Mythcon 26 Report
(This report originally appeared in the March 1996 issue of Mythprint.)
Sue Dawe Taught Me Ship-Building
Talking, Walking and Caulking at Mythcon XXVI
By Lee Speth
There it was in the program book, final entry for Sunday, August 6th (in fact, after midnight): 2:00 A.M., Moving of the Boat (Building 8).” The building where the Underwoods and I had our rooms.
This item enclosed like a reliquary a memory of 1988, the last time the Society conferred at Berkeley. Diana Paxson’s original play for that year had utilized a bottomless prop rowboat. Discovered on campus grounds later that night, it had climaxed its career filled with reveling Mythcon-ferees, being galloped up and down the echoing corridors and through the Bardic Circle.
“Moving the Boat” hadn’t been a program item in ’88. But here it was in print this year. Nostalgia? No. A clear imperative. “We have to build a boat,” said Sue Dawe Underwood. “Or steal one from the marina,” added Michael Underwood. The latter notion, while not without merit, seemed less feasible.
The actual crafting of the vessel came on Sunday, through it was at the back of our minds pretty much from Friday on. Before I describe that creative burst, other Mythcon moments beg to be recorded; I came away with so many images and remembered voices:
Setting. I was carried back to the fabled ’60s as I descended to Telegraph Avenue for Friday lunch with Mythic Circle editor Tina Cooper. As we tromped past remnants of the counter-culture, she reminisced about going to law school in Berkeley. On another occasion, I actually cut through fabled People’s Park.
Feat of Skill. At the Friday night reception, I approached the wife of our Author Guest of Honor [Tim Powers]. Serena Powers is a small lively brunette who was stationed by a fruit bowl, idly throwing an apple in the air and catching it in her right hand. “That would be more impressive with more than one,” I observed. “Well….” she responded, picked up two more apples, and began to juggle them effortlessly. “These are a little big for my hands, ” she observed judiciously and – one, two, three – they were deposited back in the bowl without any having fallen. “I know a lot of useless stuff,” she remarked, shrugging, as she wandered off.
Image. The gorgeous new banner donated to the Society by Anne Osborn and displayed for the first time at the Saturday procession. It graced our sales table thereafter.
Image. Golfimbul, a little dressed stick figure, with a doll’s head eerily painted by Patrick Wynne. He kept watch over the quad, backlit, from Gary Hunnewell’s third floor window, until late Saturday when his services were required.
Setting. In recollecting Berkeley, tribute must be paid to the number and variety of bookstores. Could any Society member leave without a purchase? In one shop, I located a fine leather-bound copy of the scarce Sonnets and Rondels of William Ashbless. The price of such volumes is not prohibitive.
Notables. A delegation from Finland graced the Conference. Two officers of the Finnish Tolkien Society, Elisabeth Edin and Helena Valkama, were busy participants and welcome additions.
Double Image. Harper Patrick Ball, spotlit on stage during the Saturday night program, bent to his instrument, and Sue Dawe next to me in the half-lit auditorium sketching him deftly and accurately.
Dialogue. Strolling through the night from Building 8 to the West Lounge for Ellie Farrell’s midnight presentation on Missing Body Parts in the Works of Tim Powers. I was one in a moving knot of people that included both Ellie Farrell and Tim Powers.
T.P.: Is this going to be a true scholarly paper, full of footnotes?
E.F.: Oh, there are footnotes and eyenotes and legnotes….
Me: Cleft notes?
Everyone: Groan, moan, etc.
Feats of Skill. The floodlit lawn behind Bldg. 8 around 1:00 am on Sunday morning. Golfimbul had descended from his perch and was embedded in the turf. The Mythcon-ferees were at play. Implement: a baseball bat. Object: to decapitate Golfimbul and swat his plastic doll’s head as far as possible. Angle of impact is important. I did fairly well. Serena Powers did not and was somewhat miffed. “I’m usually good at sports,” she complained. Tim Powers connected solidly. “We didn’t invite Ursula Le Guin to do this,” I pointed out. I think he sensed the honor.
Image and Dialogue. As 1995 Society chairman, I was at the head table at the Sunday banquet with Con Chair Ellie Farrell and the Guests of Honor when the customary solemn procession presented the annual food sculpture. Orson Scott Tarot Card, the Hanged, Drawn and Quartered Man, was a deft and effective construction of dinner fragments with a clever orange peel noose. Tim Powers gazed at the plate with a kind of incredulous fascination.
Me: Now, has LASFS ever given you anything like this?
T.P. (decisively): No. Nor had I ever anticipated that anyone would.
Next year’s Con Chair, Dr. Bruce Leonard, was asked if the exposed organs depicted on the sculpture were accurate. He examined it seriously.
B.L.: He seems to have two livers. And those are terrible looking lungs. He must smoke a lot.
I glanced significantly at chain-smoker Serena Powers.
S.P. (confidently): My lungs don’t look like that. I have beautiful lungs.
Imperative. Time: around 1:00 A.M. Place: the third floor lounge of Building 8, overlooking the lawn where, a mere twenty-four hours before, Golfimbul had held the attention of the sporting world. The crowd in the lounge had thinned. At one end of the room, Lynn Maudlin and Berni Phillips were working on the Missing Body Parts medley for performance at closing ceremonies. A few other hardy souls were carousing over bottles of Northfarthing beer. Sue Dawe Underwood was there to create a boat, suitable for moving at 2:00 A.M. I was there to aid and abet and to see it launched, shipshape and Bristol fashion.
How to build a ship? I came to the project with neither plan nor training. But Sue was the unhesitating instrument of her own vision. She had obtained construction cardboard, formerly the display backing for a high school project that the Cowans of Orange, California, had with them in their car. She had silver duct tape. She had found a pool cue for the mast. She had a knife.
With precise cuts and careful bendings, she shaped the cardboard into a hull. A rectangle of cardboard became the deck. Holes were drilled, allowing a plunger, suction cup down, to serve as a stand while the pool cue was lashed with tape to its handle, proud and erect. I applied tape and secured seams and, mindful of Tim Powers and his pirate novel, suggested the name H.M.S. Even Stranger Tides. Volunteers began to cluster round. Someone brought a sheet sail. Ellie presented a little pirate flag. A plastic cup was perforated on the bottom and impaled on the cue to provide a crow’s nest. Gary Hunnewell, remembering the Missing Body Parts motif, considered aloud that he might cut off some of his fingers to pose aboard as crew. “That,” I said, “brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘All hands on deck.’” We declined Gary’s sacrifice, but Sue placed her left hand on the deck, traced around it with ink, and wrote “All hands on deck” beside the outline. Carol Kalescky lettered the name on the ship’s prow, Gary donated Golfimbul’s head as a figurehead, and Sue dripped a bit of Northfarthing on the plastic cranium by way of christening. We had done it: a proud ship of some four and a half pounds burthen. At roughly 2:00 A.M. we moved her to Sue and Michael’s room.
Presentation and Exeunt. She voyaged on. Carried at cock-crow to the dining hall entrance so last-day breakfasters could be scrutinized by the plastic unicorn in the crow’s nest. And at some point before Sue and I bore our craft into the Closing Ceremonies and posed it onstage, Tim Powers signed the deck with a little sketch of himself in a pirate hat and a guarantee of the ship’s authenticity. Too bad the government is shutting down so many shipyards these days. I might have turned pro.