Friday, November 29, 2013

An American History: a novel-in-progress

Today, I made a fresh start on a new novel.  Here it is...

In the year 2010, I discovered a time machine.  It feels weird to write "In the year 2010."  When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, I envisioned the year 2010 to be the distant future, when everyone drove flying cars and had robot servants and basically lived like the Jetsons.  But that's not how things played out.  In the neighborhood where I was living, most of the houses were the same Craftman-style houses people were living in 50 years before.  There were no flying cars or robots.  Just regular old cars and regular old houses.  Mankind hadn't made contact with any alien civilizations.  We were still fumbling around here on earth, dealing with the same old problems--war, poverty, injustice, etc.  In the year 2010, there was a politician from the United States named Sarah Palin whose supporters liked it when she posed with guns.  In the year 2010, we still had a long way to go, baby, before flying cars and robots and interplanetary travel.

I was working as a part-time English teacher at Cal State University, Fullerton, and having a pretty rough time of it.  I wasn't teaching any of the "cool" English classes like postmodern literature or Greek mythology or anything like that.  I was teaching basic freshman composition to (mostly) indifferent students who saw my class as just another stupid fucking thing they had to endure on their road to successful careers in business.  On my breaks between classes, I liked to hang out in the library.  For a lot of weird and complicated reasons, I'd become kind of obsessed with microfilm--  the obsolete, pre-digital archiving system.  I could spend hours in the basement of the college library, looking at old news articles from, like, 1910.  I felt like I was peering into another world.  Maybe I was bored.  Maybe the world I found myself in did not match my (admittedly) high expectations.  I was looking for another world.  And I found it.

It was another lonely afternoon, between classes, in the basement of the library.  I was looking at microfilm.  No one ever came down to the basement where the microfilm was.  All the students hung out on the first floor, where there were banks of new computers, where they could Facebook and tumblr away their own boring afternoons.  I was often alone, down in that strange basement.  I was looking for the Jan-May 1904 spool of the Fullerton News-Tribune microfilm when a doorway caught my eye.  It had a very old, almost worn-off radiation symbol.  WTF?  I thought.  Is this library nuclear?

My first thought was "bomb shelter."  Fullerton, California was a pretty strange place in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War.  I'd learned this from the microfilm.  There used to be a big Hughes Aircraft plant, and at Knott's Berry farm, Walter Knott would organize "Anti-Communism Schools."  You know how Orange County has a reputation for being a kind of "kooky" right-wing place?  Well, it definitely was in the 1960s.  The John Birch Society was big here.  Again, I learned this from the microfilm, and some books.  So, I thought, maybe this room is a leftover bomb shelter from the Cold War.  I knew there were bomb shelters around town:  One under the Fullerton Community Bank, one under Fullerton Union High School.  Why not one here?  

Nervously, I tried the door handle.  It creaked a little, and then gave way…

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