Science fiction conventions were a regular part of my life and profession for about 20 years. My experience with them was different from most – by the time I went to my first convention I was thirty years old and already a professional designer. We also never fully immersed ourselves in the culture and mindset; with a growing family, a commission in the reserves and extensive commitments with other organizations there was never enough extra time or money to attend many of them or get very involved.
Most of the time we had fun, especially the years we went as a family and ran a small table in the dealer’s room. We usually made enough to cover expenses – sometimes we’d hit the jackpot and make a whole lot more. The conventions were always a “rich” event in terms of people as well. We made a lot of friends and encountered some very colorful characters – though we had to devise a short list of unobtrusive hand gestures that we could use to signal another family member when we needed to be saved from one of those colorful characters who had fallen in love with the sound of their own voice and was dominating our attention when we needed be working.
There were also those who would try to soak up time and attention after the convention was over – which is why I now give out my email address instead of personal contact information. I’m not talking about other professionals but rather lost souls who would overreact to kindness and didn’t understand personal boundaries. That may have been the case with the person we refer to as “The Phantom Phan”
It was the fall of 1988 and we had just returned from NOLACON – the World Science Fiction Convention held in New Orleans. It was a memorable experience, made even more so by the chaotic trip back to Alaska. There had been extensive forest fires out West and the smoke was so bad air traffic had to be re-routed and as we were travelling on frequent-flier miles we were always at the bottom of the list when it came to getting on alternate flights. Fortunately it all worked out and we made it home along with all our luggage and the barely-compliant-with-maximum-dimensions crate I had made to haul our artwork around in.
We got home and settled in to our routine with boys starting a new school year while Lori and I went back to work in the studio. Everything seemed to be OK…then the calls started coming.
(Brrrrr – sounds like the lead-in to a teen slasher movie….)
They started in last September and would come at only one time during the week – 1:00 AM Sunday mornings, a time which I just happened to be awake. Star Trek: The Next Generation was aired at 10:00 on Saturday nights, followed by Saturday Night Live at 11:00. I would watch both, and then chat on the phone with my sister Robin about the two shows. By the time we were done it would be close to 1:00 so I’d check on the boys, brush my teeth and hop into bed
When I picked up the phone a male voice would ask “Is this David R. Deitrick Illustration and Design?” – only it would be in a strong accent like “Ish dis Davu Ah. Deetrih Irrustration and Dezoin?” or something close to that. When I would reply in the affirmative and then there’d be a > click< and the caller would hang up.
In my years living in Alaska I have grown accustomed to a lot of different phone systems. When we first moved up there in 1962 you had to work with multiple telephone operators when calling Outside (the lower 48 states), then when satellite relays were used you had to learn to work with that 1-2 second lag between comments. By the time of this story progress in technology had eliminated that delay, but signal quality could still change with the distance involved and you could distinguish between a local all and a long distance – and this caller sounded like he was calling from far away and from where we were located that could have easily been from either side of the Pacific Rim.
The Phantom Phan’s accent had me totally baffled. It was definitely a male voice but I couldn’t place the accent. One week it would sound Oriental then other times it sounded almost Russian. The voiced lacked the growling aspect of German and if it was Spanish it was a form that I had never heard
Why was I considering all these locations scattered all over the world? As I said, we had just attended the World Science Fiction convention which drew attendees from all over the world. We went to conventions mostly for business reasons which meant I talked to just about everyone that remotely looked like a publisher. We handed out countless business cards, promo flyers, book-marks all week long and there is no telling where some of them eventually turned up.
We dealt with the calls through the year until summer of 1989 when we moved to the Lower 48 and graduate school. My parents moved back into the house shortly after we left and I don’t know if the Phantom Phan called them or not. If he had he wouldn’t have lasted long – if you knew my parents you’ll know that if you ever wake them up from a sound sleep…well, let’s say you never do it twice.
It was four years before we made it to another Worldcon – this time it was the 1992 event in Orlando Florida. I didn’t work the crowd quite so much because we had a dealers’ table to run and our two sons in tow. I wondered if we’d start getting the calls again after Orlando but we didn’t – which led me to a conclusion that I had been trying to put out of my mind for awhile. Lori and I had met a nice couple from Kobe, Japan during the New Orleans WORLDCON. They were about our age and while they didn’t have an overwhelming command of the English language (and all I can say in Japanese is “where’s the bathroom) we got along nicely.
The “phantom Phan” calls stopped around the time that there was a massive earthquake in the Kobe area with tremendous loss of life. Was the Phantom Phan our Japanese friend we met in New Orleans? The mere fact that they didn’t show up in Orlando does not necessarily mean that they perished in the quake, but the coincidence was close enough to make me a little sad.
My “Elvis years” in illustration are past me now and the business cards that I do hand out are plastered with website URLs instead of phone numbers or addresses. Other than a half-hearted attempt at cyber-stalking by a former student I don’t have to worry about any bothersome intrusions other than robo-telephone solicitors. However, every once and awhile the phone rings late at night when I am up walking off spasms or trying to ventilate after a bad asthma attack – and I wonder if our Japanese friends made it through the quake OK.