Prolific sci-fi writer was inspired by Williamsport
It was April 1947 when a story entitled “Time and Time Again” appeared in Astounding Science Fiction magazine.
The tale begins in 1976 as Allan Hartley, a captain in the military, “quantum leaped” back into his 13-year-old self in 1945. His father was a lawyer named Blake Hartley. The elder Hartley had gotten into serious trouble when he had loaned a handgun to a neighbor. The neighbor claimed it was to put down a sick dog. However, the gun was used to kill the neighbor’s wife and then he used it on himself.
Hartley “was more than a something that merely knew that it existed. He was a man, and he had a name, and a military rank, and memories…(such as being)…back to the time when he had been little Allan Hartley, a schoolboy, the son of a successful lawyer, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.”
The story went on to mention a well known city church. Hartley heard “St. Boniface, up on the hill, ringing for early Mass.” as well as a German woman speaking about “Mein sister, Jennie, offer in Nippenose.”
The story was written by H. Beam Piper, who was born on March 23, 1904, in Altoona.
It is recorded on a memorial site dedicated to Piper, H-BeamPiper.com that “Beam spent his whole life trying to be a writer and when he arrived, he made the most of it.” It was explained that he “was a member of both the Mystery Writers of America and the Hydra Club, the SF writers group–precursor to the Science Fiction Writers of America.”
Piper had taken 26 years of “hard work and perseverance before (his) first story sale, ‘Time and Time Again,’ on September 25, 1946 to …’Astounding Science Fiction.’ “
In order to make a living, he worked for the Altoona Railroad for most of his life.
However, science fiction writer Jack Chalker said Piper “was very protective of his background; in part, because he spent most of his life working as a night watchman at the Altoona, Pennsylvania (train) car yards, writing short stories and novels during his off time. Not a very writer-like career.”
Chalker said Piper was “an autodidact (self-educated man) as well versed in history — maybe more so — than most history professors.” Chalker believed Piper may have “had some insecurity in regards to his lack of formal education. When asked whether or not he attended college, Piper would reply that he didn’t go to college because he had wanted to spare himself “the ridiculous misery of four years.”
However, he went on to receive a great deal of acclaim because “of his impressive knowledge of history and his ability to weave it into his narrative.”
John Carr, who co-founded the memorial site dedicated to Piper, said that “Piper was ahead of his time. He was fascinated by alternate histories, space travel and future warfare. He influenced many science fiction writers, such as Jerry Pournelle, Jack Chalker, Joshua Dann, Harry Turtledove, John Scalzi, S.M. Stirling and others.”
David Johnson, who also created a site dedicated to Piper, Zarthani.net, said “Beam wasn’t simply writing good stories, but was also creating rich sci-fi settings.”
He would go on to receive praise for his space opera “Space Vikings,” a series of short stories about parallel universes called “Paratime,” and the stories of short furry aliens called “Little Fuzzy.”
How did this science fiction writer end up in Lycoming County?
Carr, who is also a science fiction writer and a biographer of Piper, said it was because of Ferd Coleman, the founder of the “Williamsport Shopper.”
“His best friend, Fred Coleman … lived in Williamsport and Piper,who was living in Altoona, very much enjoyed spending them with his friends in Williamsport. It was a home away from home,” Carr said.
He said that Piper “was also very fond of the James V. Brown Library.”
Carr added that he had been living in France for a number of years and when he returned to the United States, “he packed up his belongings in Altoona and moved straight to Williamsport.”
Interestingly, guns were always a part of Piper’s life. Piper would write a mystery entitled “Murder in the Gunroom” in 1953 and in 1959, the “Mansfield Advertiser” credited Piper for helping with a Civil War weapons display at Lycoming College.
“H. Beam Piper, a local firearms expert, advised the group on the restoration of the small arms,” the writer said in the March 18 edition.
However, Piper dealt with his share of demons.
“Piper suffered from depression–or the ‘blue devils,’ his code word–and loved to imbibe. There is no doubt that it added to his depression and possibly contributed to his suicide,” Carr said.
In November 1964, Piper decided to end his life. He placed “painter’s drop cloths over the walls and floor.”
Reporter Marvin N. Katz shared Piper’s final letter with the “Analog Science Fiction” magazine.
“I don’t like to leave messes when I go away, but if I could have cleaned up any of this mess, I wouldn’t be going away,” Piper wrote.
He used a .38 caliber pistol, his death certificate said. He was found on Nov. 8 and his body was sent back to Altoona where he was buried.
“I spent over 30 years collecting letters, articles in science fiction fanzines, memories of colleagues and friends and their children. Beam was fond of children and small animals. And they loved him back. He treated children like small adults,” Carr said.
He added that Piper “was remembered with great fondness by all I interviewed — and much missed.”
Johnson summed Piper’s life up by saying, “I wish he had lived to write more.”