Two Vain Guys Named Robert

By Bill Higgins: Robert Osband, Florida fan, really loves space. All his life he has been learning about spaceflight. And reading stories about spaceflight, in science fiction.

So after NASA’s Apollo program was over, the company that made Apollo space suits held a garage sale, and Ozzie showed up. He bought a “training liner” from ILC Dover, a coverall-like portion of a pressure suit, with rings at the wrists and neck to attach gloves and helmet.

And another time, in 1976, when one of his favorite authors, Robert A. Heinlein, was going to be Guest of Honor at a World Science Fiction Convention, Mr. Osband journeyed to Kansas City.

In his suitcase was his copy of Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel—a novel about a teenager who wins a secondhand space suit in a contest—and his ILC Dover suit.

Because if you wanted to get your copy of Have Space Suit, Will Travel autographed, and you happened to own a secondhand space suit, it would be a shame NOT to wear it, right?

As Ozzie stood in the autograph line, David Dyer-Bennet, a fannish photographer, was watching. Heinlein was casually dressed in a Hawaiian shirt. (You may have seen some of DD-B’s photos of this autograph session, because they are frequently reproduced in books about Heinlein, and he has made one available on Wikimedia Commons.)  He snapped a series of pictures of the fans.

Consequently, there exists a picture of Mr. Osband meeting Mr. Heinlein at that moment in September 1976.

Photo by David Dyer-Bennet. Robert Osband (Ozzie) is getting his copy of “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel” autographed by Robert Heinlein while wearing the training liner of space suit he bought at ILC Industries of Dover DE, when the manufacturer cleaned out the attic and held a garage sale following the end of the Apollo Program. Photo used by permission.

This month I found, to my surprise, that the two had something unexpected in common. To put it into a single word, they were both vain.

Vain, but in interesting ways. I will explain.

Mike Glyer, our gracious host here at File 770, has, as you may know, a keen interest in science fiction history. On Friday, April 1, the U. S. National Archives made public the data from the 1950 Census. Mike was curious what the Census might say about individuals in the SF world, and he asked me for a bit of research help. Here’s his article: “What the Heinleins Told the 1950 Census”.

That’s how I came to be examining a list of Heinlein’s residences in those days. Robert and Virginia Heinlein, recently married, at first rented a place in Colorado Springs, Colorado. But in the spring of 1949 they put their furniture in storage and went to Los Angeles, where Robert worked on the film Destination Moon. They returned to Colorado Springs in February of 1950 and rented a house. But their dream was to build a house of their own. Robert had a lot of novel ideas about modern house design.

By springtime, they were negotiating to purchase land. The developer made them an unusual offer. Their lot was between two other homes on Mesa Avenue with house numbers 1700 and 1800. They were invited to choose an address of their own, a number between 1700 and 1800.

This is the reason why, in August 1950, Robert and Virginia Heinlein came to be living at 1776 Mesa Avenue.

To digress briefly, here in the U.S., states allow motorists to specify custom text on their license plates. Usually the state charges an extra fee for this. For example, I once saw an orange Cadillac owned by Forrest J. Ackerman, the prominent fan who coined the phrase “Sci-Fi.” And sure enough, Forry’s California license plate read “SCI FI.” Such custom license plates are known as “Vanity Plates.”

The Heinleins of 1776 Mesa Avenue, both patriotic veterans, had given themselves a Vanity Address.

A vanity address is much rarer than a vanity license plate. But Robert Osband has something even more rare.

Ozzie was—how shall I say it?—um, an amateur telephony enthusiast. He understood well how telephones work, and how the switching network functions, and how phone systems evolved the way they did.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as populations grew, and as the purchase of fax machines, modems, and mobile phones grew even faster, a lot of phone numbers were gobbled up. In large metropolitan areas particularly, the available supply of not-yet-assigned phone numbers became smaller and smaller.

The solution to this congestion was to assign fresh new Area Codes.

Each area code is a three-digit number, and (at the time) all the phone numbers assigned within a large geographic area would share this three-digit prefix. Chicago phone numbers started with 312. Miami phone numbers started with 305.

Ozzie knew about the North American Numbering Plan Administration, which governed the area code system. In Titusville, Ozzie lived in the 305 area code, whose boundaries encompassed much of southern Florida.

In 1988, the Orlando region was split off. A new area code, 407, was assigned to many phones previously within 305’s domain. Titusville remained in 305.

But more people, and more fax machines, and more mobile phones kept eating up available 305 numbers.

So very soon, it was time once again for the congested 305 to calve, creating a new area along the east coast of Florida, with a fresh area code.

Ozzie saw an opportunity. He understood the Numbering Plan. He consulted the pool of three-digit numbers not yet in use. He knew that the Florida Public Service Commission regulated aspects of the telephony business.

Ozzie did some research and carefully prepared his case. There was a particular three-digit string he wanted to advocate, one not yet in use for any other area.

On 24 September 1998, he testified to a meeting of the Public Service Commission. They loved his idea. And they ran with it.

This is the reason why, on 1 November 1999, Titusville, and Cocoa Beach, and Melbourne, and, most importantly, Cape Canaveral, Florida, became part of Area Code 321. As Ozzie had told the PSC, “With the Space Coast of Florida as the Count-Down capital of the world, this in my humble opinion, is the Area Code for us!”

As a result, Ozzie’s own phone number became 321-LIFTOFF.

Yes, Robert Osband had arranged a Vanity Area Code.

You may wish to read his own account of the tale, “How I Got My Very Own Area Code” , written using his pseudonym, “Richard Cheshire.”

So when I learned of Robert and Virginia Heinlein and their vanity address, I recalled Robert Osband’s vanity area code. And suddenly realized that, long after the address was established, and long before the area code was created, they had once met. And that DD-B had photos of the meeting.

And I wanted to tell you about it.