Who can resist a chance to travel in time? From The Chronicles of Narnia to the long-running television series Dr. Who, fantasies of time travel transport us to remote times and places without worrying too much about the mechanics involved. For two weeks my time machine has been a nearby dusty apartment where I sorted through my dad’s belongings following his move to assisted living. During these days of searching and sorting, time ceased to run its linear course and fragments of an era turned up out of sequence– a broken model of the Atomium from the 1958 Brussels World Fair, a 1921 National Geographic featuring an article on visiting Iran, a Purple Heart from Algeria dated 1942. I held tangible memories of a century gone by in my hands.
Hundreds of books survive Harry’s lifetime of travel, where each move must have involved an agony of decision-making. His library displays his wide-ranging interests including history, philosophy, religion, politics, and cryptography. Far more challenging to tackle were the many file cabinets and boxes that populated the spare room. Here and there, treasures emerged and gradually I began to relish the journey.
A pair of typed cards from about 1915 showed the efforts of a young couple in Burwell, Nebraska, to support themselves and their growing family however they could. Harry’s father, William, used his truck to get hauling jobs, while his mother Lottie advertised the daintier talents of decorating hats and painting post cards.
Life must have improved after the move to California, where Lottie obtained an elementary teaching certificate from the County of Los Angeles in 1923. Notice the “h___” repeated twice on the certificate, completed in handwriting as “her.” It reminds us that the gendered pronoun was important at this time, rather than the later use of “him/her” or the currently ubiquitous but grammatically incorrect “their.”
During the Depression, Harry augmented the family income by selling the Pictorial Review door to door after school. A number of magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post, were commonly sold as individual issues, he tells me, carried door to door in those days, rather than distributed by mail.
A Purple Heart awarded in Tebessa on December 15, 1942, recalls the young man’s first journey overseas—Operation Torch in North Africa at the beginning of World War II. He simply says that the mess hall was hit and several of the men were wounded by shrapnel.
A year later, a letter to his sweetheart reflects the poignancy of wartime separation and a resigned expectation that Easter dinner will consist of Spam. Note the censor’s approval stamp and the “NR 29” at the top. Letters could take weeks to arrive and numbering the letters helped people tell whether some letters were missing.
In 1954, married and with two children, Harry led the establishment of the Institute of Administrative Affairs in the School of Law at the University of Tehran. Among the many photos and papers we have uncovered from this period is this colorful pamphlet entitled “His People’s Choice,” describing the return of the late Shah in 1953 as a revolutionary triumph.
The shining symbol of the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958 was the Atomium, representing a new modernity and the world’s bright future through atomic power. Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. built huge pavilions exalting their achievements of culture and progress during this tense Cold War period.
Every day around lunchtime I leave the time machine and go to my Dad’s room, bringing some of the treasures I had found from the morning’s sorting. He reminisces about the letters and photos, medals and awards, and objects from far-away places, adding context to items I might otherwise have discarded. The dusty archives of a lifetime become living witnesses to a century gone by. I am privileged to share this with one who was there.
In his new room Dad displays photos from the nineteen-seventies and eighties of his many meetings with celebrities from Billy Graham to Michael Jackson, including Presidents Reagan and Carter and others encountered during his long tenure as Chief Deputy to Los Angeles Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. Obviously, we won’t run out of things to talk about anytime soon.
I have to admit, I love stories of time travel and I can’t help but identify with the impulse that led Sheldon of The Big-Bang Theory to bid 800 dollars on the time machine used in the 1960 movie, a Victorian contraption combining shiny brass fixtures with a soft velvet chair. If nothing else, it let him relive a part of his own past, and who of us can resist that? My only dilemma is prioritizing all the questions I have for my current time travel guide. Fortunately, he is very patient.
References (in order of appearance):
C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, 1949-54.
Time machine from the 1960 movie: http://flavorwire.com/167245/the-10-best-time-machines-in-movies
Big Bang Theory: http://www.cbs.com/shows/big_bang_theory/
H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, 1895.