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Hard Times

Went directly to Police Office, where I announced my decision to quit, and turned in my pass and wrote out my resignation. Now I have no more job that a jackrabbit!

H. Beam Piper


1955 was a tough year for Beam financially. According to Mike Knerr "He didnít make very much money as a guard in the car shops, $50.00 per week, and writing occasionally supplemented his meager income at the Pennsy where he was a night watchman. For the remainder of his life money would be a constant worry. Things would get down to rock bottom until a check would finally arrive and bail him out of his financial dungeon".

With all his trips to New York City, the apartment rental, entertaining Betty and dinners out, Beam was spending money faster than it was coming in. His only literary income for all of 1955 was his $189.00 (after agent's commission) Astounding bonus for Time Crime. He writes: "Up town again for dinner at Penn Alto, and out to get my income tax fixed up. Find that I owed Public Enemy #1 the sum of $16.62". While Piper had a very cynical view of the IRS, he always paid his tax bills promptly. Often to his detriment as on more than once occasion his prompt payment of taxes resulted in a bare cupboard.

Beam mentions several times in his journal about dipping into his "Strategic Reserve"-his code word for his savings account. "Had to tap the "Strategic Reserve" again-only $100 left in it. Don't dare tap it again till I can get some more money in it. Working on story, which is in worse shape than I had thought. Will have to be completely rewritten. Having a bad time about all this-no money, can't seem to get anything salable written; donít know how I'm going to get along".

Obviously, the famous Piper pride would not allow him to tell Betty of his predicament and so he would soldier along drilling holes in his "Reserve" until it was completely empty-or a miracle occurred and another check arrived. The next day, once again, the cavalry to the rescue: "Check from Harry Altshuler (his agent at the time) for bonus on first installment of Time Crime (these bonuses were Campbell's 'rewards' to his best writers), $210.00 less 10%-$189.00. Used with care, this ought to see me through Bread Loaf (a Canadian retreat and writer's conference) and eases my mind a great deal. Worked on revising and repairing story in evening".

Here's a most interesting anomaly, ten days after bemoaning the fact that he's just about completely tapped out-even the "Strategic Reserve" is empty-and with the Bread Loaf Conference is coming up, and how he's saved by the arrival of the Time Crime bonus check. On Friday, July 29, 1955, Beam nonchalantly writes: "Up 0700; get breakfast. Left Roger Williams (the Piper apartment) about 0930. Up town to bank and got out $500.00 in a cashier's check for deposit in Altoona".

Beam's already admitting to bleeding his Strategic Reserve dry, so where does he all of a sudden get $500.00 to "deposit in Altoona". Where did this unexpected windfall come from?

The answer is found in a short entry on Monday, August 1: "Up town evening to bank the money from joint account, and home by 1930 to work some more". It's Betty's money from their joint New York checking account. Beam was in such desperate condition that he probably wanted the money in a cashier's check so it could immediately be applied to his own Altoona personal checking account. It appears the Piper pride jumped into the backseat while he took money from Betty, who certainly had it and was after all his wife. I suspect for Beam it was a 'humiliation' and a loss of manliness to "accept" money from Betty and would wear on his 'soul' over the next few years.

The next day he writes, "Up town shopping. Didn't get everything I wanted-heat affecting me worse than any other time this summer. Sent check off to Middlebury College". The Bread Loaf conference money. Plus knowing Beam, maybe a few new shirts, a pair of shoes and a new suit.

After the death of his mother, Harriet Piper, Beam had to deal with burial and estate expenses: "Find that between one thing an another, the money in the bank-$1,850.50-will be wiped out in settling estate, and will probably have to sell the Pennsylvania Railroad stock". On September 20th, he added, "...turned Pennroad stock over to be sold, and wrote checks for damn near the whole of the bank balance. Have I ever mentioned what a damned expensive thing it is to die?"

All in all 1955 was a financial debacle for Beam-no writing income to speak of and no new stories to sell, no agent to represent the unsold stories and no new ideas on the horizon. Combined with a marriage, the death of his mother (who supplemented his apartment rental and utilities) and having to wipeout the estate for funeral, burial and estate expense and we have a very worried Beam Piper.

On top of this, in early 1956 the railroads started making major cutbacks-everyone was driving cars and the railroads were losing money every which way. In late spring, the Pennsylvania Railroad began its cutbacks. On top of all his other problems, Beam was faced with the possibility of losing a job heíd held since adolescence.

Mike Knerr writes: "In past years, writing had been something of a hobby and the railroad check came in with a regularity that publishing would never match. The world, however, was changing. Suddenly the booming troop trains of the 1940s were gone and, due to trucking, the freight business of the 1950s was in its death throes. Railroads were merging with one another just to keep their heads above the current of progress. The iron horse was fading into the same murky twilight that had swallowed up the village blacksmith. The embryonic beginning of a slogan was starting: 'If you have it, a truck brought it'.

"Added to this, Betty's employer (Council on Student Travel) was considering sending her to the Paris office since she had been there from 1951 to 1954 and spoke rather fluent French". I think Betty was also beginning to realize that she could not count on her new husband to keep her in the style she was accustomed to. Betty came from money and I'm sure she never realized (during their courting period) just how broke he really was. Piper was good at dissembling and I doubt that Betty realized that she was marrying a night watchmen who just happened to write the occasional story. At that time of his life, Beam was a long way from being a self-supporting author; and, in fact, never would be.

As Mike Knerr put it: "Constantly in trouble with his writing, and now without an agent, Beam struggled to produce stories while spending his nights guarding the railroad property. He still commuted to New York on his days off but his story ideas were mainly a lot of doodling. 'Canít seem to get a clear idea on what I want to do'".

Even at the Roger Williams apartment things were in a state. A fuel strike had complicated the couple's lifestyle and had 'cooled off' the city. 'Effects of fuel strike', he wrote, 'being felt here at Roger Williams-we are running the tub full of hot water to heat the rooms'. New York in winter is very cold.

In early February of 1956 Beam had not only bought a map of Paris but picked up passport applications. Knerr notes: "The handwriting was taking shape on the wall. He began making notations in his diaries in the form of doodles on the corner of the page. On February 24 he drew a red dollar sign in the center of a magnifying glass-$5.69 from Karl Rauch of Dusseldorf as payment for a German anthology which used "Time and Time Again". He also listed the weather for the day and had, naturally, declared the Christian Era obsolete. Nineteen fifty-six, he wrote, was actually Atomic Era 13..." (As Beam wrote: "The Atomic Era is reckoned as beginning on the 2nd December 1942 Christian Era, with the first self-sustaining nuclear reactor, put into operation by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago".

Beam often added this addendum to notations on the Atomic Era dating: "The dating of the Atomic Age will be numerically correct, and not based on the life of some upstart, Jewish carpenter".

Mike Knerr writes: "On May 23rd, the axe had fallen at the Altoona car shops and Beam drew a small guillotine on the page for that day. 'To police HQ to get my check and learned that the positions and functions of watchmen have been abolished. After Friday I don't have any more job than a jackrabbit unless I bid onto the Stores Department or something like that'. The following day he went back and talked to 'Corporal Yost and Sergeant Gutchell', then scribbled something in his diary about going on relief, or getting another job. By the 28th he had made up his mind:

"'Went directly to Police Office, where I announced my decision to quit, and turned in my pass and wrote out my resignation. Now I have no more job that a jackrabbit!' He went back to his apartment and hammered out another four pages of 'final first draft' of "Omnilingual", with a break for supper'".

What don't make any sense is that Beam went and resigned from the Pennsy Railroad, rather than waiting until they laid him off-at which time he might have been eligible for Unemployment or some severance pay. Although, he did not work for them fulltime and may have been ineligible for Unemployment...? Was it stress of the not knowing when the axe would fall that forced him to resign? We'll never know, but it was a self-defeating move. It may well have cost him his pension, or a buyout.

There is never any mention of a railroad pension in the diaries, even though Beam worked for the Pennsy for over thirty years. He does talk about signing up for benefits after he's married (I assume life insurance and/or medical benefits) for Betty. It's another big question mark. It might have been a small pension, but it would have gone a long way to help smooth out the bumps in the road of his freelance writing career...kept him in food if nothing else.

Unfortunately, there is no information in the diary or anywhere else about a pension, or why he didn't receive one. Beam was an independent cuss all his life and had been known to kick good fortune in the teeth a few times, but I find it hard to believe-regardless of his code of self-reliance-that he would have turned down a pension; after all, he earned it with over thirty-six years of work.

The trip to France was now scheduled and Beam was forced to settle his mother's affairs in Altoona. That's when he learned from Louis Walton, the Estate Attorney, that his mother's estate would not be settled until October; thus 'H. Beam Piper, Administrator, had to advance H. Beam Piper, Heir, a grand for Europe'. "At the time, $1,000.00 equaled about 350,000 francs and represented a considerable sum of money.

"Armed with cash, he fell into the mess of getting his gun collection loaned out to the Lycoming Historical Museum and the apartment furnishings sold, given away or thrown out. By the last of May, he was working at a feverish pace to get things done-making boxes for his pistols, swords and daggers".

Of course, one wonders-had he not resigned and worked in stores-what Beam would have done had Betty chose to leave for Europe while he was working and living in Altoona. It's quite possible that Betty was the force behind his resignation; she had her own agenda and it didn't include living in the US-not for long, anyway.

In retrospect it appears that Beam and Betty were both lost in a romantic fog. They were both middle-aged and used to living alone. Betty has been married before, but it didn't work out. Beam had never been involved in a serious relationship, nor does it appear he had much tolerance for other people's foibles. Betty's plan is to return to Europe and live abroad; this with a man whose spent his entire life in a small town-and who does not like change. Beam, on the other hand, is living beyond his means and marrying a woman he doesn't have the means to support-even if he hadn't lost his low-paying job!

Betty had a good job and a good deal of her own money, while Beam was living beyond his means even when he had a job. Yet, they were in 'love' like a couple of teenagers, with no parents to call a halt. Inga Pratt couldn't be objective; she was the matchmaker. The poor McGuires, who were having their own problems and knew and understood what marriage meant and the troubles that came when two people shared their lives, were the only ones it appears who objected-since Beam didn't tell anyone else! For this, they earned Beamís unending enmity.

Beam was now a full time writer and not by his own choice. He was a self-proclaimed gentleman writer-an auteur, as he told the McGuires. John McGuire Jr. said, "Beam and dad never entertained the concept of writing as a way of making a living. Not because Beam wasn't good enough, but because he felt like this was not his 'time'. He was a Victorian, not a cosmopolitan".

Adding to the stress, he not only had a wife to 'support' but had to pay his way to Europe! With all the headaches of the previous year-his marriage to Betty, not a single story sale, the split between him and John McGuire and the death of his mother-Beam was in a tight place as 1955 came to an end.


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