22 December 2015

Slice of Life

At the Hungry Tiger Talk blog, David Maxine has written about the one-of-a-kind Oz-related item that was part of our first meeting, when we were teenagers. This is my side of the story.

Back in 1979, at the age of thirteen, I attended my first International Wizard of Oz Club convention. This was the Munchkin Convention, meaning it drew Oz fans from the eastern part of the United States. In the books, you see, the Munchkins live in the eastern part of Oz. (In most of the books. It’s a long story, which David summarized here.)

That year the Munchkin Convention was in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a reasonably short car ride from my grandparents’ home in suburban Philadelphia. I’d already done some air travel by myself, so I felt confident flying down to visit Grandpa and Grandma.

I wasn’t so confident about meeting the Munchkin conventioneers. I was a shy kid, and I’d never been at that sort of gathering before, much less on my own. It turned out to be a milestone event because it was the first time adult strangers treated me as a peer. For that, I’ll always be grateful to the Oz Club.

There were other teenagers there as well, or at least one: Judy Bieber. But she intimidated me. I was thirteen, and she was (and remains) a couple of years older, which felt like an incredibly significant gap. She was also smart, pretty, and seemingly very much at home in Munchkinland. She created the quiz about the Oz books for that year. She and her father Herm were selling older Oz editions. She appeared to have everything.

To the surprise of the room, and the astonishment of myself, I won Judy’s quiz. The Oz books were the first field of knowledge I really tried to master, and my brain is good at retaining trivial information. And, though I didn’t know it at the time, previous winners were probably sitting out that event. The prize that Judy supplied was an abridged “Junior” edition of Rinkitink in Oz with some John R. Neill color plates. I’m sure that was the first time I’d ever seen one of those abridgments. It may have been the first time I ever knew about them.

By the end of that day, while I was waiting for my grandmother to pick me up, I was already worrying about my responsibilities for the following year. The winner of each year’s quiz had to write the next year’s quiz and supply the prize. I remember another attendee congratulating me on winning and asking if I was already thinking about new questions, and me replying that I was already thinking about the prize.

Making the quiz was fun. I decided to base it on Neill’s pictures and books, and I had fun laying it out. But for a prize? I didn’t have much money to spend, I didn’t know the range of possibilities, and I wasn’t linked into collectors’ networks. I also wasn’t good at asking for help (I’m still not). I wanted to solve this problem on my own—since I was acting as an adult, and all that.

So I decided to use my time in woodworking class to make a prize. A pair of O and Z bookends didn’t work out, but I grabbed a piece of mahogany and figured out a design for a cheese board that incorporated Neill’s OZ symbol in its handle. I didn’t do a great job with the carving, but it was a one-of-a-kind Oz-related trophy. And its real value was symbolic, right?

As David guessed, during the 1980 Munchkin Convention I decided to augment that cheese board with an edition of The Wizard of Oz autographed by Margaret Hamilton, who was there. So now I can also say that I had a brief conversation with her. Very brief.

The person who won my quiz was David Maxine, who had come from out west all the way to Cherry Hill. He was also a teenager. But, like Judy, he was (and is) a couple of years older than me. The difference is minuscule now—we’re all part of what I called the “white cover generation” of Oz fans. But back then David was also daunting.

Looking back, I realize that my thinking at thirteen was skewed by the universal adolescent assumption that every other teen is having more fun than you. To me David seemed like an old hand at Oz conventions and collecting and life. I should have perceived that this was his first time at the Munchkins, and he had no idea I was at just my second gathering. We had more in common than I realized.

If I’d known the winner of my quiz was going to be another teen, I probably wouldn’t have made a kitchen implement. If I’d had the boldness to befriend Judy the year before, I could probably have asked her and Herm to snatch up one of those abridged editions for the 1980 prize. But I couldn’t see any of those possibilities at the time.

I also couldn’t see that David and I would reconnect in something called “online” almost twenty years later. During some Ozzy conversation he mentioned that he still had the cheese board, which was both astonishing and gratifying. (As he’s pointed out, it’s compact and almost impossible to break.) And now that we’re both adults and have had online exchanges about such things as Swiss chard, a kitchen implement turns out to have been more appropriate than we knew. It’s come to symbolize a real-world friendship rooted in Oz.

No comments: