An American History: a novel-in-progress

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


Dear son,

I don’t know how people go about writing novels.  The first book I wrote, a memoir of sorts, sprang directly from my own experience (pain, mostly), and when I got it in my head to make a book of all my journals, I dove in full steam.  It consumed my thoughts and I had to do it.  It wasn’t really a matter of choice.

And now, here I am, trying to start a second one and, like the first, it is starting to consume me.  I already feel as though I have put this off too long.  I feel overwhelmed, but I also feel something else.  An itching in my mind like there’s a story in there pecking to get out and if I don’t start writing, I’ll go crazy.

The first book was about me.  The second one is about history and my community.  For some odd reason, I’ve become obsessed with local history, and I’ve spent the past couple years researching, reading and writing down true stories.  I have all these stories in my head now, jumbling around, scattered in fragments on my blog, and I’ve got to make them fit together somehow.  Hence, book number two.

I’m thinking of calling it An American History.  It’s not the history of a country, but rather of a single town, my hometown of Fullerton, California.  For a long time, I thought it would be just a straightforward history book, but my heart isn’t in that.  My heart is in writing a novel, a novel based on real events, real people, spanning a hundred years or so.  So, yeah, I’m overwhelmed.

When attempting something like this, you can get paralyzed inside, feeling insecure like you haven’t done enough research, you’re not ready, you’re not going to do justice to the facts.  But, at some point (and I think I’ve reached that point), you have to say to yourself, “Enough preparation.  Now it’s time to begin.”  Otherwise, you get stuck in purgatory, and I’ve been there before.

For the last book, it helped me to have a muse of sorts.  I named her Beatrice, like Dante.  I wrote letters to her that helped me work through all those thorny problems writers run into along the way.  Mostly, fear and insecurity.  For this book, I’ve chosen you as my muse.  You don’t exist yet, maybe you never will, but for me you represent the future.  You represent hope.  And, even though my book is about the past, it is also about the future.

A lot of bad stuff is going to happen in these pages, because a lot of bad stuff did in fact happen in the past.  And I want you to know about it.  Because people who only listen to happy stories are ill-equipped to deal with this big weird world with all its problems.  My great hope for you, son, is that in these pages you will learn, as I have learned, that you can’t move forward until you look backward and see what went wrong.  Then, and only then, can you find the courage and insight and depth of feeling to move forward, and maybe even to change things.



Chapter 1: In Which I Discover a Time Machine

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."

Chapter 2: It's Hard to Find a Friend

On Sunday, I woke up late and couldn't write a thing.  Actually, I couldn't do much of anything.  It was  one of those weird lonely weekends where I was experiencing a particularly 21st century American problem: Having an entire day with nothing to do and no one I must meaningfully interact with.  So, I lay in bed watching videos on my computer, feeling a rising anxiety.  This always happened at the end of a teaching semester for me, when I had huge gaps of time that were not pre-structured.  Having huge gaps of free time tended to give me anxiety and loneliness.

I fell asleep on Saturday around 2 in the afternoon and had this dream:

I was living on earth when the Apocalypse happened--a series of atomic bomb explosions.  In the dream, I expected to be taken to heaven in some kind of a "rapture" but I was left on Earth.  I was "Left Behind," like those movies starring Kirk Cameron.   Somehow I survived (I couldn't remember how) and I found a few other survivors and together we discovered a whole different world underground, where people were safe from the Apocalypse.  When we eventually returned to the Earth's surface, everything was rebuilt, but it felt all wrong: artificial, empty somehow.  Plus our eyes had trouble adjusting to the brightness of the sun.  So we headed back underground.

I awoke in a sweat, and drank two glasses of filtered water and sent my dad a text message, asking if I could do laundry at their house.  He said sure.  Thirty minutes later, my dad, mom, and grandma arrived to pick me up. 

As my laundry was being machine-washed, we all sat in my parents living room in Brea, talking about how hard it is for adults to make friends, and wondering why this is.  I had the kind of relationship with my parents where we could talk about things like this.  It both comforted and disturbed me to learn that my parents, who are 58 and 60 years old, still have trouble making good friends. 

Why is it okay, even expected, for kids to have a best friend, but it sounds weird for an adult to have a best friend?  If anything, adults need best friends more than kids, because they have way more responsibility and emotional trauma.  Why are adults so often alone, without a best friend?  Is this an American thing?  Is it a 21st century thing?  And what are the reasons?  What are the causes?  And how does an adult human being even go about finding, and keeping, a best friend? 

Chapter 3: The D.E.M.A.N.D. Program

The classified De-Moleculization And Neutrino Decelerator (DEMAND) program began in the early 1960s as a joint venture between the United States government, Hughes Aircraft, and a handful of physics professors from the newly-created California State University, Fullerton.  The purpose of the program had something to do with making a new kind of weapon--one that would do the work of an atomic bomb, minus all the mess.

The researchers were experimenting with the idea of collapsing the distance between atoms and molecules, shrinking matter into superdense balls, which could be disposed of by being shot into space, or buried, or dropped into the ocean.  This weapon could do all the destructive work of a powerful nuclear bomb, with none of the unpleasant untidiness of a big explosion.  The American public had responded with ambivalence to the stockpiling of atomic weaponry, and the scientists at the DEMAND program were hard at work to make these new, clean weapons of mass reduction.

Ultimately, the program was abandoned because, in trying to collapse matter, the scientists opened a door they could not close.  The best they could do was hide it somewhere no one would possibly go looking in the second half of the 20th century--a library.

Chapter 4: 9/11

If you could go back in a time machine, what would you change? This is a question humans have pondered for a long time.  If you asked me that when I was a younger man, I would probably talk about a girl who I liked in college who I never had the guts to ask out.  I would have wanted to go back and ask her out.

I conducted an informal poll of random Americans, and the most common answer to the question, "If you could go back in a time machine, what would you change?" is "9/11."   By this, they are referring of course to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in NewYork City on September 11th, 2001.  When I ask them how they would change things, their answers vary.  Some would call the White House, or major airlines, and warn them.  Others would call the victims and tell them not to board the planes.  Still others would board the planes and physically beat the shit out of the terrorists.  Would any of these things have worked?  It's an interesting metaphysical question.

I too would like to go back to 9/11, but I would like to go back to September 11th, 2008, because that was the day before my favorite writer, David Foster Wallace, hanged himself.  I would like to go back and tell him how much he changed my life, saved it even. And even if I couldn't stop him from offing himself, I could at least tell him what he meant to me.

Chapter 5: A Time for Leaders

Roland Banks, whose real name was Seeds in the Wind, stood at the crest of a hill overlooking Coyote Hills in Fullerton.  He was an old man, with a face etched deep with lines.  He wore blue jeans and a t-shirt from a 1986 Pow Wow on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  His eyes were intense and sad.  Beside him was a young man, his grandson, Charlie Banks, a student of Native American studies at Chapman University.  This was Roland’s birthday wish, to visit this last stretch of virgin land that was once the tribal land of his people.
The sun was setting and neither man spoke for a long time.  They stood, listening to the gnatcatchers and other native birds, staring at the distant skyline, the miles and miles of development, houses and shopping centers and parking lots that had taken the place of so much native land.  It was almost all gone.  Even this land, Coyote Hills, was not theirs.  It was owned by the Chevron Corporation, who had exploited it for oil for over a hundred years, and was in the process of trying to turn it into a large housing/retail tract.

But for the time being, there was no oil being pumped, no houses being built, only the land—cactus, mustard plants, birds, sage.  Roland plucked a sprig of sage and pressed it to his nose and inhaled deeply. 

“This is a time for leaders,” Roland finally said, “Our people need a leader.”

“You are a leader.  You have kept the stories alive,” Charlie said.

“Sometimes, as a leader, you can get tired.  You can give up, because everything seems hopeless.  You feel like you are standing in front of a bulldozer that never stops rolling.”

“There are no bulldozers here, grandpa.”

“They will come, Charlie, they always come.”

“Do you remember, grandpa, what it was like before all the houses and buildings?”

“I only remember as far back as the orange groves.  My father remembered the sheep on the Bastanchury Ranch.  His father remembered what it was like before.”

“Professor Apodaca told us stories of the Sherman Institute in Riverside, where they tried to teach our people the ways of the white man.”

“They tried to take everything from us.  Our language, our dances, our whole culture.  They tried to scrub us clean of Indian and make us Anglos.”  There was anger and sadness in his tone.  “I was punished for speaking our language.”

“How many people are left who speak the old words?”

“Very few.”

In the distance, a lone coyote howled.

“This is a time for leaders, Charlie.”

“I don’t know how to be a leader,” Charlie said, “I don’t know enough.  I’m not even courageous.  I’m shy.  I’m not someone people follow.”

The old man looked the young man in the eyes and said, “THAT is why you are a leader.  A leader, a true chief, does not see himself as a leader.  He sees himself as a servant.  He sees only the need of his people.  He does not revel in praises.  He sees the deep problems, and devotes himself to fixing them.”

“I don’t see myself that way.  I’m weak, selfish.”

“You are not weak, nor are you selfish.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Lead.  Learn the old language, tell the old stories, gather together our broken community.”

The old man and the young man stood quiet for a long time, staring at the skyline, and then up into the stars, many of which were obscured by light pollution.

“That is where the old chiefs looked when things were hopeless, when the Spanish began forcing them into the missions, when the Americans began slaughtering them and putting them into places like the Sherman Institute.  When the people were broken, as they are today, a chief looks to the stars and remembers his ancestors, the mighty heroes who are his legacy.  A chief looks to the stars and remembers.”

“Many of the stars are hidden here.”

“But they are still there.  Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they are not there.  See there,” the old man pointed, “There’s your great-great-great grandfather, who was a chief, a great leader.  They are all up there, looking down on us, whispering their stories to us.  When there are too many cars and buildings it becomes hard to hear them, hard even to see their light, but they are there always, whispering to us.  Let us listen for a while.”

The old man and the young man sat down on the dirt, beside a cactus, and both were quiet and still, listening to the whispering darkness.

This is a time for leaders, Charlie thought, and began for the first time to feel the weight of what that might mean.

Chapter 6: Ethical Dilemmas of Time Travel

No one that I know, in the history of history writing, has ever had a time machine.  Having discovered a time machine in the basement of the Cal State Fullerton Library, I felt I had a distinct advantage over most, if not all, historians prior to me.  How would I use this wonderful invention?  I would try to find out the truth of history and share this with the world in the form of a book, this book.  I wanted to tell history as an eyewitness.  I was aware, of course, of the difficulties even in this.  There would be language barriers and cultural contexts that I might not understand. There was the fact that I could not read the minds of those I was observing.  In some ways, I would be like an alien, plopped down in the alien worlds of the past, trying to make sense of what I saw.  I knew what I saw, and wrote, would not be "truth" in the pure sense of the word, but I was confident that it might, at least, be something new, and maybe useful.

Evenings, after class, I pored over the D.E.M.A.N.D. PROGRAM FILES I'd stolen (or borrowed) from the time machine room.  I wanted to understand how this thing worked.  How did this machine, which had magically whisked me into the ice age, perform these miracles?  And why?  Not being a physicist or scientist, I had considerable difficulty with the terminology and technical jargon.  There was much I did not understand.

What I did understand was that this machine was originally intended as a weapon to shrink and dispose of matter.  In the APPENDIX section of the D.E.M.A.N.D. PROGRAM FILES was a section entitled "Alternative Uses" which explained how the machine's time travel qualities had been used.  Mostly it was used as a kind of temporal garbage disposal.  People whom the U.S. government wanted to "disappear" were sometimes put into the machine.  Jimmy Hoffa, the labor leader who mysteriously disappeared, for example, was sent to medieval Japan, where he lived, rather comfortably, as warlord.  Unfortunately, when it became clear that sending anachronistic historical figures into other eras would sometimes disrupt the flow of history, this use was abandoned.  

For a time, the machine was rented out to chemical companies who wanted to dispose of toxic substances.   A large shipment of radioactive barrels was sent to South America of the 1300s, and caused many Aztecs to contract cancer and glaucoma.  This, too, had unforeseen consequences in the present.  For example, one of the scientists, who had Aztec ancestry, simply popped out of existence, as his great-great-great-great etc. grandfather died of liver failure due to exposure to the toxic chemicals.  

Next, the companies started sending their waste to the future.  This seemed to work better, but was abandoned for undisclosed reasons.  Ultimately, the wormhole/anomaly that the atomic scientists had opened could not be unopened, so it was deemed too dangerous.  The PROGRAM FILES read: "Should the communists obtain this technology, it might have disastrous consequences for our way of life.  They might, for example, send assassins to Revolutionary America and attempt to kill American heroes like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.  This must not happen." 

Like many government secrets, the machine was hidden in relatively plain sight, in a library, which was where I found it.

The time machine would propose many moral dilemmas for me.  First, there was the dilemma of whether I should tell people about what I found.  If a time machine existed, shouldn't the world be made aware of its existence?  Wasn't I being selfish in trying to keep it all to myself.  Perhaps I was.  But I, like the scientists who'd abandoned it, felt that it was dangerous for EVERYONE to know about such a miracle.  I felt that, for the time being, I would simply use it, as a historian, as a writer, and see what I could discover.  Always, in the back of my mind, there was the fear of being discovered.  But another part of my mind assured me that, since no one gave a shit about microfilm anymore, no one would bother me in this library basement.  I was free, as I had always been, to explore in solitude.

I got a "C" in physics in high school.  While I had trouble with the theory and construction of the machine, I slowly began to understand how the machine worked, in a practical sense, which is how most 21st century people understand technology.  Most people, myself included, cannot not explain how even a calculator works, much less a computer or cell phone.  We do know, however, how to use these technologies.  I learned that the "watch" I'd discovered in the empty locker in the time machine room, was a sort of controller, allowing me to roughly choose when and where, in the past, I would visit.  The watch was also my key back to the present.  The watch was very important.  If, for example, the watch broke while I was in the past somewhen, I would most likely be stuck there.  Forever.  This whole endeavor was not without considerable risk.

Thankfully, I was bored and desperate enough to take these risks, and many more which I would later become aware of.  

Chapter 7: The Trapper

On a Tuesday evening, I stepped out for an evening stroll down Chapman Avenue.  Cars whirred by me as I slowly walked, a lonely pedestrian alone with my thoughts.  I tried to imagine what this landscape looked like 50, 100, 150, 200 years ago.  I no longer needed to imagine.  I had a time machine.

I wondered what it would be like to experience life unmediated by technology and advertisements, when my only cues for understanding the world were nature, other people, and my own mind.  For a 21st century American, It was hard to imagine.  Ironically, my portal to such worlds was a machine.  And not just any machine--an abandoned war machine.  I would use it for other purposes.

Since my first brief and reckless venture into the machine, I'd learned a few things.  First, dress appropriately.  It was quite a shock to my system to suddenly find myself in the Ice Age wearing a t-shirt.  Before each trip, I would need to conduct some series research, and dress accordingly.

For my next adventure through time, I decided to visit California of the mid-1800s, which is sometimes referred to as the "Mission Era" of California.  I'd visited Mission San Juan Capistrano (a popular tourist destination in Orange County) and the tour guide had given the impression that the early 1800s was the "Golden Age" of California, when kindly friars lived together with native Americans in a quaint, pastoral environment.  I'd seen the pictures in the museum gift shop.  After the harshness of the Ice Age, I wanted to visit a pleasant place and time, and so I decided to visit one of the old missions.

I researched clothing that an English-speaking white guy might wear in Mission Era California.  I learned that there weren't too many English-speaking white guys at this time.  California, at this time, was New Spain, and was therefore mostly populated by Spaniards and Native Americans.  The only English-speaking white guys were fur trappers, mountain men who wore mostly leather.

It took some serious thrift store hunting, but I finally managed to cobble together an outfit that looked sort of like how an early 19th century fur trapper might look.  I was too embarrassed to wear my leather outfit to the Cal State Fullerton library, where the time machine was.  I was trying to be incognito, and dressing like a 19th century fur trader is the opposite of incognito.  So, I dressed in normal clothes, and carried my mountain main gear in a duffel bag down to the basement of the library.  The door was, again, unlocked, so I walked in, put on my trapper outfit, strapped on the navigational wrist band (so I would not be stranded in the Mission Era), and walked bravely into the Golden Age of California.

The first thing I heard was a gunshot, and then I saw a man tumble onto the ground nearby, attempt to struggle to his feet, and fall back down, bleeding from his side.  The wounded man was a native American.  Who shot him? I wondered angrily.  Immediately behind me emerged a horse and rider.  The rider looked like a fur trapper.  For a moment, I forgot about the wounded Indian and compared my outfit to his.   Mine looked a little fake.  I hoped he wouldn't notice.

"Got you!  You Injun son of a bitch!" the fur trapper shouted at the wounded man laying on the ground.  Was he dying?

My thoughts were immediately ripped from the topic of clothing to the attempted murder I'd just witnessed.

The man on the ground rose to his knees and looked at the fur trapper on the horse.  There was  defiance in the Indian's eyes, and he said something in a language I did not understand that made me want to cry.

"Shut yer fuckin' mouth!" the trapper shouted back, and cracked the wounded Indian across the face with the butt of his rifle, knocking him out cold.  I'd never seen a man knocked out cold before, much less shot.  Let me tell you, it's not as cool as it looks in movies.  It's actually really horrifying.

I stood there a moment, awkwardly, in my ridiculous, fake-looking trapper outfit, unsure what to say to the violent man on the horse.  My fingers touched the navigational wrist band.  I wanted to zap back to the library.  Certainly, I had made a mistake in my assessment of the Golden Age of California.   But something, curiosity maybe, compelled me to stay.

"Who the hell are you?" the mountain man demanded, as he dismounted his horse.

I thought for a moment, afraid to speak.  I was sure my accent would sound as strange to him as his sounded to mine.  I tried to mimic the way he talked.

"Just a fellow fur trapper from them thar hills.  You seen any beaver around?"

The mountain man assessed me quizzically.

"Ain't no beaver to trap here, stranger," he replied, "Just Injuns."

"Why, may I ask, are you trapping Injuns?"

"Cus that's where the money's at.  Serra pays me good money to track and catch runaways, like this heathen dirt worshipper," the man said, nudging the unconscious Indian with the tip of his boot.

"I see.  And what did this Indian do?  Kill somebody?"

"Naw, he just ran away."

In that moment, I felt a heavy existential shock, and my view of the California Missions began to change.  Were the missions like slavery?

"Say," I asked, "Do you know the way to Mission San Juan Capistrano?"

"Of course, stranger.  That's where I'm headed now.  That's where I'll get paid for returning this Injun piece of shit."

"I wonder if I might come along?" I asked

"Don't see why not.  I could use the company of a fellow Christian man.  Help me tie the legs of this Injun.  I'm gonna drag him all the way back."

"You know, you could put him on your horse."

"What?!  And let him bleed all over my good saddle?  No way, stranger."

"I'll carry him," I offered.

"It's at least ten miles to the Mission.  You can't carry him all that way.  And why bother?  He's just a fuckin' Indian."

"I don't mind."

"Suit yourself, stranger."

I hoisted the wounded, unconscious Indian over my shoulders.

"What's your name?" I asked the trapper.

"Names Wolfskill," the man said, "William Wolfskill.  And you better keep up.  Nightfall's comin.  Don't wanna get stuck out here at night.

And thus it was that I entered the Golden Age of California.  Carrying a dying Indian on my back, following the trapper William Wolfskill toward Mission San Juan Capistrano.

I was not physically fit.  I spent most of my time reading and grading papers, not exercising or lifting weights, so the task of carrying a fully grown Indian proved exceedingly difficult for me.  It was a shame, because the surrounding country, the landscape through which I was walking, was very beautiful.  Had circumstances been different, I think I would have been having the time of my life.

I was witnessing a landscape that was lost in my time.  It was a pre-developed Orange County.  I was sure we were walking along the route of what would become the Interstate 5 freeway.  Here, in this time, it was only hills and trees and birds and brush.  How easily, I thought, we come to accept the reality of the present as the way things have always been.  The day was lovely, with a clear blue sky and the air so clean and pure.  I didn't know air could be so clean.  Instead of the smell of exhaust from cars, there was the smell of sage and live oak and earth.

The Indian on my shoulders shifted and made a low moaning noise, as he slowly regained consciousness.  The blood from his side had saturated my ridiculous leather shirt.  Suddenly, he sprang from my shoulders, shouting in his native language.  It was, like this landscape, a lost language, a tongue not heard for nearly a century.  What dies, I thought, when a language dies?

It struck me, even in the chaos of that moment, that one task I could do would be to transcribe and preserve the native tongue of this dying Indian.

"Whoa there, Injun!" said William Wolfskill, speaking as one might address a horse, "Hold it right there!"

The trapper aimed his rifle squarely at the Indian, who was now clutching his wounded side.

"Hold him!" Wolfskill shouted to me, and I felt the weight of a moral dilemma.  I did not want to hold this Indian.  I wanted only to talk to him, to learn from him, perhaps even to help him escape from this violent man with the rifle.  Before I had time to react, Wolfskill had bound the Indian's hands with rope.

"Now, walk!" Wolfskill shouted, "We have far to go."

Quietly, sullenly, we continued our journey to the Mission.  My mind was filled with a rising anger, an anger reflected in the eyes of the Indian when he looked at me.  To him, I was just another Indian hunter, another enemy.  I looked at him with eyes of compassion.  I wanted desperately to cut his bonds, to set him free, but, being unarmed, I felt powerless.

On we walked, along the banks of a mighty river.  I did not remember a mighty river being in Orange County.  But then I suddenly realized--this is the Santa Ana River!  In my time, the Santa Ana River was an ugly cement channel with a trickle of water.  It was a sad, tamed river, like the Indian.  A river forced by violence to follow a certain path.  But here, in the "Golden Age" of California, the river was still wild.

As nightfall approached, we finally came to the Mission.  I was now afraid of what I might find.  I had an ominous feeling that the story of the Missions I'd heard as a tourist were a myth--that the reality was much darker, darker than anyone in my time could even imagine.  Why would this Indian run away?  And why would Father Serra hire a man like Wolfskill to force him back?

As we approached the Mission grounds, I began to understand.  Under the darkening sky, I could see the outlines of hundreds of Indians stooped among fields of crops.  They looked like the slaves of the old south, toiling in the fields.  I the midst of the slaves, a Spanish soldier sat atop a horse, holding a rifle in one hand and a whip in the other.  Could this be true?  Was this Mission like a slave plantation?

Inside a building nearby, I could hear a woman screaming.

"What's that?!" I asked Wolfskill.

The wounded Indian shouted angry words.

"Probably one of Portola's men having some fun with a squaw," Wolfsklll replied, nonchalantly.

"A soldier is raping an Indian?!"

"Rape?" he replied, "Ha!  It's not rape if it's an Injun."

I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to leave.  I felt I had wandered into one of the circles of Dante's hell, where slavery, violence, and rape were common.  This was not the version of the Mission I'd been told.  

The more I traveled through time, the more I came to believe that the worst mistakes and tragedies of history were not simply moral failures, but also failures of imagination.

One of the reasons a man like William Wolfskill could so mistreat the natives of California was because he'd forgotten, or never learned, to use his imagination.  He could not imagine, for example, that the Indian he shot and captured had an inner life that was as rich and varied (probably more so) as his.  He could not imagine the gods Chinigchinich or Weywot.  He could not understand the dance of the moon, or how the ocean was actually a living thing.  He could not imagine this Indian as a father, brother, or son whose love for his family was as deep (probably more so) as his.  I suppose you could also call this a failure of empathy.

In my travels through time, I came to see that morality, imagination, and empathy were not separate categories.  They were, like the religion of the Indian, deeply connected to the people and the world around us, all the time.

Chapter 8: The Mad Doctor

As we approached the Mission, we encountered a man like myself, who saw clear-eyed the horrors.  His response was to go mad.  He was leaning against a live oak tree, dressed in tatters.  As we approached him, the sun was setting on the fields where Indian slaves were working the fields, this crazy bearded Spaniard kept quoting Dante:

""Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate", !"

Being an nerd for literature, I recognized this as the inscription above the entrance to Hell: "Abandon all hope, ye you enter here."

William Wolfskill regarded the man indifferently.

"Who is that man?" I asked.

"That's doctor Aguilar, the mission doctor, or what's left of him.  The padres say he has a demon.  Me, I say he just went nuts.  This here land is not for the weak-willed.  It's a shame really.  I liked the doc.  Nice fella."

Seeing us with the bound Indian, Dr. Aguilar rose to his feet and gently placed his hand on the Indian's wound.  There were tears in his eyes and he began speaking in a native language, and then in Spanish:

"Lo siento, lo siento," he said softly.

And then, he fixed his eyes on Wolfskill and on me, and he asked with anger, "Porque?  Porque?  Porque?"

"See," said Wolfskill, "Crazy as a loon."

The doctor appeared to have lost his mind, but what he said seemed a perfectly sane response to this wounded, bound Indian, led by two white men.  

What the doctor had said was, "I'm sorry,  I'm sorry"  and "Why?  Why?  Why?"

We continued through the mission grounds, which I recognized from the times I'd visited San Juan Capistrano as a tourist.  And now there appeared in my mind two overlapping scenes: one of a middle-aged woman in a ridiculous-looking red hat with bangles and a red blazer, guiding a group of mostly white people on a "historical tour" of the Mission, and the scene of tragedy I witnessed with my own eyes.  The Indians were not living in some ideal harmony with the Spanish padres and soldiers--they were doing the lion's share of the work here--re-shoeing horses, building new barracks, tanning the cow hides, and pouring rendered pungent tallow into huge burning vats. 

"Donde esta Padre Serra?" William Wolfskill asked a random friar with an accent worse than mine.

"En el chapel," the padre replied, "Quien es el?"

"Another runaway, bringing him back to God's light," Wolfskill said, nudging the bleeding Indian.

"You cannot bring him to the chapel like this.  Put him in the barracks," the friar said, and we led our horses to one of the mission's buildings.  As we walked, I marveled at the magnificence and size of the Great Stone church, by far the mission's largest structure.  In my time, this was merely a ruin, leveled by an earthquake in 1812.  Unfortunately, my admiration of the architecture was quickly dissipated by the sight before me inside the barracks we now entered--rows and rows of dying Indians, laying on cots--some racked with the visible scars of smallpox, others sick with measles, syphilis, and other maladies.

This was more than I could bear.  I excused myself, ran out of the mission, past the fields of laborers, and reaching a grove of trees, I pressed a button on my wristwatch, and was back in the library.

Chapter 9: Crimes and Kindnesses

On a rainy Thursday morning, I awoke to find my internet was down, and I was strangely relieved.  How easy it is to waste away a whole morning on Facebook, google, yahoo, watching movie trailers for stupid blockbusters.  Today, I would face the world directly, unmediated by technology.

I got up, grabbed my Mead composition book, a book called Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father, and an umbrella, and headed out for a walk.  I walked along Lemon Street, under the overpass, to the historic "other side of the tracks," which is where many of the Latinos of Fullerton live.  Growing up, I accepted this segregation as an unquestioned fact of life, never really stopping to ponder why.  Why, in 21st century America, was my city still segregated ethnically?  To find the answer, I would have to travel to the past.  

I thought it might have something to do with the citrus industry, with historic housing discrimination, with lots of factors that began well before I was born.  This divided city was the legacy I inherited.

There were old, fading murals on the Lemon underpass, painted in the 1970s by community youth.  The murals celebrated Latino culture and history: a large Virgin of Guadalupe with real flowers at her feet, a proud-looking man in a zoot suit standing in front of a blown-up newspaper from 1943, the year of the infamous Zoot Suit Riots, a lowrider car with the text "The Town I Live In," a Mexican flag with two hands clasped in either friendship or arm wrestling.  One hand was brown, the other was white.  But, as the colors had faded over time, it was hard to distinguish one hand's color from the other.  Perhaps these murals gave clues to the puzzling question of segregation.  I had a lot of work to do, a lot of traveling and writing to uncover these mysteries.

In my youth, these "other side of the tracks" were associated with Fullerton's principal gang--Fullerton Tokers Town.  Why did people form gangs?  I once watched a documentary called "Crips and Bloods: Made in America" which showed how LA's two most infamous gangs were formed originally as a reaction against widespread housing, employment, and education discrimination and segregation.  African Americans in Los Angeles were forced, through racist housing covenants, to live in South Central, and so some became fiercely protective of their neighborhoods, because it was all they had, so they formed gangs to protect their neighborhoods.  What I took from this documentary was the fact that the past, present, and future are not distinct categories, but are interconnected.  Crimes of the past--whether they be housing discrimination or murder--resonate from the past to the present to the future, like waves.  It's like science fiction writer David Mitchell once wrote: "Our lives are not our own.  We are bound to each other.  And with every crime, and every kindness, we birth our future."

I began to see the world around me as the product of crimes and kindnesses--some hundreds of years before I was born, some yesterday, and some that I myself would commit.  I began to see my task (as a time traveler and writer), as a kind of cartographer of crimes and kindness, drawing lines between past and present, trying to uncover our hidden legacies, so that I might have a clearer sense of why things are they way they are, and how they might become different.

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