Blake Savage
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Great cosmos!

Boyhood memories lead to quest for the real Blake Savage

By Roy Peter Clark

I found the book at a flea market in Old Montreal, at a booth that sold antique sheet music, old political buttons and classic movie posters.

Something about it caught my eye. Perhaps it was the starry blackness of the cover, a backdrop for a scene of enemy warships exploding in deep space. I recognized it at once as a book I had owned and loved as a boy: Assignment in Space with Rip Foster.

"I found an old friend of ours," I told my brother. "Do you remember Rip Foster?" To my amazement, he began to list the characters, even some minor ones, by name. He recited the plot and recalled that, at the end, the young hero loses his red hair from radiation poisoning.

In the days that followed, I stared at the book with what I can only describe as a sense of wonder. I imagined myself in 1960, at the age of 12, picking the book off the shelf in some variety store, and stealing two quarters from my mother's purse to buy it. I loved the smell of a new book.

Now the book smelled musty, like a damp garage. That smell raised the ghost of another memory, of a boy stretched out for hours on an old sofa holding a book to the light.

Rip Foster reminded me of a time in my life when reading was still new, when it empowered me to peel back the secrets of the adult world and fed my youthful dreams of freedom and escape. Perhaps my parents could still browbeat me into wearing rubbers on rainy days. But on those rainy days, I could turn a page and become Tom Swift or Frank Hardy or Rip Foster. Through their adventures I felt transported.

Those feelings returned as I began to read Rip Foster again, and they grew into something more. I read the book on airplanes, in hotel lobbies and over lunch counters, ignoring the stares of those who wondered at a man so engrossed in a book for boys. As I read, a sense that was long numb returned to life, a curiosity that drove me to want to learn everything I could about this book, its history and its author, a man with the strange name of Blake Savage.

Assignment in Space

The work of Blake Savage proved as gripping as I found it almost 30 years ago, a tale of heroism and adventure to feed the imagination of those of us who grew up a generation before Star Wars. Rip Foster and his Planeteers are space Marines, escorted from planet to planet in the galaxy by their friendly rivals, the Rocketeers. They fight for freedom and justice.

They live in an advanced atomic age. Rip, a new Planeteer, accepts a dangerous mission: to find an asteroid made of a radioactive material called thorium, and to set off a nuclear blast to send the asteroid into Earth orbit, providing the Federation of Free Governments with a rich supply of nuclear material.

In one scene, Rip and his sidekick, a 7-foot Hawaiian named Koa, open cases of supplies they are to transport to the asteroid: "Several large cases remained. Koa ripped the side from one and let out an exclamation. Rip hurried over and looked in. His stomach did a quick orbital reverse. Great Cosmos! The thing was an atomic bomb!"

I laughed with joy at the vitality of that passage, and at characters whose thoughts exploded off the page: "Ten planeteers riding an asteroid!" thought Rip. "Sunny space, what a great big thermonuclear stunt!"

I could hardly resist such chapter titles as: "Rake That Radiation!" "Duck - Or Die!" "Repel Invaders!" "Get the Scorpion!" "Ride the Planet!" Truly, I thought, this was a universe in which the exclamation point rules!

The author's universe was also a place in which science ruled. At every twist of plot, Rip and his men rely, not on outlandish contraptions, but on applied science, such as the ability to measure radiation. At every point of scientific explanation, the author writes in a credible voice and with respect for his young readers, as in this passage describing the effects on Rip of a nuclear blast:

"The ship's radiation safety officer had put both Rip's and Santos' dosimeters into his measuring equipment. They had taken over a hundred roentgens of hard radiation above the tolerance limit. This was the result of being caught unshielded when the last nuclear charge went off."

Whoever Blake Savage was, he reflected the scientific and political vision of his time. Rip's enemy is no gargoyle from a distant galaxy. The enemy is the Consolidation of People's Governments, earthlings known as "the Connies". Change one letter in that name and the symbolism becomes clear. If the Planeteers are space Marines, the enemies are malicious space commies, who lust for power and territory.

Something was going on here that, trapped in time, I could not see as a child. Rip Foster was a political allegory. I turned to the copyright page and found the date 1958, but a line of tiny type noted an original copyright date of 1952 under the title Rip Foster Rides the Gray Planet.

I picked an almanac off the shelf and read the news headlines for the years 1951 and 1952. The Korean war raged, Harry Truman pressed forward on development of the hydrogen bomb, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy saw a Commie behind every bush. Blake Savage, whoever he was, must have penned this boy's adventure during the height of the Cold War.

Blake Savage. What a wonderful name, I thought, a name so totemic it didn't need an exclamation point. But who was Blake Savage? Was he still alive, I wondered. Had he written other works? And was Blake Savage even his real name?

My curiosity was now as bright as Rip Foster's hair. But before I set out in my quest to find Blake Savage, I would try to solve one other of the book's mysteries.

A voice from the past

I found this message printed in an immature hand, perhaps that of a 10-year-old boy, on the inside cover of Rip Foster: "This is the property of Lorne Rother. 5590 Beominster Pl." What followed was a phone number. I knew it was old because of the alphabetical exchange: RE-8.

Here was a boy who thought so much of this book that he carefully printed his name, address and phone number inside. I imagined him as a member of the Rip Foster brotherhood and wondered who he was and what had become of him, and whether he would be curious to know that his childhood treasure had found its way into my hands.

Against the odds, I decided to try the number. I was inspired by the faint hope that RE-8 was still a Montreal exchange that was now 73-8. A Montreal operator told me that the 73-8 exchange still existed. So I dialed.

A woman answered the phone and thought I was crazy. I can only imagine what I said to her: "This is going to sound strange . . . my name is . . . I bought this book . . . and it had the name Lorne Rother . . . I just called the number on the odd chance." More in frustration than in cooperation, the woman said, "Wait one minute, I'll let you talk with him."

I could feel my heart beating in my chest. He was still there after all these years, and I would make a mystic connection. The book would bring us together in a bond that only devoted readers could understand. Then I heard his voice.

"What was the name of the book?" he asked, slightly amused.

"Assignment in Space with Rip Foster."

"Huh. I don't remember it at all."

I described the book for him, but nothing clicked. "Did you read a lot when you were a boy?"

"Not much," he said.

"What do you do now?"

"I'm in wholesale dry goods."

In search of Blake Savage

Undeterred, I called the Whitman Publishing Co. in Racine, Wis., which had published Rip Foster and many of my childhood favorites. Whitman, I soon learned, was owned by Western Publishing and was now nothing more than a brand name. Long out of print were the adventures and mysteries, many based on television series, that I had enjoyed as a child, books such as Adventures at Chimney Rock and The Diamond Cave Mystery. Whitman had also published a Famous Classics series, where I discovered Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, and Treasure Island.

Alas, the official records from the 1950s are sketchy. Authors were paid flat fees instead of royalties, so no publication history of books such as Rip Foster survives. "All we have is an item number for the book," said Kim McLynn, speaking for Western Publishing. "As you know, the book was published under two titles. And your guess was right. Blake Savage was a pseudonym. The author's real name was Harold L. Goodwin."

Harold L. Goodwin! The name of a postmaster, perhaps, but not a master storyteller. Western could provide no mailing address or other information about the author. Calls to company offices in New York and an affiliate in Toronto proved fruitless. Finding Blake Savage, or Harold L. Goodwin, would be as difficult as finding a hunk of thorium in an asteroid belt.

I called the copyright office in Washington, D.C. A friendly woman told me that the name and address of the author might be on file in her office. "But the bad news is that we're backed up about two months on searches."

When in trouble, call you local librarian.

"I've found Harold L. Goodwin, a.k.a. Blake Savage, in an index called Contemporary Authors," said Kathy Arsenault, a librarian at the University of South Florida, Bayboro campus. I rushed over and gathered the large volume onto my lap. It said "GOODWIN, Harold Leland 1914-."

That meant he was alive in 1967, the year that the index was published, and that, if he were still alive, he would be 73 years old. What followed was a seven paragraph description of his career, a career so impressive and relevant to my search, that, at one point, I gasped.

The first piece of information dilated my pupils. From 1951-'58, that would include the period he had written Rip Foster, Harold L. Goodwin was director of atomic test operations for the Federal Civil Defense Administration! No wonder he knew so much about nuclear energy. In 1953, he won an award as the outstanding young man in federal service.

But even more impressive than his career in government service was his publication record. More than 30 volumes were listed, including factual books about space travel and sea exploration, and the Rick Brant Science Adventure Series for Boys, 23 nifty adventures written from 1947-1968 under the pseudonym John Blaine. I would learn later that the Rick Brant series, published by Grosset & Dunlap, made Harold L. Goodwin one of the most popular authors of boy adventure books in this century.

There also in Contemporary Authors was Harold L. Goodwin's Maryland address. Directory Assistance got me a phone number. I dialed. A woman answered. "Is this Mrs. Goodwin?"

"Yes, it is."

I identified myself and said, "Do you remember Adventures In Space with Rip Foster?"

"Remember it," she said in a charming voice, "I typed it!"

Voice of the master

A few days later, I landed an interview.

"If your readers are going to identify with the characters and identify with the situation, and follow you as an author, you had better respect them and not write down to them." said Hal Goodwin.

His voice over the telephone was cool and elegant. As we talked, I stared at a photograph he had sent me. It showed a handsome man with a broad face, wire-rimmed glasses, and wavy hair, as gray as Rip's planet, combed straight back.

"I didn't write down to the young kids who were going to read me," he said. "I didn't even pull my punches on language. I didn't mind using three-syllable words if that is what was required."

I could read the passion for his work in his voice as Goodwin described a writing career that produced 42 books and several hundred popular and technical articles for journals and magazines. He talked about his early days as a reporter for a news service and his adventures during World War II as a combat correspondent in the Marine Corps.

"When you're in the heat of battle, you don't beat a typewriter very much, but it's there," said Goodwin. "I carried a little Swiss-made typewriter, weighed all of two pounds, I think, and turned out an awful lot of copy."

Goodwin's specialty was "Joe Blow" stories, articles about individual Marines that appeared in hometown newspapers back in the States. He also produced major feature stories on the war for magazines such as Argosy and Coronet. The humor, camaraderie and struggle he chronicled would germinate and grow into the imaginative exploits of Rip and his platoon of space Marines.

Hal Goodwin said he did not remember how he came up with the pseudonym "Blake Savage." He used it only once, for Rip Foster, which also turned out to be the only space fiction of his career. Goodwin estimates that he wrote Rip Foster in late 1951 or early 1952, the year he wrote Stairway to Danger, his ninth book in the Rick Brant series. The timing explains the political texture of the book, which rarely surfaced in his other work.

"At that period we were at the height of the Cold War," said Goodwin. "I picked an enemy that seemed to have verisimilitude at the time. Two opposing forms of government. One a dictatorship and the other, presumably, a democracy."

It was Goodwin's postwar career in civil defense that fueled his fascination with nuclear energy.

"I was a radiation monitor during the test series in 1951 in Nevada," he said. "I went out with my handy dandy little field survey meter and helped to chart the outline of the radiation field resulting from the shots there. I moved up to the job of actually directing the agency's participation in all of those things, which ended in 1957 with a whole village set up there, and I had 1,800 people from all over the country performing emergency operations, as they would in case of a real nuclear attack. It was quite a show."

It was about 1957 that Whitman Publishing made plans, without telling Goodwin, to reissue Rip Foster under the title Assignment in Space. Goodwin learned about it only when his wife and sons went into a drugstore after Sunday school and saw the book with a different cover.

"They owned it," says Goodwin, who won't say how much he was paid for Rip Foster or any of his books. "I didn't expect a millions dollars," he said, "and I didn't get a million dollars."

Goodwin's good fortune has been to lead two magnificent lives, a life of writing and a life of government work, bound together by a love of science. After six years with atomic testing, he spent three years as scientific adviser to the U.S. Information Agency, following by six years with NASA as an information specialist. His work took him all over the world and gave him settings for his stories.

Goodwin retired from government service in 1974 as associate director of the National Sea Grant program, which he helped design in 1969. He was the principal writer of a landmark report, "Our Nation and the Sea," and with Sen. Claiborne Pell wrote Challenge of the Seven Seas, justifying a national ocean program.

I asked him how he found the time to write boys' adventure books that would sell 2-million volumes and be translated into Icelandic, French, Finnish, Dutch, Norwegian and Japanese.

"I wrote on weekends and evenings, mostly," said Goodwin, "I'm a night owl. My diurnal cycle causes me not to turn on until 10 a.m. I was producing a boys' book a year. I did a lot of writing, but I really enjoyed the kids' books."

The kids Goodwin wrote for were about 12-16 years old, some smart ones a little younger, some romantics a little older. He laments the fact that few true adventure stores are being written for teens, having been replaced by books burdened with social messages.

"There doesn't seem to be much optimism in the world," he said. "I'm out of touch with that. As I tell my sons and my wife, this is not my world."

"What was your world like?" I asked.

"My world was a more innocent one in a lot of ways," he said. "Drugs were not a problem. The sexual revolution had not arrived. And people still had manners. And I miss all that. I miss the quietness of the time in which I grew up, even though there were a couple of wars involved."

Goodwin is reminded of those glory days when a reader of his books, now grown, discovers him and makes contact. The gesture touches and pleases him.

"And it happens oftener than you might think," he said. "There was a long period there when my readers were in college. And they'd come home during summer vacation and pick the books off their shelves and re-read one or two or go though the whole series and then sit down and write me a letter, and tell me that they enjoyed them just as much the second time."

I wondered aloud, "Do many people track down Blake Savage to ask about Rip Foster?"

"You are the first ever," he said.

A chain unbroken

Yet I find I am not alone, that there are others who are seduced by the books of their childhood. Hal Goodwin told me about a mecca for such people, a place that housed perhaps the greatest collection of boy adventure stories.

I am standing now in the middle of it with a man my age named Paul Camp. Dressed in black and sporting a Buffalo Bill Cody beard, he looks like a character in a Lone Ranger adventure.

Camp inhaled adventure novels as a boy, and was one of those kids who would trade three Tom Swifts and two Nancy Drews for a single story by Hal Goodwin. In junior high, he even tried to build some of the electronic gadgets that figured in the plots of the Rick Brant series. He dreamed the dreams of power and escape.

Here we stand back to back, like the Hardy Boys, surrounded. Everywhere we turn, we eye some ancient treasure. The Clue of the Coiled Cobra, a Ken Holt adventure by Bruce Campbell; The Mystery at Rustler's Fort by Troy Nesbit; A Pass and a Prayer, a Chip Hilton sports story by Clair Bee; Dangers in Deep Space, a Tom Corbett adventure by Carey Rockwell; and three copies of Rip Foster. Thousands of adventure books, by American and British authors, some going back more than a century. And all of them right here - in Tampa.

Paul Camp is a librarian in the Special Collection department of the University of South Florida. He and Jay Dobkin are caretakers of this collection of books, which once belonged to a man named Harry Hudson. Until his death in 1982, Hudson, who lived in Clearwater, collected 400 series of boy adventure books, about 4,000 volumes. All subsequent research in the field derives from Hudson's Bibliography of American Boys Books in Series 1900-1950.

So intense is the interest in these works that Dobkin and Camp are planning a conference for next May 12-14 on American juvenile literature with emphasis on series books. Authors, dealers, collectors, illustrators and academics will gather. "Hal Goodwin will be there," promises Dobkin.

So what began at a flea market in Montreal finds its way to a library in my own back yard, the adventure offered by a single old book multiplied thousands of times. I am struck suddenly by how every copy of every book has its own biography, how a book can be well-traveled or reclusive, ignored or pampered, traded or discarded, bought or sold, lost or found, how it can decay and turn to dust.

An expert guesses that 100,000 copies of Rip Foster came into existence. One came into my hands as a man. But what of the one I read as a boy? Was it sold, or given to the poor? Did my mother throw it away? Does it survive? Did I write my name in it?

I think these thoughts again in a back room of Haslam's Book Store. I browse through the old books, hoping for visitation by some other ghosts. I am not looking for anything special, but there it is, a blue hard cover, with Whitman at the bottom and Rip Foster Rides the Gray Planet at the top.

"So now I own the first edition, too," I say to myself, "and for only a dollar and a half."

I examine the inside cover and find an inscription: "To Mikie, to share and enjoy, Christmas 1958."

Then, inside the back cover, I find a signature in childlike cursive: "Michael Harvey Lawrence, Esq, Inc." I rush home to see if I can find his name in the phone book.

Editor's Note: Originally published in the St. Petersburg Times, October 19, 1987. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Roy Peter Clark teaches at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, FL. He is the author of Free to Write.

 

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