I just stumbled on a NetFlix press release saying that the late Clifford D. Simak‘s novel Way Station may be a movie someday. That may be just the push I need to go back and re-read it for the first time in decades, and reflect on how important it was to me.
I remember when the book arrived in the mail, with its collage cover of clockwork gears, an amoeba-like shape and a rustic shack with a warped clockface. I was a junior in high school and a proud member of the Doubleday Science Fiction Book-of-the-Month club. And I loved that novel… enough to propose it as a term-paper topic to an English teacher who had, for the first time in my school career, offered the class the opportunity to choose our own books to report on. It was the 1960s, and I had to use pre-digital library resources, such as the New York Times index, Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, and Facts on File, to find reviews of the novel and learn more about the author — who turned out to be a Minnesota newspaperman. I don’t think I found any major reviews of the book, and certainly no academic essays about it. I was 16 or so, and on my own, summarizing and evaluating a work of imagination!
I remember that I had to argue the case for reviewing a new book, one the teacher hadn’t heard of, and a science-fiction novel at that. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember spending some serious time at the library, and I’m pretty sure I got an “A” for the project. And that I was very proud of myself when Way Station won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel later that year. I think Simak was already one of my favorite writers, right up there with Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Roger Zelazny and Robert A. Heinlein. I forget whether I had already read his Time is the Simplest Thing (1961) and They Walked Like Men (1962) or backtracked to read them as part of my research. And just maybe the fact that he was a newspaperman — and that I wrote a paper about his book well enough to get an “A” — led to my seriously considering a newspaper career, or at least to being copy editor on a college paper a couple of years later. In fact, Simak’s Wikipedia bibliography reminds me that the plot of They Walked Like Men features a newspaper reporter
Simak certainly joined other role models like real-life columnist Art Hoppe, the first newspaper byline I remember looking forward to in the Daily Hampshire Gazette I delivered (other than Dear Abby or Ann Landers), and fictional journalists like the inevitable comic book or TV characters Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson and (although he wasn’t a writer) Peter Parker, and the heroes of whatever old “newspaper movies” I’d seen with the likes of Clark Gable and Cary Grant playing reporters or editors. (For some reason I also remember seeing newspapermen played by Donald O’Connor in “Francis Covers the Big Town” and Peter Lawford in “Dear Phoebe” even more than I remember more serious dramatic productions.)
Who knows what leads us to become what we become?
Obviously the real star of this reminiscence is that English teacher back at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, Conn., and I will be back to edit this when I have dusted off the old high school yearbook and double-checked the spelling of his name. He would appreciate that. So would Roger Whitehead, college newspaper editor and a Protestant minister’s son, who offered me a job, saying, “You went to Catholic school? That means you can spell! I need a copy editor.”