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Regarding Vaughn Bode*

by Fred A Levy Haskell

Well look, Vaughn was just this guy, you know…

The nice folks at <publisher> have asked me to write a little bit about Vaughn Bode The Person for them (and therefore for you). Other than my opening statement, however, this is not something I will be able to do simply or directly, for a variety of reasons. So if what you want is one of those things that go: “Vaughn Bode was born in a log cabin in upstate New York and educated himself by firelight and Syracuse University…”, you might want to quit reading this now and go on to the other good stuff in this book. (Oh wait! Before you go, there is one other little thing I can tell you: the line over the “e” in Vaughn’s signature is not an acute accent, it is a long mark. That is, it was not part of the family name and is not pronounced as if it were an “a”—he added it to his signature to indicate that you are supposed to pronounce the long “e” at the end of his name. Okay, now you can go.)

Thanks for sticking around. I felt I had to excuse those who want it simple because, in order to do this thing right, I’m going to have to ask you to think a bit, and I’m going to get a bit philosophical, and, worst of all, I’m going to have to tell you a bunch of stuff about myself—not to beat my own drum, but because that’s how it has to be done. After all, what is important about any person is not who they are in isolation, but who they are in relation to other people.

Among other things, I am a photographer. One of the useful ways I have of conceptualizing a photograph is to think of it as a record of an interaction. This means, of course, that for a photograph to be good and interesting, the interaction between the photographer and the subject must be good and interesting. For there to be truth, there must be trust. Unfortunately, the camera itself can frequently be an impediment—the photographer and subject must not only work to create and maintain an interaction worth recording, but also must do so in the presence of a black box with reputed soul-stealing powers. Vaughn was absolutely the best and easiest person I’ve ever worked with to create a photograph. Our interaction was easy, comfortable, and honest. He was remarkably open and giving of himself in the presence of my camera, despite the fact that he was a shy person. And when he would affect a pose, it did not serve as a mask to hide behind, but rather was a means for illuminating an aspect of his personality. So a careful study of my photographs of Vaughn might well tell you more about him than my words can. (Of course, it’ll probably tell you something about me as well—the camera points both ways, don’tchaknow….)

One of the very important things that Vaughn helped me to understand is that real communication can only occur between equals. I first met him at the World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis in 1969, where he was awarded the Hugo for Best Fan Artist of the year. (Although he had been working professionally for some years, he won this award for the artwork he had contributed to amateur science fiction fanzines.) His Deadbone strip had just started appearing regularly in Cavalier in May of that year, and he had been doing wonderful illustrations for Galaxy and IF since 1967. I was totally in awe of him, and immediately tried to put him on a pedestal. He immediately tried to scramble down. It went on like this for a while—I’d try to shove him up on a pedestal and Vaughn would either climb down or haul me up there with him. It took me a while to catch on to what he was doing, but I finally realized that, in addition to serving no useful purpose, this little game actually got in the way of meaningful interaction. So I relaxed on the awe business and we settled on a comfortable mutual respect. It seems to me that Vaughn was like that with everybody—sure, he enjoyed knowing that you liked his work and he would share his excitement about his various projects with you, but he wanted to know what you were doing, what you had to say, as well. He was interested in conversation, not adulation. Commerce between people who do not consider themselves equals is frequently unrewarding (or, to put it another way, if you want to be da’ wizard’s apprentice, you is gonna get kicked in da’ balls a lot).

Shifting gears a bit, let me tell you a story. One of the things I like to do at science fiction conventions to amuse myself and my friends is to play guitar and sing. However, despite the fact that I derive a great deal of enjoyment from this, there are times I’m not eager to do it. I don’t know why this is—maybe I need the strokes implicit in being persuaded to play, maybe I need to believe that my efforts will not go unappreciated, maybe something else altogether is going on. I don’t know. In any case, at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston in 1971, Vaughn and I were spending quite a bit of time together. Throughout the early part of the weekend, he’d gently inquire where and when I was planning to play, and I’d reply in rather vague and negative terms. “Oh, I don’t know. There don’t seem to be any open parties. I wouldn’t want to be disruptive.” Stuff like that. I couldn’t figure out why he was asking. I was a bit bummed that weekend, and I guess I thought he thought it would cheer me up to play or something. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, Vaughn grabbed me and a woman-friend of ours and said, “Hey, I think I’ll throw a party tonight. Come and help me buy party supplies.” We trooped merrily off to the nearby grocery store and selected snacks and soda, and carted it off to Vaughn’s room. And sure enough, that evening he had a party in his room, with lots of interesting people. I went and got my guitars and played, and a good time was had by all. Of course, you’re way ahead of me on this one, but Vaughn did all this so gracefully and guilelessly that I honestly didn’t know until he told me later that the only reason he’d had for throwing this party was that he wanted to hear me play, and it was the only way he could think of both to get me to do so and to be sure he’d be there when I did.

It’s probably belaboring the obvious, but I feel compelled to mention that Vaughn was a very complex person. My words and photographs can only reveal a portion of the whole. Moreover, I am certain there were aspects of Vaughn I never became acquainted with. Luckily, you can learn much more about him though his work than I could possibly tell you (the camera points both ways). However, since you have stuck with me this long, I think we have established a context in which I can make a couple of simple statements about Vaughn. He was very soft-spoken. He had more charm than any five other people I know combined, and had a sort-of boyish good-natured way about him. While he always appeared to be at ease with people, and was excellent at putting people at ease, it seems to me that he was a very shy person who was forcing himself to be with people. He was fun to be around.

He was just this guy, you know….


*Written for … um … anyway, it finally showed up in Vaughn Bode’s Poem Toons, Tundra Publishing Ltd., Northampton, MA. Copyright © 1989 Barbara Bode.