When Harry Harrison graduated from high school in 1943, his was the 'no hope' class: it was the middle of the Second World War, and the only future for an eighteen year old male graduate was to be drafted into the armed services.
"You picked the service of your choice, there wasn't much else you could do. I didn't really want to drown, so I stayed out of the navy; I didn't want to be shot, so I stayed out of the infantry..."
Although it wasn't a simple a matter of choosing your favourite armed service, Harrison managed to end up in the US Army Air Corps two months after he graduated. He achieved that by attending Eastern Aircraft Instrument School in New Jersey, where he became a certified aircraft instrument mechanic.
"Before I was drafted I went to an aircraft instrument school to learn to repair aircraft instruments. I wanted to get into the airforce, I'd always liked 'planes. Of course I never saw an aircraft instrument again! But I had good mechanical aptitude - in fact the best mark I ever had in my life, which meant I ended up at the technical school."
The Air Corps sent him to Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado, where he was trained to be a power-operated and computing-gunsight specialist. He learned computer theory and how to repair the computer itself: it was a mechanical computer, and work on the tiny rods and cogs had to be carried out under clean-room conditions.
In 1944 Harrison was sent to the Air Corps base in Laredo, Texas, where he was to maintain the computer which controlled the aim of two fifty-calibre machine guns which were mounted on turrets on a truck, which gunners were trained to use. His duties soon came to include that of armourer, truck driver, and then gunnery instructor - "teaching kids to shoot machine guns", as the holder of each of these posts was called away to combat duty.
In 1945 he was transferred to a gunnery school in Panama City, Florida, which was soon to close down. He was then assigned to M.P. duty and promoted to sergeant. His job now was to ride shotgun on a garbage truck, guarding the black prisoners who worked it. Despite the fact that he was armed with a loaded repeating shotgun, his charges didn't really need much supervision. They had been punished for some misdemeanour, and now wanted to serve their time on best behaviour and gain an honorary discharge, as the war was coming to an end. Harrison knew how the prisoners felt: he used to drink with them in the black servicemen's bar.
Sergeant Harry Harrison was discharged on 14th February 1946.
"The war did many good things for me, though I certainly did not appreciate them at the time. First, and most important, it kicked into existence a strong sense of survival that has been of great service since. It also terminated my childhood, a fact that I was certainly not grateful for at the time since growing up can be a painful process. I also learned to drink and curse, the universal coin of military life, but, more important, I was robbed of three years of my life without satisfactory return. At least I believed so for a long time, which is the same thing, and this gave me that singular capacity for solitary work, the drive to get it done, without which the freelance cannot survive."
The army had also given him a knowledge of, and interest in, computers, a subject which continues to interest him today: the Harrison household is filled with computers, from 'toy computers' which Harrison has used to help develop the computer games based on his novels, to the latest and most powerful lap-top computer.
"Coming out of the army was a traumatic experience and years passed before I could understand why. It seems very obvious now... Though I loathed the army I was completely adjusted to it. I could not return to the only role I knew in civilian life, that of being a child."
After training as a commercial artist, working in magazine and comic book illustration, and then editing and packaging magazines, Harrison turned to writing. He wrote in a genre which he had loved since his childhood, and sold several science fiction short stories. Under the guidance of editor John W.Campbell, he wrote his first full-length novel, Deathworld, which was first serialised in Campbell's magazine.
"I did Deathworld about seven or eight times in various ways," Harrison admitted to Charles Platt in 1982. "Once I got the formula right, I disguised it with different kinds of titles. Deathworld had worked. I knew I could make money off that formula."
"The world was quite happy with my work; I wasn't... I wanted to write better and I wanted to write different material," Harrison revealed in Hell's Cartographers. "Salvation came through the good offices of Joseph Heller and Brian Aldiss. I read Catch- 22 which crystallised my thinking, and I had met Brian Aldiss a few years earlier. In addition to his friendship, which I value above all others, I appreciate his literary and critical skills. Brian is a prose stylist, and certainly the best in science fiction... It was a little late, but my literary education had begun."
Harrison had written several experimental short stories previously: 'Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N.,' was a parody of the Hornblower tales of C.S. Forester, which Harrison enjoyed in his youth; 'The Streets of Ashkelon' tackled the then taboo subject of religion; and even the original Stainless Steel Rat short stories were a gamble because "you couldn't sell humour unless you were an accepted humour writer... I had to disguise them as adventure stories and slip in any lightness and humour."
"All of my experimentation so far had been in the short story, since the time investment there is obviously much less than the novel. This was both good and bad because the 'experimental' did not do very well, not in these dark days of the early sixties. The quotes are around experimental there because my stories were nothing of the kind. They just fell outside the classic pulp taboos that still dominated the field."
Harrison admits to being "hesitant to put the time into an entire novel that might not sell. At that period a novel a year was the most I could do and the thought of losing a year's income was not to be considered."
"Eventually the artist triumphed over the businessman, ears became numb to the sound of hungry children crying in the background, and I contacted Damon Knight. Damon was acting as an sf literary scout for Berkley Books and I was sure he would be simpatico to my needs. I sent him the first (and only) chapter I had written of an experimental novel titled If You Can Read This You Are Too Damned Close. With it were some one page character sketches and a few words about the kind of novel I wanted to attempt."
Damon Knight liked what he saw, and persuaded Berkley to give Harrison a $1,500 advance, $750 on signing, with $750 to come when the book was completed. Harrison went to work.
"I wanted to get my feelings about the army and the military into a novel," Harrison wrote in his notes for authors of the new series of BILL books. He explained that the original book was founded on "a deep-seated suspicion of the military, and a profound hatred of war and the people who like and want war."
Harrison cites Heller and Voltaire as inspirations for BILL: "I got the clues I needed from Candide and Catch-22: do it as black comedy. Some things are so awful they can only be faced by bitter laughter. To this I added parody of other sf." [From the notes for the authors of Bill sequels.]
Two of the sf writers parodied in BILL are Isaac Asimov, whose metal-plated planet Trantor from the FOUNDATION series appears as the gold-plated planet Helior (which turns out to be anodised aluminium in reality), and Robert Heinlein, whose controversial Starship Troopers is openly attacked. Starship Troopers is, according to Aldiss' Trillion Year Spree, "a sentimental view of what it is like to train and fight as an infantry man in a future war." While Brian Ash's The Visual Encyclopedia of SF said of it: "It was the presentation of an extreme elitist society, coupled with the glorification of violence, which made the book distasteful to many readers."
Isaac Asimov, it is said, took Harrison's parody in good humour, and might even have been pleased to be parodied. Robert Heinlein, apparently was not pleased.
In his book Robert Heinlein, Leon Stover describes Bill as a "dramatic summary" of all the criticisms levelled against Heinlein's Starship Troopers. "Hailed by critics as a work of comic genius, it divided Harrison's fellow writers and troubled his fans; both of whom reserved the right to award him his due for later works equally brilliant, but less nervy in touching upon Heinlein's good name. The critics, however, continue to favour this one Harrison title above all, simply because they read it as a digest of everything they despise in Starship Troopers."
Ash's book describes Bill, the Galactic Hero as "a savagely funny satire which tilts at several sacred cows of sf warfare, as well as religion. It contrives to satirise the clichés of interstellar war and space opera... The public are told that the alien race with which man is waging an all-out war are seven-feet-tall intelligent lizards of hideous appearance - they actually turn out to be only seven inches long. The cruel military training of new recruits is precisely documented, on a par with Heinlein's book, but Harrison's interpretation of military ideology is the very opposite of that in Starship Troopers. The grotesque violence of Bill, while presented as farce, is revealed as a crime against humanity, or any other species, and unjustifiable under any circumstances."
The writing of Bill was a "shaking experience" for the author. "I was doing less than half my normal wordage everyday and greatly enjoying myself - at the time. Laughter all day at the typewriter - how I do enjoy my own jokes - instant depression when I came down for dinner. Upon rereading, the stuff seemed awful. Or awfully way out; there had never been anything like it in SF before. Then back the next day for some more chuckling and suffering."
Harrison was encouraged by his wife, Joan, who was "reading the copy and laughing out loud and saying it was great and get on with it and stop muttering to yourself. I got on with it, finished it, had it typed and mailed it off to Damon."
Damon Knight rejected the novel. The reason he gave was that "what I had here was an adventure story loused up with bad jokes. Take the jokes out and it would be okay."
Berkley's editor-in-chief, Tom Dardis, liked the novel as it was, but didn't want to appear to contradict his paid sf advisor. Fortunately Doubleday sf editor Tim Seldes picked up the US hardback rights, encouraging Berkley to take it in paperback. Frederik Pohl published a shortened version of the novel in Galaxy, under the title The Starsloggers, and Michael Moorcock published the whole novel in three parts in New Worlds in the UK.
"Here was a message of some kind. SF was growing and contained within its once pulp boundaries new and different markets. Bill was positively not an Analog serial and had not even been submitted there. (In later years I discovered that my judgement had been correct in this at least. One day John Campbell asked me why I had written this book. I said I would tell him if he told me why he had asked. His answer was that he had seen my name on the paperback and bought it - as if he did not have enough sf to read! - and had hated it. I made some sort of waffling answer and worked hard to change the subject.)"
Harrison was encouraged by the success of Bill, the Galactic Hero: "I felt that there must be a bigger market out there than I had imagined and perhaps I could now write for myself and please the readers at the same time. This was a momentous discovery and marked a new period in my writing. Not that I didn't do the familiar to stay alive. Deathworld 3 and a number of Stainless Steel Rat books were still in the future, but I found I could experiment with new ideas and still hope to sell them as well."
Harrison has continued to alternate between the familiar - with a series of Stainless Steel Rat books; Invasion: Earth; and more recently a series of BILL sequels - and the more experimental / serious - A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!; Make Room! Make Room!; and the West of Eden and Stars & Stripes trilogies.
Bill, the Galactic Hero, meanwhile, has been read on BBC Radio (and the reading released on LP and cassette) and adapted into a series of comic books. A series of 'shared world' or 'share crop' sequels have also been produced.
© Paul Tomlinson 1995 & 1999
Interview with HARRY HARRISON
by Paul TomlinsonPT: Bill, the Galactic Hero was first published in 1965...
HH: It was one of the first things I wrote when I moved to Denmark, so I started writing it in 1961 or '62.
PT: At that time you were a 'Campbell writer' - you were doing pretty well in Astounding / Analog magazine...
HH: I sold the same book five times! Three Deathworlds, and then under two other titles!
PT: The readers were voting yours the best story, and you were getting paid the bonus...
HH: An extra penny, yeah. You were paid three cents a word, and the bonus was a penny a word extra. That doesn't sound like much today, but it was a third more. That's $600 on a 60,000 word serial. I got that penny every time.
PT: So why did you decide to throw away that security and go off and write something totally different?
HH: I didn't throw the security away... There were no paperbacks in those days, so if I wrote a book it had to be a serial for John Campbell. I was doing one a year on average. Then, when they did start publishing paperbacks, I had these books already written which I could flog as paperbacks. So for the first time in my life I had some money.
It had taken me a while to learn to be a novelist, but now things were going well, and I'd had this book in the back of my head for years that I'd wanted to write, about the war and my experiences and how I felt about the military.
I was writing Flash Gordon comic strips at this time, which just about paid for the food, but not the rent. And I was doing a lot of short stories - if you look at the list for that period, I'd do a novel and some short stories each year.
So I figured I'd try it as an original paperback. I knew John wouldn't even look at it! So I wrote to Damon Knight - who had published my first short story, and was an old friend - and sent him an outline for a book called If You Can Read This, You're Too Damned Close! and I did some character sketches. Damon was reading for Berkley Books then, and he got me a contract for $1,500 - big money! - $750 of it in advance. So I took a deep breath and wrote the book.
I never planned to show it to Campbell. But John did actually read the thing. He asked me: Why did you write this book, Harry? And I said: I'll tell you if you tell me how you knew about it. He said he saw it on a stand in the subway and bought it! As if he didn't read enough at work!
PT: The thought of John Campbell going out and buying a science fiction novel is something I can't quite...
HH: Neither can I! But I was 'his' writer, he'd done at least three, maybe four, of my novels as serials, and he saw this book that he'd never seen before.
PT: He hated it, presumably?
HH: Every word of it, I'm sure, or the idea behind it at least. He didn't have much of a sense of humour. He didn't publish much funny stuff if you think about it, or if he did it was pretty heavy-handed, like Poul Anderson's A Bicycle Built for Brew - good old engineering jokes, ho-ho-ho. Or a pirate coming out of a spaceship with a slide rule between his teeth! So he had a sense of humour, but he wouldn't go for black comedy or satire.
I don't think he got the point of the damn thing at all, but I didn't ask him in detail why he didn't like it when he said: I hated it. There are things you don't do!
PT: There are some things you don't want to hear from someone like John Campbell...
HH: Exactly. I was reading his magazine when I was 13 or 14 years old. He invented modern science fiction, his writers were writing really good stuff. He got rid of all the old hacks, hired a new generation of writers and shook up the whole field.
I grew up reading that stuff, carried on even when I came out of the army in '46 and went to arts school. Astounding came out on the third Thursday of the month, but one guy on the subway station down town used to break the bundles a day early, so I used to take the subway - twenty minutes down there, twenty minutes back - to get it the day before!
So when I started writing, it was my greatest pleasure to work with the guy who I read as a kid.
PT: In Bill, the Galactic Hero you made fun of some of the authors you read: you had a slight dig at Isaac Asimov...
HH: Oh, yeah! For Trantor read Helior. What do you do with the carbon dioxide? What do you do with the garbage? I had a dig at Starship Troopers too.
PT: That was a more direct attack, wasn't it? And Heinlein didn't take it too well?
HH: All I can say is, I asked Bob once if he'd read the book Bill, the Galactic Hero, and he said: No, I don't read most of the stuff other people write. But after that, he never spoke to me again!
PT: So maybe he went away and read it after you asked?
HH: Right! Not that I ever talked to Heinlein that much, we'd meet once a year at conventions and whatever. But I talked to Asimov and said: Isaac, have you read it? And he said: Harry, it was fun! I never thought about the carbon dioxide. Isaac was a gentleman and he had a sense of humour... the complete opposite reaction...
PT: Heinlein was ever-so-slightly pro-military in Starship Troopers, wasn't he?
HH: He had a navy commission and an army commission.
PT: In his book you weren't allowed to vote unless you'd served in the military - you hadn't earned the right to vote.
HH: Right. I remember reading that and thinking: I know a lot of veterans, and they're mostly all alcoholics or mad!
PT: Exactly the sort of people you want to influence how a country is run!
HH: We're talking about the survivors of the draft here. A lot of them couldn't even read or write! In the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam - it got worse with each one - the guys who got drafted were those who couldn't do anything else: they couldn't get into college or whatever.
Did you see the film of Starship Troopers? It really is hysterical. Pro-Fascist... you're never sure what's going on, but the bugs are great, great effects.
PT: It's a tough book to read now, isn't it?
HH: I reread it some years ago... it's his first polemic book, the first book where he stops the action to lecture you.
PT: There's some nice stuff in the story, but the politics are...
HH: The survival suits are great, the mechanisms are good... except the atomic grenades. I read an article recently where some guy talking about atomic shells for big guns, cannons, you know? And there was a military man saying: Atomic shells? That's about as intelligent as suggesting an atomic hand grenade! But Heinlein had them! The minimum yield for an atomic weapon is equivalent to about some thousand of tons of dynamite: if you take it below that it won't explode.
PT: I think Joe Haldeman does the whole thing much better in The Forever War.
HH: That came out originally as novelettes in Astounding and I put all three of them in the Year's Best as they came out.
PT: Bill, the Galactic Hero was published in the mid-Sixties, but military thinking hasn't changed much since then has it?
HH: The military is exactly the same as it ever was, totally stratified: you accept orders from the top, don't think below that. It's degrading in every way.
The only thing I think that's happened to the military... When I was in the military they had segregation - in the South, not in New York - separate barracks, separate army for blacks and whites. Blacks weren't allowed to carry guns: they were afraid they'd shoot there officers if they did, because all the officers were white. They were in work battalions - they drove trucks, the eight-ball express - and engineering battalions. No guns!
Then, three or four years after the war, Harry Truman became president after Roosevelt died, and he had been a captain in the artillery in the First World War. He said: You will eliminate segregation in the army tomorrow at 0600 hours. The racist outfits in the army - mostly in the South - didn't want to do it, they hated it, but they did it.
PT: The order came from the top...
HH: ... and you've got to obey it. But then what happened in Vietnam was the army was about 90% black, because these poor guys couldn't go and join the National Guard like Bush did, they didn't have any way of getting out of the draft.
PT: You were drafted in 1943, and sent off to basic training when you were eighteen years old...
HH: In America - unlike England - you have to go to school until you're eighteen, and at eighteen you graduated high school. The draft age was eighteen. I was of the draftee generation: the war started in '41, I graduated in '43, so I spent three years just waiting to be drafted.
They had a really good physical examination: they shone a torch up your ass and looked down your throat, and if they didn't see light, you were in!
I was talking about this the other day: some of the draft scenes were so disgusting that when I did Bill, the Galactic Hero I had to leave them out. They were too filthy to use in those days!
All the draftees were stripped - starkers! - apart from your shoes, so you didn't get chewing gum stuck to the soles of your feet. We all had medical orders, and they'd march you up and down, all around this big building for examination, and you'd show them the folder and they'd write something on it. The Grand Central Palace in New York had giant lifts that would take thirty or forty people: the doors opened up, and across the room were about a hundred girls all typing away -- [Mimes covering groin with medical orders and looking at the ceiling] -- and then the doors closed.
The proctologist - with masks and gloves on - would do ten guys at a time: Bend over and spread your cheeks! He'd run along the line with a torch looking up their arseholes seeing if anything was hanging out. That's it, Next!
They tested for diabetes. We went into a room with duck boards on the floor, and there was a medic in gloves and mask, whites stained yellow! You pass him urine samples to test and he's swirled them around to see if they change colour, and there's piss everywhere!
You couldn't put that in the book, but it was true.
One I did use - which was absolutely true - was when we had to go and get our shots. There were guys on each side with needles, and bang! [Jabbing motions with both hands] two shots at a time, and they'd push you in the back, then you would lean on a rail and bang! They'd vaccinate you. And this one guy got there, a big, well-made guy, and his eyes rolled up and he collapsed on the floor. But this being the military, they gave him his shots, dragged him forward three feet, two more shots, dragged him forward... You can't exaggerate that, because you can't make it any worse!
So the material was there. I used an awful lot of this original stuff, but some I had to leave out.
PT: Was there a Deathwish Drang during your military training?
HH: No, but there were these perpetual sergeants. These guys were models of military incompetence. I taught literacy when I was in Mississippi: we'd finished basic training and I was waiting for shipment. I had a high school degree, so I ended up teaching basic literacy. And I had a Master Sergeant in the class: he'd managed to get up to the highest rank for a non-com - been there twenty years - by saying: I forgot my glasses, read this for me will you? He'd become the first sergeant in the outfit and was unable to read!
This is what our sergeants were like. We had a corporal who would say: As you was! Because he thought that was the correct way of saying As you were.
PT: What was basic training like?
HH: The military policy, in basic training, was to break you down as far as they could break you. And if you died, that was unimportant. If you went Section 8 - medical discharge for insanity reasons - that was unimportant. They wanted you to go Section 8, to have a breakdown, in basic training to save a lot of money and wasted time, so you wouldn't break down in combat. It was a very logical idea from the military point of view.
We had two guys Section 8 out. There was one Jewish kid my age, eighteen, and I watched this kid fall apart emotionally. He couldn't take the military, couldn't take the pressures of lack of sleep and everything, and he was getting weepier and weepier, and one day they took him away, and he went Section 8.
PT: And that probably screwed him up for the rest of his life.
HH: That was his life completely wrecked. I saw it again when I was in California: Vietnam was going on, and the draft. There was a young science fiction writer called Robert Taylor, like the actor. I published a story of his in an anthology - he lived near us in San Diego, and he was taking a degree to teach English. He was a friend of Moira's and came over to the house, and he said: They told me if I volunteer, I can pick my service, and they'll pay me to teach. I said: No, they're lying to you. As soon as they get your ass in the military, they'll do whatever they want with you. Don't do it. He went in, did basic training, sent into combat, had a nervous breakdown and came out Section 8. I saw him a year later and he was just shaking - not just his career, but his whole life was ruined.
The military do that. They're happy to do that.
PT: So how did you get through it?
HH: You have to be either so stupid that you get through it, or so intelligent that you know they're arseholes and you survive that way. You have to be a survivor, basically. You could go through your whole life without ever being tested that way...
The testing is physical, it's emotional, and you have to learn to take it. It's a very immoral organisation.
Physically if you're not in very good shape they can take you apart and rebuild you: I weighed only 150 pounds when I went in, a little more than 10 stone, and I went down about thirty pounds; then I went back up to 150 pounds - all muscle!
You had no sleep, endless exercise, rotten food... but if you ate the food, it was a balanced diet. You could have only one helping of meat - if they had meat that day - but you could have all you wanted of the vegetables, the bread, the pudding and the rest of it, so you could eat until you were full. It was filthy stuff, but there was enough of it so you could stay alive.
PT: This is basically so that if you're in combat and they give you an order, you obey without question?
HH: Yeah, so you never question them. But the thing was, for me, I had to survive basic training, but then they sent me to technical school to learn about computers: after that it was the usual army crap, but they had to keep us alive because we were doing technical stuff. But we still had to do KP...
PT: What does KP stand for?
HH: Kitchen Police. The military never hired civilians to work in the kitchen, so everyone serves KP. How often depends on the size of the outfit. Where I was it was once a month.
You would tie a knot on the end of your bed, and at three o'clock the orderly would come round and see it and wake you up for KP. The army turned out the lights at 10 o'clock, so you'd go to bed at ten. But the guys would turn them on again and play poker until 11.30 or 12 o'clock, so you'd only get two or three hours sleep. You'd work from three in the morning until seven at night. You'd be in the chow hall from four o'clock, and it'd be like the tropics, and you'd be scrubbing pans. Any labour that's repetitive is pretty hard in that kind of heat.
Once I was breaking eggs for omelettes into a thirty gallon pot. Breaking eggs isn't such a big job, you learn to do one in each hand; you break them into a bowl first, and if there's any blood in them you throw them away, that way you don't spoil the whole pot. But it was about eight-five degrees in the kitchen, it was still dark, and I was covered in egg, and after a while you couldn't move your hands, they were coated solid with egg!
There were coal-fired stoves - by now it was ninety-five to a hundred degrees in the kitchen, and I'm making egg toast. You ever made egg toast? Dip bread in egg, fry it, turn it over. I laid them out on a stove about a yard square, and they had the heat so high that by the time I'd covered the square I'd have to go back and turn them straight over, then go back and take them off. You do that for two hours, it's like some kind of torture. And you work until seven at night, then the next day back to the guns.
PT: From what you've said elsewhere, military life wasn't just tiring, it was also mind-numbingly dull?
HH: I was brain dead! I'd been through the tech school and now I was working a seven day week, and I was doing four men's jobs. Literally.
When I first started on the gunnery range we had these two-and-a-half ton trucks, with a welded frame and a power turret mounted on them, with two machine guns. This was for the last week of training for gunners, when they got to fire live rounds. To hear a .50 is a horrible sound: you can't move, it vibrates your whole body.
They driver would drive the truck out to the driving range, back it in, jack it up. The armourer would put the guns in, sight them, get the ammunition in; then I'd work on the computer and get that aligned; and then the instructor would instruct.
Well, after about two weeks they decided that anyone would drive a goddamn truck, so the driver was sent off overseas! About a week-and-a-half later they realised that as a power-operated turret and computer gunsight specialist I also had an armourer rating: I could service calibre fifties... so the armourer was sent overseas!
Now we have two guys left. I was driving the truck; taking the guts out of the gun and cleaning it, loading the ammunition, aligning the gunsight. And after about a month or two I knew as much about the thing as the instructor did: they didn't need the instructor anymore, and he was off overseas!
So I'd be up at four in the morning, driving to the range at five, the guns would be banging away all morning; then stop while we had a bit of chow, banging away until five, drive the truck back. You'd be too tired to do anything in the evening except go to sleep.
So I was brain dead because there was no intelligence involved anywhere along the line.
We'd get up in a morning and we'd have about an hour before we had to drive thirty miles out into the desert to the firing range. And when the concrete was still cool from the night, I'd be lying under the truck where no one could see me, reading Dostoevsky! Until the sun came up and it got too hot.
That's when I got the Esperanto book too - I had to do something with my brain.
PT: Towards the end of the war you ended up as a Military Policeman, how did that come about?
HH: The war was almost over, I was based in Laredo, Texas, but they were closing the gunnery school down. I was a 678-3 - Power-Operated Turret and Gunsight Specialist - the 3 meant skilled. I worked with computers, and I was a sergeant. And still pulling KP!
There was only one airbase gunnery school still working: Panama City, Florida. I had to take the train down to Dothan, Alabama, and then to the field by the coach. By the time I got there, they'd closed that one down too! But I was still assigned there. I went to see the detail sergeant and said: What do I do, sergeant? He said: The training school has closed down, so it's either permanent KP or MP. So I said [through gritted teeth]: I've always wanted to carry a gun for my country! So I became an MP.
And the MP's were all crackers from the South, all Rebels, you know, all morons, all illiterate. And they gave me what they thought was the worst job: they gave me the 'nigger' stockade. It was the greatest experience of my life!
All these black guys were from the North, and they were all on company punishment. There were two kinds of punishment in the army: court martial, where they needed a trial and witnesses, and company punishment. All of the officers were white, and these guys had basically told an officer to go fuck himself, and they'd got maximum company punishment of just under a year, 364 days, because that meant no trial.
All of these guys were just trying to finish their sentences and get an honourable discharge, because then they'd be entitled to go to school on the G.I. Bill and get retirement benefits, which they wouldn't get with a dishonourable discharge. So they weren't going to give me any trouble. I'd get them to hold my shotgun while I ate in the black mess hall!
I was riding shotgun on a garbage truck. I'd sit in a seat welded to the cab with my shotgun, and we'd go around all the mess halls picking up the garbage.
One thing about the white army: if a chef came in, they made him a rifleman. They get some kid from the south, someone who literally hadn't worn shoes until he got into the army, and make him a cook. But they thought all Negroes were alike, the cook in the black mess hall was the head chef from the Waldorf Astoria. Boy did we eat well!
I'd give one of my prisoners my shotgun to hold and say: I'm eating first!
In the army you learn to curse, chase girls, and drink - in whatever order. Cursing is the first thing you learn in the army: a lot of civvy expressions like 'it's a crock', meaning it's a crock of shit, come from the army. Snafu is from the army too, meaning situation normal: all fucked up.
It got so repetitive that when a guy got out of the army he couldn't say three words without saying fuck: I took a fucking bus into fucking town, met a fucking girl in a fucking bar, took her out and had intercourse!
Harry Turtledove, in one of his books about the Civil War has one of his white characters turn round and say "You motherfucker!" [Shakes his head] No, no, Harry. I imported that word into the English language! One of the black prisoners said: Get out of here, you motherfucker. This was November 1945. I'd never heard it before, and I'd heard every single word! Harry Turtledove had it in 1861 - no way!
I said it to another white sergeant, and within about a week I was hearing it from all sides!
I'm the guy who imported 'motherfucker' into the English language - they should have me in the OED!
I have got 18 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. There's one entry for a Harry Harrison in 1600 or 1800, but the rest are mine. One of them is knorr, a wide-beamed Viking ship from The Technicolor Time Machine. I also have ginzo, also from Technicolor Time Machine, which is New York slang for an Italian. And 15 other ones which are cited as references.
PT: Did you ever worry that the army would turn you into one of those grizzled, cynical, cruel officers you've written about?
HH: Oh, no, no! Much the opposite. I was a non-com, don't forget, doing a technical job. And hated the army.
When I finally got discharged, I remember it was the first time that anyone ever spoke to me kindly. I was getting my discharge a Fort Lee, New Jersey. I went in with my discharge papers and passed the queue of officers trying to re-enlist which went round the block. Easy job!
PT: What else were they going to do if they left the army?
HH: Nothing! They were all kids right out of high school. Most of them were flyers - you had to be a Second Lieutenant to fly.
And I got into a very short queue. And when I got to the desk, the sergeant said: Sit down please, will you, sergeant. And I thought: What's this? What's this?
He said: I see it took you three years to make sergeant. I said: Yeah, I was frozen in category and grade, that's why. I wanted more money, and they wouldn't give it to me.
Re-enlist, he said. Tech in one month; Staff in three months, by the time six months go by you'll be a Master Sergeant - which is the highest non-com rank. And I burst out laughing. And guys on either side of me were laughing like shit and walking out. We were out, all they had to do was stamp our papers.
The Air Corps in those days was just getting technical. They'd just brought in the B-29, and they took me out to look at it. Don't forget, our computers were mechanical - gears and cam followers - and the biggest problem we had was backlash in the gear train: when a gear train reverses there is a space between each cog wheel that must be taken up before the next gear moves and this causes an error in the readout. So we spring-loaded gears to take up this slack... and that was the only problem I can remember.
The B-29 had CFC - central firing control - which was completely electronic. They took up the floor, opened the box, and it was full of thermionic valves, radio tubes. I said: Christ, where are the gears? They had four gun turrets, remote controlled... no way!
They wanted people. I had a good technical rating, and they wanted me in. But I wanted out.
When I went in, the Air Corps was something like 60 or 70 guys on the ground for one in the air. Now there are 420 on the ground for one in the air.
PT: Things weren't that easy when you got out of the army, were they?
HH: It was a lot harder than I realised. It's a completely different world: you go in when you're eighteen, when you're a kid. Kids stay younger in the States than they are here, they aren't allowed to mature until after they're eighteen.
I was head of the library in high school, and I went back after the war to see the librarian, and I didn't realise it at the time, but they treat eighteen-year-olds there like little kids.
After three years in the army - drinking, chasing girls, cursing, all the usual stuff - I was a good non-com, I was completely adjusted to the army - I hated it, but I was completely adjusted to it in every way.
You were a kid before you went in, you're now a non-commissioned army officer, and there are no rules to follow in civilian life. What do you do? Except drink, of course. We drank a lot. You had an allowance that you were entitled to - 'Readjustment Allowance' - we called it the 52-20 Club: $20 a week for 52 weeks, and we'd drink it! Every Friday go down and get the check then use it for beer.
It was hard to readjust. You wouldn't think so, but you had to adjust to a totally different environment where you don't know the rules.
PT: You had a couple of dead-end jobs after leaving the army, didn't you?
HH: Oh, yeah. I didn't know what to do at all. I worked for Waldes-Kohinoor who made pliers for slip rings and it was a great job!
You'd have half a plier and you'd put it on a hydraulic press, and so you didn't get your hands chopped off, you had to press it down with both hands. Then you'd take it out and put another one in. At the machine next to me was a Polish woman who'd been doing this for seventeen years: I lasted three days!
I went to see the girl in the office and she said: Mr. Harrison, you've only been here three days, aren't you happy here? Aargh! [Makes strangling motions] After that they had me bending pliers for a bit.
I went to art school then - I got $50 a month subsistence allowance. I hung a stamped pliers half on my Dazor lamp, and at three in the morning when I was tired, I'd look at them and think: Aaargh! Draw faster, draw faster!
I went to a couple of art schools: I went to Hunter College for a bit and did art. Studied with John Blomshield - I have one of his paintings over there - a very fine American artists, a Mannerist who was in Paris in the '30s with all the other painters. And I went to Burne Hogarth's art school learning comic art.
Bill, the Galactic Hero
© Harry Harrison 1965