Entry 423: The Old Man and the Sci-fi

My sister-in-law’s mother-in-law (I don’t know what that makes her to me…my outlaw?) owned an antique magazine rack which everyone in the family knew I coveted. It was the kind that used to sit in stores, each shelf branded with the logo and price of a publication, in this case Collier’s (5¢) and Woman’s Home Companion (10¢).

So when my…whatever she is to me…downsized recently, she was kind enough to give me this artifact of simpler times. Better yet, she included some magazines!

The one that immediately caught my eye was an issue of Collier’s from August 19, 1944. coverThe cover is dominated by a sideways headline:

London Fights the Robots

In one of the most jarring visual non-sequiturs I’ve ever seen, this is juxtaposed onto a photograph of what appears to be a happy young woman hugging a giant rubber ducky.

Picture aside, you can imagine my excitement. Ernest Hemingway wrote sci-fi? And not just sci-fi, but what appears from the title alone to be an amazingly prescient episode of Doctor Who, penned almost two decades before the show was created!

Carefully, I opened the magazine, noting that publications 70 years ago were roughly the size of billboards. People would have needed a seriously large wingspan to hold this thing open on a commuter train.

They would also have needed much longer attention spans than we have today. And better eyesight. I mean, who among us would sit still long enough to read very large pages full of fairly small type with nary a picture in view. It’s not an exaggeration to state that a single article in this Collier’s probably contains more words than an entire issue of, say, Entertainment Weekly.

baconI continued turning pages. I passed an ad for Armour Bacon featuring a recipe for a “favorite supper” of Amour’s Star Bacon and Broiled Peaches (even the picture of this dish is horrifying), and another for the Bell Telephone System (“When long distance lines are crowded and the operator asks you to ‘Please limit your call to 5 minutes’–it’s nice to hear you say, ‘I’ll be glad to.’”) I guess they rationed everything during the war.*

Speaking of which, in the same way companies today try to glom onto the Olympics during appropriate years, almost every advertisement in Collier’s tried to link the product to the war effort, no matter how far it had to stretch to do so.** For instance, Vaseline Hair Tonic told readers that “a marine’s tough training in wind, rain and scorching sun leads the way to Dry Scalp and hair that looks rumpled and shaggy.” Yes, I’m sure that’s what Marines during WWII were most worried about.

And just about every ad included a directive to buy war bonds. “Dig down deep for war bonds.” “Buy more U.S. War Bonds.” “Buy that extra War Bond this month.” “Buy bonds…then Bond Street.” This last from Bond Street Pipe Tobacco, “the blend that meets the indoor test.”

Can you imagine any marketing director today saying, “Don’t forget to put a bond blurb in scalpthe ad…and tell folks to buy them before they buy our product.”

All this was fascinating, but I was here to read Papa Hemingway’s long lost science fiction story about English robots. Not that I’m a Hemingway scholar, but I had never heard Hemingway and “science fiction” uttered in the same sentence. I also knew that the word “robot” would only have been 23 years old in 1944,*** so Hemingway was not only out of his genre, he was on the cutting edge of speculative technology. And then…there it was, on page 17:


London Fights the Robots
by Ernest Hemingway
Radioed from London

Wait…”radioed from London?” Why would you have to radio what I assumed was a short story? Was there a war shortage of typewriter ribbons? Was this supposed to come off like an Orson Welles “War of the Worlds”-type hoax?

Well, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, “London Fights the Robots” wasn’t only not science fiction, it wasn’t even fiction. And the robots weren’t robots; they were “Hitler’s pilotless planes,” the V-1s, sort of a protodrone.

Although I was disappointed, I began reading anyway. And I have to tell you, the prose of war journalism has changed over the years. Compare this excerpt from the Hemingway piece describing the RAF taking to the air :

“As the flare popped, you could hear the dry bark of the starting cartridge and the rising scream of the motor, and these hungry, big, long-legged birds would lurch, bounce and scream off with the noise of two hundred circular saws hitting a mahogany log dead on the nose.”

…to this war coverage from one of Fox News’ journalists, Bill O’Reilly:

“Nine years ago when we started this reportage on Christmas, there were orders given by some major corporations in America to their employees, forbidding them — forbidding them — from saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ We outed those companies, they reversed the policy, so today, everybody as far as we know … can say Merry Christmas to anyone they want. It isn’t a mythical war on Christmas. It’s real, and we just won.”

Of course, O’Reilly’s report from the, um, front lines, didn’t have the immediacy of being radioed from…well, wherever such a report would come from–the North Pole, perhaps.  Also, the war he was covering was more like Orson Welles’ war in that it was largely made up.

Nevertheless, O’Reilly’s brand of journalism would be right up there with Hemingway’s…if he only had a happy young woman hugging a giant rubber ducky.

See you soon.

P.S. Thanks for the magazine rack, Cooky.

*As an aside, I don’t think too many folks could have afforded much more than five bellminutes of long distance anyway. I tried to find the rates for 1944, but the nearest I got was a reference to a $5.50 per-minute-rate from Arizona to New York. When adjusted for inflation, a five minute call would have cost roughly $334 in today’s dollars.

**However none of the products advertising in 1944 claimed to be “The Official Whatever of World War II.”

***The term was coined in the 1921 play R.U.R.

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2 Responses to Entry 423: The Old Man and the Sci-fi

  1. davidd says:

    Intrigued, I tracked down “London Fights the Robots” online. Of course the complete story is available on the internet. Isn’t everything? It’s quite an odd piece. It starts out as something about a new plane designed to intercept the enemy’s “pilotless aircraft” (Hemingway apparently objected to terms like “buzz bomb” and “doodlebug”), but devolves, not unlike Bill O’Reilly in a way, into a thinly veiled tirade against media censorship.

    Wait… did I just compare, albeit tangentially, the journalistic style of Bill O’Reilly to that of Ernest Hemingway? I’m sorry. I apologize to Bill. I doubt he would ever compare the thrill of piloting a new airplane for the first time to the excitement of losing one’s virginity.

    I very much liked the understated phrasing of Hemingway’s observation, made during a RAF bombing run against a heavily fortified rocket-launching facility, that “these sites can be readily identified by the quantity of old Mitchell bombers which are strewn around them.”

  2. Pingback: Entry 429: Nickel for Your Thoughts? How About a Dime? | The Upsizers

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