War of the Wing-Men

war of the wingmen

Recently, a reader wrote to ask about the image used as a header for this blog.

It is a scanned and photoshopped cover from a 1958 ACE pulp science fiction paperback.  The paperback includes two short novels by Poul Anderson.  The side above shows an illustration for War of the Wing-Men.  The verso has an inverted illustration for Anderson’s The Snows of Ganymede.  The text of the two novels meet somewhere in the middle of the book and then flip upside-down (or right-side up, depending on whether you are reading from front-to-back or back-to-front).

Here is a short summary of the plot from the insert to War of the Wing-Men:

Only three humans survived the wreck of that space-ship on the little known planet of Diomedes.  One was the beautiful ruler of a distant colonial world; another was the fat, slovenly owner of a great Solar trading company; the third was a handsome, blue-eyed engineer.

The survivors had food for only six weeks, for the native food was one hundred percent poisonous to people.  So in that limited amount of time they had to gain the trust of the winged barbarians who held them prisoners, end the terrible war that these Diomedians were engaged in, and persuade the wing-men to carry the three across the thousands of miles of unmapped territory to the single Earth spaceport.

Their desperate efforts to beat that fatal deadline makes WAR OF THE WING-MEN one of Poul Anderson’s most exciting novels.

My wife inherited this pulp novel – along with a hundred more like it – when Walter G. Steblez, her father, passed away a few years ago.  Walter had collected sci-fi, mystery and horror pulp novels from his childhood and later became a collector as an adult.  His tastes were eclectic, and ranged from books of poetry in Latin (he was a classics major in college) to the complete series of The Saint novels by Leslie Charteris (though he was also a keen advocate of the mystery writings of S. S. Van Dine).  Walter’s book collection also included the books belonging to Nikolai Elenev, a distant relative and Russia scholar who was part of the Russian émigré community in Prague during the 20’s and belonged to a circle of friends which included Marina Tsvetaeva and Sergei Efron.  We also have correspondences between Nikolai and Walter, though the majority of Nikolai Elenev’s correspondences are archived at Amherst College.

Walter George Steblez was born in Germany in 1945 on the road between an Auschwitz labor camp for Osterlanders and Hanau, where his family was able to make contact with Allied Forces and eventually arranged passage to America – having escaped both Stalin and Hitler.  His family was originally from Mariupol, a city on the Azov Sea, but left for Germany during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in the hopes of a better life.  This may seem strange, but it should be remembered that they had lived through the revolution, the famine in the Ukraine, and had watched Avraam, Walter’s grandfather, be dragged away to the Gulag with no expectation of ever seeing him again. 

Walter grew up a bilingual speaker of Russian and English and was fluent in French.  He later picked up classical Greek and Latin in college.  He worked for the State Department in the 70’s and was well known for hosting soirees in Washington, D.C.  He later moved to the US Geological Survey and ultimately to the U.S. Bureau of Mines where he was an expert in Central and Eastern European minerals.  A Bing search will bring up his publications for the USGS.

Richard Levine, one of Walter’s longest friends, wrote this about the childhood collector of War of the Wing-Men:

I knew Walt Steblez as a best friend and colleague with whom I spent either the entire day at work or talked with after working hours almost every day for 30 years.  I could go on and on with stories about Walt’s humor, philosophical insights, and varied interests, but the one overriding thing which informed everything he did was his sense of righteousness and the courage he displayed in acting according to his beliefs. If a person was ever being treated unjustly and needed a defender to stand up for them despite any personal consequences there was no better person than Walter Steblez.

I should also add that Walt was the Union Steward where we worked so he did this not only for his friends but for everybody in need that he was in a position to help and he would even go against his politics if he felt it was necessary to help people. For example, although Walt often sided with Republicans in their fiscal views, he voted for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984 because he told me he thought that Reagan’s policies were adversely affecting the homeless and disabled.

On a personal level I think that one of the ways that he helped exemplifies how he lived his life and what he did for others.

We were in a work situation where we had an unstable supervisor whose many problems I won’t go into, but the supervisor had decided that he could advance himself further if he could get rid of me and promote Walter to my position who he thought would be a loyal minion. He proposed this plot to Walter, even lamenting that because I did a good job it would be more difficult.

This would have meant for Walter a promotion and a chance to do a job which may have given him more personal satisfaction and fully employed his unique bilingual abilities in Russian and English.  Rather than being tempted, Walter found the person despicable, and without any authorization physically moved his office so that he would not have to look at this person.

Nevertheless, the supervisor thought that Walter would still be in on the scheme and began to carry it out. He laid the groundwork by giving me a lousy performance rating although I had the best year of my career and by giving Walter a superlative performance rating. I of course was infuriated and launched a grievance about receiving too low an evaluation. 

Walter, who knew his game, also launched a grievance procedure, claiming that he gave him too high an evaluation by listing false accomplishments. Walter just as doggedly pursued his grievance for too high an evaluation as I did for too low of one.  Not only that, but Walter went with me personally to the head of our agency to describe what was going on with the supervisor. 

So the result was I kept my job, the supervisor, who had harmed many others, was moved, and Walter stayed doing what he was doing and only much later was he promoted. 

Until Walter’s last day he maintained this blazing sense of justice and would have pursued any just cause as vehemently at whatever cost to himself. If all people, were like Walter, then the Biblical prophesy would come true of let justice roll down like waters. I am not only personally appreciative to Walt for saving my career, but live in awe of his example which I forever hold before me as a standard to which I must always try to live up to. 

7 thoughts on “War of the Wing-Men”

  1. That science-fiction book entitled War of the Wing-men is really intriguing. Its title also adds up to the mystery and attracting story. Thanks for sharing!

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