzzled by his question about that year's Hugo
Awards, Avedon queried why he'd only asked about the pro nominations.
"I don't get sent fanzines anymore," he replied, a little sadly I
Dave may not have any involvement with fandom anymore but his daughter
Jenny, now known as 'F.L.', is active in the BaltiWash fandom of the '90s and a
Later, as we drove back to Kensington, the overpass carrying us out of
Baltimore passed over a Coors depot, prompting Avedon to launch into a tirade
about what a "fascist scumbag" she thought was its owner, the
allegedly aptly-named Adolf Coors. I knew nothing of that, but I can
personally confirm his beer is a crime against humanity.
That evening, Avedon had a computer class at the University of Maryland, so
Ken Josenhans and I decided to go along with her and to hang out on the campus.
With Avedon installed in her class in the Millard E. Tydings building, Ken (who
my notes describe as "big, broad, and bespectacled") and I wandered
across the spacious campus to the student union, stopping first at its record
store (cash register sign: "no credit, no checks, no receipts, no
exceptions"), where he bought expensive imports from exotic England --
y'know, by bands like the Cocteau Twins -- before settling down in the Roy
Rogers, a burger chain franchise. I had the R&R burger (cheeseburger with
ham), which I piled high with tomato, lettuce, and ketchup at the relish bar.
Ken showed no such restraint, and I watched in amazement as pickles, onions,
cucumber, lettuce, tomato, rutabaga, zucchini, peas, carrots, corn, beetroot,
asparagus, taco chips, apple slices, artichoke hearts, pumpkin, ketchup,
mustard, sour cream, thousand island dressing, chili sauce, castor oil, and many
other things besides flew from the relish bar as Ken swiftly and skilfully
constructed a dangerously unstable tower of a burger that he carried back to his
seat with great care and proceeded to chow down on. It's just possible I may
have got one or two ingredients of Ken's burger wrong -- it has been ten years,
after all -- but one thing I've never forgotten is the taste of my own, which
was the best I had during my whole trip. Roy Rogers has been a must-visit on
every trip I've made to the US since then, which is one in the eye for the
surprising number of people who think I wouldn't know good food if it bit me in
This being my final night in America, it was perhaps appropriate that when
Avedon and I got back to Woodfield Road the final thing we did before retiring
for the night was watch the final hour or so of the final episode of MASH. The
tearful goodbyes of the characters as one-by-one they set off for home were also
the genuine happy-but-tearful goodbyes of the actors to each other at the end of
what many admitted was one of the best experiences of their lives.
I knew just how they felt.