Monday, February 08, 2010

William Tenn/Phil Klass and the Meaning of Chutzpah

I'm not sure when, exactly, was the first time I met Phil Klass (aka William Tenn). I think we met at one or two cons in the '70s or '80s. I was familiar with some of his writing, especially "Child's Play" and "On Venus, Have We got a Rabbi!" But, by 1993, I turned out to have a fairly close connection to Phil and Fruma -- my husband Jim and I bought a house about a half mile away from theirs in the Pittsburgh suburb of Mt. Lebanon. And their daughter, Adina, was only about four years older than our daughter Leslie. Over the next few years, we'd run into each other at various science fiction club events and at Confluence, the local SF con.

I'd often run into people who'd had Phil as a teacher at Penn State. Many of these people were in fandom, but I've probably met a dozen people at various companies in the Pittsburgh area who weren't SF fans but still remembered Professor Klass very fondly.

By the late '90s, Jim had an idea -- NESFA Press should reprint all of Phil's fiction. Since most of his fiction hadn't been reprinted in years, this would help expose more of his writing to more readers. It took a few months to develop the contract to Phil's exacting specifications, but the results by the early '00s were two terrific volumes of all of William Tenn's fiction: Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization.

So we started working with Phil and Fruma a little more closely. He'd greet me with "Hello, Laurie. And why do they say all those terrible things about you?" The first time he did that, I wasn't sure how to react. I'd just laugh nervously and we'd go on from there. But, gradually, I noticed he only said that to people he liked, so that was fine by me!

When the Nebula Awards Weekend was in sudden search of a new site, I suggested bringing it to Pittsburgh, and SFWA took me up on that. SFWA also made William Tenn the Author Emeritus for the 1999 Nebula Awards Weekend. So there was Phil, resplendent in a tux, speaking to all the assembled writers, signing autographs for many of them.

Late 2003 and early 2004 I was consumed by work, collecting of Phil's non-fiction writing in a GoH book for Noreascon IV. Phil's non-fiction was full of little gems, especially a wonderful piece about his parents "Constantinople," and a long and fascinating piece on electronic surveillance in the '60s, "The Bugmaster." While we agreed on almost everything, we had two disagreements over the production of this book.

There were two interview transcriptions -- one long and the other very long. I wanted to edit out about 10% of the short interview, and maybe 25% of the longer interview to cut down on the repetitions (there are at least three stories told three different ways in the course of his non-fiction collection). Phil was adamant that nothing be edited, except to correct egregious errors. I finally got him to agree to some minimal editing, mostly removing side comments between Phil and the videographer.

We couldn't agree on the title.

For years, instead of saying "Thank-you very much," Phil would say, "For that, I'll dance naked on a table for you." I loved that phrase from him, and, felt it would be a good title for his collection of non-fiction. Because his non-fiction is quite honest. Also, Deb Geisler, the chair of Noreascon IV, loved it too.

Perhaps Phil and Fruma felt the title was too undignified or something so they resisted it. I'm not sure they ever came up with an alternative suggestion. Finally, after about a year of back and forth, they agreed to the title. The artist Bob Eggleton did a wonderfully comic take on the title for the cover. Undignified or not, Dancing Naked brought Phil his first Hugo nomination.

Noreascon IV chose William Tenn as one of their GoHs for 2004. With a lot of help from their old State College friends Kathy and Jim Morrow, and their daughter Adina, Phil and Fruma were able to go everywhere and do everything at the Worldcon.

In the late '00s, they were not able to travel as much. They still came out to Confluence every year, and sometimes drove to eastern Pennsylvania to visit Adina. By the fall of '09, Phil was in and out of several hospitals. He really enjoyed getting cards from people. He was particularly pleased to have heard from a fan from Norway. By late November, Fruma was able to bring him home. While very weak, he appreciated people's visits, and he was fairly alert.

Phil (and William Tenn) died on February 7, 2010, at home of congestive heart failure.

My favorite Phil Klass story took place 12 years before I was even born, at the end of World War II. Phil could exaggerate, but I'm sure this story is close to 100% true.

Phil was a short man, maybe about 5'2" or so. But what he failed to have in height, he more than made up for in bravado and chutzpah.

Phil was in the Army for most of World War II. He scored a very high rating on language aptitude. He was sent to the Univesity of Pittsburgh with 24 other soldiers for intensive training in Serbo-Croation. The plan was, they'd be sent to help liberate Yugoslavia.

It turned out, Phil never got to Yugoslavia, despite having learned Serbo-Croation. And most of the rest of his classmates were sent to the Pacific, where no one spoke Serbo-Croation.

But Phil was sent back to Europe. Since he spoke several languages (in addition to English and Serbo-Cration), he was eventually assigned to be a translator. One of his jobs was to translate for the former concentration camp guards.

So, picture this -- a short, Jewish American army soldier from New York City translating for tall, Aryan Nazi guards who'd spent years facilitating the slaughter of Jewish prisoners.

One of the guards finally asked him, "You speak an unusual kind of German. What is it?"

Phil looked the guard in the eye and said, "It's Yiddish."

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