These were the analog days; long before the digital time travel era. I stood in the long hallway with terrazzo floors. The classroom door was to my right. I saw all the other classroom entrances as I glanced down the hallway. An adult was confronting me. She wore a white blouse and had one of those 1960s bouffant hair styles. She was gesturing with a sheet of notebook paper with writing on it. It was my writing; my homework. She was accusing me of plagiarism, but she didn’t use that word. She said I had copied it from an encyclopedia; most definitely an analog time travel machine. She told me to redo the homework without copying anything from an encyclopedia. I complied and turned in a freshly written piece the next day. It was the end of the issue as far as she was concerned.
Here’s the thing. My family had not yet purchased one of those big encyclopedia sets; those cost a lot of money. Acquiring knowledge was hard work and often involved a trip to the library; hoping the library even had the information I sought. Moreover, in this instance I was a second-grader. And the truth – that homework for which I was accused, was my original work. Today, I feel smug that a teacher thought my second-grade homework was worthy of an encyclopedia entry. Regrettably, I don’t remember the subject of the paper. However, I still wonder why I didn’t fight back, even as a second-grader, against such a serious and false ethical accusation. It never even occurred to me that copying something for my homework was an option.
I love learning and knowing things. In the analog era, I had to rely on libraries, magazines, and newspapers. I don’t recall even having a nearby bookstore. My family did eventually acquire one of those big encyclopedia sets. It had over 25 volumes. The bindings were black with gold lettering. Those volumes looked impressive on the book shelves. I loved reading them. Since knowledge-gathering took so much work, I always prioritized what I could know and dismissed other things from my thinking; filing them away in a figurative mind-vault. Being able to pull out my phone and check Wikipedia was decades away. As the years flew by, thoughts, ideas, and memories came and went. If I was lucky, some of those thoughts lodged in a deep brain recess for later retrieval but most often, I just forgot.
Digital time travel changed my life. With the advent of online digital media, I travel back in time and revisit old memories. Sometimes, I tap into my mind-vault and pull out a long-forgotten memory and refresh it through a YouTube video or by reading about it on someone’s blog.
Digital time travel even helps me revitalize the big historical moments for which I do recall. In 1969, humans first landed on the moon in the Apollo 11 Lunar Lander. I was riding in my family’s 1966 Oldsmobile Cutlass on Interstate 40 in Tennessee. We were returning to our home in Knoxville. I listened intently on the AM radio in the car. We made it home in time to watch Neal Armstrong’s first steps, on our television. I can now play those moments over and over on YouTube.
I was too young to truly grasp some of the difficult historical moments. We can refresh and revisit those as well; gaining a better, deeper appreciation. I remember traveling with my grandparents to California. Back in those days, airlines still offered newspapers. It was the day after the Charles Manson murders. The paper had Sharon Tate’s picture on the front page. It didn’t really mean anything to me. On the same trip, we drove through the Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco, one of the centers of the 1960s protests. Again, I didn’t appreciate that moment in history. However, I do recall being there. With digital time travel, I can connect back to that moment using online media and create a fuller sense of my presence in those moments.
Some of my most vivid historical moments involved my father’s job. He worked for Western Union and was often asked to set up communications for big events in our region. I remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was 1968 and we were traveling to my grandparents’ house in West Tennessee. We heard the news on the radio. After arriving around dinnertime, my father called-in and was told to travel on to Memphis that night. He arrived after dark with a city-wide curfew in place. The streets were empty. He later recounted the eerie feeling of driving through those deserted streets. Another time, after Hurricane Camille slammed the Mississippi Gulf Coast, he was on the phone telling a subordinate they both needed to go there to help with communications. The other person was refusing to go. I remember my father slamming the phone receiver down in anger. Digital time travel allows me to rekindle those times in my memory.
We can revisit the more mundane memories and questions. My first memory of a family car was an ugly green Chevrolet station wagon. What did that look like? What details can I fill in around my fuzzy memory? Sure, I have one or two old photographs with the car in the background, but I want more. Now, I find a plethora of images and videos of that car model. It helps me connect to my life, decades ago.
Technology Creates New Ways to Reconstruct Experiences
Technology creates new ways to reconstruct experiences. The movie, “They Shall Not Grow Old”, takes old World War I silent movie footage and modernizes it with color. In a groundbreaking approach, the movie dubs over the silent film with synchronized audio, created with the help of lip readers. Adam Gopnik writes in a New Yorker article:
Though the immediacy of the imagery is in itself astounding, the addition of a vocal track only adds to the effect. For one unforgettable moment, the fruit of insanely obsessive labor, Jackson tracked down the precise words spoken by an officer to his troops just before the battle of the Somme, and so, for the first time in a hundred years, we “hear,” dubbed in, what’s being said, the officer’s lips suddenly coming to life with words long ago swallowed up in air.Gropnik, Adam. A Few Thoughts on the Authenticity of Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”, 14 January 2019, newyorker.com. Accessed 9 June 2019.
One marvels at the technology while being jarred by the new perspective.
Emotional Digital Time Travel
Attempts at reconstructing memories can be emotional. As the remaining World War II veterans die of old age, their undocumented memories leave with them. Many of their children try to reconstruct their fathers’ stories, stored inside billions of pages of military records. In a New York Times article William Beigel commented on frequent requests for these records.
“It’s a lot of sons and daughters, wishing they had the conversations that were too painful to have when their fathers were still alive,” said William Beigel, an independent historian in Redondo Beach, Calif., who has been researching World War II veterans for 20 years. He said demand has been surging as the ranks of living veterans have dwindled, and he now gets as many as 25 requests a day. “Sometimes they start to cry on the phone about how much they loved their dad, and how he had horrible nightmares, but would never talk about it,” he said.Philipps, Dave. “Their Fathers Never Spoke of the War. Their Children Want to Know Why.”, 5 June 2019, nytimes.com. Accessed 9 June 2019.
Digital Time Travel is not Always Possible
Digital time travel is not always possible. Humanity has lived for millennia without digital storage and retrieval. For example, in the modern music era, much has been lost. “Less than 18 percent of commercial music archives are currently available” (Hochberg).
From a personal point of view, I grieve for vague but poignant memories that now only reside in my head. I played trombone in high school and college marching band. I have but one photograph of me marching in a parade. Nothing more. My wife who was my high school sweetheart, played flute and piccolo in a different, but nearby high school band. She was first chair and as such, played the piccolo solo in John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes forever. I remember her standing each time, in her high school band uniform, to play that solo. She rocked it. No photographs or videos exist; no digital time travel. I have to be content with what I can remember.
I love the scene from Mad Men, where Don Draper pitches the branding concept for the Carousel projector. “This device is not a spaceship, it is a time machine” (The Carousel). The scene raises the emotional stakes and turns a piece of technology into a human thing. Digital time travel is a contemporary version of a time machine. It is not just technology, but as in the Mad Men scene, a way to connect ourselves to our past. It rekindles our memories. Feelings of happy places and even sad times emerge.
Travel with Courage
It was a Saturday afternoon in a small, rural cemetery under the trees. The dirt was piled to one side. Overhead, a shade tent protected us from the afternoon sun. About fifteen people sat in folding chairs. I was delivering the eulogy for Mom. I had written the eulogy and was reading from my iPad. It was upbeat and had some humor. I got a few chuckles from the audience. My real goal was to not get emotional during the eulogy. Breathe! Keep it together! I succeeded.
I wrapped up the weekend and flew home. Later, I got a text from my sister with a link to the funeral home’s obituary site. Someone had posted a video of converted 8mm family home movies, overlaid with some really bad country music. Those movies showed snippets from my first 2 years of life and included parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and an aunt; none alive today. It even had scenes of my grandfather’s bird dogs that I so much enjoyed. I had not seen those movie scenes in over 50 years, resulting in emotional-memory connections that I assume were gone forever. My son-in-law even watched it and said my facial expressions were the same back then as now. I am not sure how I feel about that observation. This was serious digital time travel and I had not expected it. I felt jarred yet so appreciative that this unexpected moment had arrived.
Reconnect with your personal history. Travel back in time using technology. Just don’t be afraid of your own feelings and what you might learn about yourself. It is never too late.
- Get a journal and write notes about memories from earlier in your life. Don’t overthink it. Just write your first thoughts. Then, use online media to explore the time, place, and events that surround those thoughts.
- Facebook provides memory prompts from older posts. I use it for chronicling events through photographs in the social media era.
Gropnik, Adam. A Few Thoughts on the Authenticity of Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”, 14 January 2019, newyorker.com. Accessed 9 June 2019.
Philipps, Dave. “Their Fathers Never Spoke of the War. Their Children Want to Know Why.”, 5 June 2019, nytimes.com. Accessed 9 June 2019.