The future in our past

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“Get out of the way!” he shouted. “Coming through!”

He was carrying a box of something that obviously was heavy, but he had managed to build his momentum into a little bit of a run. If he stopped he would have to build that momentum up all over again.

I got out of the way.

I could see in his eyes that the kitchen table in the break room was his ultimate goal. Just – a – few – more – feet, said his heaving breaths and his red face and the heavy way he was walking, carrying, staggering to the table.

And finally he was there and he released the box, as gingerly as he could, onto the table. Which is to say he dropped it that last two or three inches with a clatter.

“What you got there?” I asked.

He turned and looked at me with an expression of triumph unlike any expression his face had ever worn.

“It’s our future,” he said, “in our past.”

I pondered this as I watched him peel back the flaps of the cardboard books and look inside.

Books. No wonder he had been struggling. The box was filled with – no, not just books, because the second thing he pulled out was a record album – an old-fashioned record album made of envelopes bound together, each of them holding one, heavy, fragile 78 rpm slab.

And no, not just books and records, because now he hauled out a reel-to-reel tape machine, a chunky, bulky, electronic marvel that threaded sounds from long ago into the air with flaps and hums and creaks.

“What’s all this old stuff?” I asked, a little skeptically but entranced by the faded colors and the quiet dusty aromas of long gone ventures.

“It’s our future in our past,” he repeated.

He picked up the first book, an ominously thick tome with a dust jacket that bled Nazi red. “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”

“Here is the politics of next week, explaining how people who think they know what the country needs will con and coerce other people who don’t know and don’t care what a bunch of power grabbers want to do, as long as they’re left mostly alone and have enough food to last the week and the trains run on time and the roads are paved.”

He handed me the record album.

“Here are songs from 80 years ago,” he said in awe. “People got up one morning – or eight mornings, maybe they recorded these on different days – but they got up and looked out at a sunny day or a rainy day, maybe they got passed by a fire engine on its way to a house fire or maybe nothing special happened that morning, but they walked into a room and performed a song, and if I put this slab on a turntable and lay a stylus on it and turn up the volume, they’re still performing the song, still swinging or crooning or bouncing or whatever it was they were doing that day, that moment, those immortal three minutes that were captured on wax, even though the bones of everyone in that room that day are resting their eternal rest.”

He hauled out the reel-to-reel recorder and clapped it on the table, then pulled out a square box, which he opened to display a round plastic disk – two disks 7 millimeters apart, actually, with recording tape tightly wound between them.

“Here is how those sounds were preserved,” he said, and then, dropping his voice to a dramatic stage whisper, added, “It still works.”

It dawned on me.

“This is our future, in our past,” I said.

“Yes. We can record whatever we want.”

Anxiety and fear and excitement and a joy beyond thinking mixed with something that was almost terror.

“What could we record?”

“Anything.”

“How do we choose?”

“We don’t have to choose. There’s plenty of recording tape where this came from, and plenty of paper and ink, and if those ever run out – well, I don’t think they’ll ever run out.”

“Wait.”

“Why?”

“I don’t – I just don’t know.”

“What don’t you know?” He patted the box. “It’s all here.”

“I want to listen to the records. I want to read the books.”

“OK. Listen to the records and read the books. That’s why I brought them here in the first place.”

“Do we have time to do that?”

“You’re breathing, ain’t ya? Got any place to go?”

“Not for a few minutes.”

“Well then, you have time to do that.”

“I don’t know. I –”

“Listen,” he said, reaching into the box and pulling something out. “You can stand there telling me you don’t have time to do something, or you can pick something and do it. You have the time. You’re just stuck in a rabbit hole not making up your mind. Make up your mind – no, you know what? Don’t even make up your mind, get out of the way and START DOING SOMETHING. In a hundred years no one will care which one it was, they’ll just know that you picked one and wrote this one down or recorded that song or whatever it was that you do today, and they pull it out of a box and take a look and say, ‘Wow, you know what this is? This is our future in our past.’”

I picked up another book. “Dandelion Wine,” by Ray Bradbury.

“He died not long ago, didn’t he?”

“No. He didn’t,” he said. “Look inside.”

I started reading and it was the summer of 1928 and a small town full of people was alive and well and tut-tutting about little boys running about and driving an amazing car and finding time machines disguised as feisty old men.

“He’s alive,” I whispered, and then repeated in a shout, “He’s alive!” marveling, shocked but not shocked, revelating.

“The future in our past,” he said emphatically. “Preserved in amber – no, not in amber, because amber holds its captive in place forever. The words reverberate in your head all over again, in a different way than they reverberate in mine, and the music in those records will hit your brain and your emotions differently than they hit mine, but they’ll still be there, the boy running across a 1928 field and the jazz musicians playing their hearts out. It’s all there preserved in time, still speaking, still making music, still warning us about what went wrong with Germany, still sharing the excitement of being a kid, still joyful, mournful, pleading, whatever the music was being that day that will live forever in its fleeting everyday uniqueness – nothing special about that day except the three minutes that will live forever because someone decided to keep it safe.”

I looked into the box of old stuff and saw eternity. I saw dusty old stuff faded with age and in my mind I saw it new, the black plastic shining in the sun, the album pages crisp and sturdy, the pages white, the record labels bright and colorful, and I saw the future. I wanted to share what he had found and given to me.

It was time to do something. I reach in, picked one up, and ran with it.

“Get out of my way,” I whispered, running with all my might.

(written June 6, 2016, on the 10th anniversary of my mother’s passing.)
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Published by

WarrenBluhm

Wordsmith, journalist and podcaster, Warren is a reporter, editor and storyteller who lives near the shores of Green Bay with his wife, two golden retrievers, and a couple of cats.