Sunday, April 17, 2016

An American History Chapter 1: In Which I Discover a Time Machine

The following is from a work-in-progress called An American History.  It's a novel.

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…

I entered the room in the basement of the library with the radiation symbol on the door.  What made me try the door?  Boredom.  Curiosity, maybe.  I was tired of looking at microfilm.  I wanted to experience something.  Maybe I was looking for adventure.  But what sort of adventures would I find in this forgotten room?

Inside it was dark.  I found the light switch on the wall, flipped it,  and was astonished by what I saw.  The walls were covered with schematic drawings of a machine.  Metal shelving contained old time military food--Spam, freeze-dried vegetables, beans, Tang.  And, in the center of the room, what looked like a large metal doorway.  It was humming faintly, as if it was turned on, though I couldn't imagine how or why.

I examined the doorway--gears, dials, switches.  What the hell was this thing?  Curiously, I put my hand through the doorway…and my hand disappeared!  I shrieked and retracted my hand, finding it good as new.  Where had my hand gone?

I grabbed a tin of Spam from a shelf and tossed it through the doorway.  It disappeared!  Where did it go?  Was this some kind of vaporizer?  Was it a portal to another dimension?  What had I discovered?

A crazy, reckless thought entered my head--walk through the door, see where it leads.  I had no idea of the risks.  For all I knew, if I stepped through the door, I could be vaporized.  Or, I could take a fantastic voyage to somewhere new.  And if I went somewhere else, how could I get back?  Was there a door like this on the other side?  If I walked through the door, would it be suicide?

I glanced at my watch, to see how much time I had before my afternoon class.  To my surprise, the watch was several hours off, and it had stopped working.  It was an old winding watch I'd inherited from my grandfather.  I'd just would it this morning, and that thing was as reliable as anything.  It was from World War II.  My grandpa had worn it in the war.  I realized that this was the hand I'd put through the doorway, and another crazy thought struck me.  Was this a time machine?

I looked around the room for clues, trying to make sense of the schematics on the walls.  I was no scientist or engineer.  I was an English teacher.  There was a large, dusty, spiral-bound notebook with the words D.E.M.A.N.D. PROGRAM FILES printed on the cover.  In the corner of the room was a bank of lockers without locks.  I opened one, and found what looked like a large, bulky watch.  I put it on, pushed a few buttons, and it seemed to turn itself on.

Again, I was compelled to walk through the portal, to see where it led.  I knew I was not prepared.  I didn't know what to expect.  But, in my head, came the words of an artist friend: Take the leap.  Jump into the abyss.  You are never prepared.  For all I knew, this would be my only chance to perhaps travel through time, or to another dimension.  For all I knew, this room could be locked next time I was down here, in the basement of the library.

I'm not sure whether it was courage or desperation that caused me to make that leap.  Without really thinking, I stepped through the doorway, and emerged onto a field of flowers.

I was alive, I thought.  Or, I had in fact been vaporized, and this was the afterlife.  But I had a pounding headache, and I didn't think people got headaches in the afterlife.  I looked around upon a landscape that looked faintly familiar.  There was no library, no buildings of any kind.  Just waves of plants and trees and hills and…what the hell were those animals?!

A herd of something was steadily advancing toward me.  They looked like brown elephants.  Brown elephants?!  They had huge tusks, and fur!  They got closer, and their thunderous stomping creating a minor earthquake on the ground.  I was looking at mastodons!  I recognized them from the artist renderings in the Cooper Center.  If these were mastodons, I had to be thousands, maybe even millions of years in the past.  The beasts seemed to not see me.  I found a nearby tree, and climbed up just as the great behemoths passed beneath me.  I am the only human to have seen a living mastodon!  After they passed, I realized how cold I was.  If those were mastodons, this must be the Ice Age.  I needed warmth, and shelter, or I needed to get back to the library.

I fidgeted with the dials on my new "watch," pushed a button, and suddenly, I was back in the old musty room in the library.  How much time had elapsed?  Did I miss my class.  I stuffed the DEMAND PROGRAM FILES in my backpack, shut the door, and raced upstairs, where everything looked pretty much the same.  Students were seated in clusters, staring at the computer screens.  The clock on the wall read 2:25.  I had five minutes until class.

I rushed to my classroom and, when I entered, my students looked at me with amazement.  What had happened?  Did I look different?

"Professor La Tour," one student asked, "Why are you shivering?"

What I wanted to say was, "I've just been to the Ice Age."  What I did say was, "Today, we are going to talk about research."

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