TCS Daily

The Vivid Centuries

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - June 20, 2005 12:00 AM

The palest ink is better than the best memory.

-- Chinese proverb

Imagine someone in the year 2105 helping his family sort out his grandfather's belongings after his death.

Buried in the bottom of a drawer he finds an iPod and some old DVDs in a manila envelope marked "Dad's."

Everyone has a few laughs over the size of the things -- so big and cumbersome to hold a mere thousand songs, a few hundred photographs and a few hours of "video."

They place the iPod into something called an adaptron, which automatically discerns the battery specs of ancient electronic devices and supplies correct power output to operate them. Everybody gathers around to hear a curious mix of rock, rap, jazz, show tunes, the incidental background music to their great grandfather's life when he was very young.

Using another common household device, they "convert" and view the DVDs. They marvel at the century-old clothes, the cars and other curious items that date the images of a young man grinning with friends at a barbecue, clowning in the infield at a NASCAR race, holding up a freshly-caught fish at some lake, sitting with a beer in a lawn chair, walking with his kids amid the clamor of Disneyland.

The digital records seem so primitive compared to the vivid life-size "holoclones," of people, complete with natural voices, to which these 22nd century viewers are accustomed. But they nonetheless are thankful for the retrieved sights and sounds that have given them a better sense of the younger days of someone they had known only as a name brought up from time to time at family gatherings.

Thus, one day, perhaps, will our descendants look back on us in the early part of this, the second vivid century. We accept as routine the fact that we are familiar with the voices, appearance and mannerisms of entertainers, actors and public figures living and dead. Voices and faces -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Frank Sinatra -- live on in a new technological reality. Elvis Presley has made much more money dead than he ever did alive.

But we are not always as aware of how much the private lives of ordinary people are a part of this time-transcending techno-reality. We are surrounded now by rapidly advancing technology that -- for better or worse -- is leaving ever-more detailed, intimate, vivid records of the warp and woof of our lives.

In the first vivid century, the 20th, we had the benefit of the motion picture coming to full fruition along with sound recording. Movies, radio and television grew rapidly from the early-mid century onward, making it possible, even routine, to know much about the sights and sounds that were a part of our parents' and grandparents' lives.

This was an important departure from the "silent centuries" that had gone before. These technologies have given us clues and more than clues with which to reconstruct the incidental ambience of daily life as far back as the early 1900s. They have put us in closer touch than ever before with social and cultural history at its most elemental and personal level.

The invention and perfection of photography in the mid 1800s made it a precursor to the vivid centuries. We know much of the mise en scene of our late 19th century ancestors' lives -- from the stark spareness of a prairie settler's sod house to the opulence of a Victorian home because of this photography.

I remember, as a boy, going to the wake of an old farmer who lived down the road from us. He was laid out on his bed, surrounded by bouquets of flowers. On a dresser in his bedroom were two things that fascinated me -- a huge old pistol and a brown-toned photograph of a man with a handlebar moustache, a serious look on his middle-aged face and a Grand Army of the Republic medal on his coat.

My Uncle George explained that the man in the photo was the old farmer's father, who had picked up the pistol from a dead Confederate cavalryman at the battle of Gettysburg. The man on the bed had been born while his father was away serving in the Civil War.

In the years after that incident, as my sense of history and time developed further, I often had a strange sensation of years collapsing and connecting me to people and events long past, as I considered that the man I had seen lying on that bed had been an infant when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and the man in the picture on the dresser had actually held the big old pistol whose smooth, worn grip I had brushed with my fingers.

And it was the fact that it was a photograph -- not a pen sketch or painting or sculpture, but a "real" photographic likeness of a Union veteran -- that enriched the sensation for me.

In museums and reconstructed or preserved historic sites we can see meticulously recreated "slices" of life in, say 1805 or 1705 or earlier. The furnishings and artifacts there help us gain a better sense of the dress and customs of centuries past. This knowledge is enlarged for us when we view historic paintings and contemporary sketches, or read through journals, letters and books of the period.

The technological gifts of the vivid centuries further enhance our knowledge of these earlier times through historic film dramas and authentic recreations for documentaries. But however authentic they may try to be, these are still skilled, highly informed guesses, inevitably stylized impressions. They simply cannot give us a true nap-of-the-earth sense of the personal lives of our forebears in the 19th and preceding centuries.

That sense, however boring, tedious and embarrassing it may sometimes be, has been reserved for us and our successors through movies, videos, tape recordings -- the vast and variegated personal electronic record of the 20th and 21st centuries. One small example: I recently had the experience of calling a friend whose husband had died several years ago. I was surprised to hear his voice, still on the telephone answering machine. It was a little eerie.

Some years ago, when my brother and I had to break up my mother's household after she had moved to a personal care home, the legacy of these technological gifts, even in their primitive form, came into sharp perspective for me. Among my mother's "stuff" were many old albums of 78 rpm records, some dating back to before World War I.

As a kid, I used to play them one-by-one on the record player hooked up to our Philco table radio back in Rector, Pa. At that time I had found the sounds of Enrico Caruso's arias, Al Jolson's ballads, Gene Goldkette's fox trots or Harry Lauder's recitations fascinatingly strange and oh, so old. It didn't occur to me then that these were the musical background to my mom's younger days.

But as I sorted through them again after so many years, recognizing some of the old labels, I tried to imagine my mother as a girl placing them on the Victrola in the living room of an old house in North Braddock. Did she and her sister dance to them? Did she curl up on the couch and do her homework while they played? When she was a teenager, were Rudy Vallee and Russ Columbo as popular as Elvis and Fats Domino had been when I was that age?

My inquiring reverie about these things was informed by many images stored in my brain -- from old newsreel footage of the 1920s to the hundreds of old photographs, mostly black and white, of my mother, her siblings and her parents, when she was young.

Of course there are hints in these photos, hidden in half-smiles and thoughtful looks, that remind me of her sense of humor, her intellect, her quirks of personality. But there are, as well, in the clothes she wore, in the furniture in the rooms and the old cars in the background, photographic markers that guide me to a better sense of how she lived in the everyday.

Still, I must use my informed imagination to recreate so much that is lost forever -- the windows of a house open on a summer's day to the sound of horses hooves and buggy wheels passing outside; the thump, thump of grandma beating a rug slung over a clothesline; the cry of the ice man and the distant roar of the steel mill.

What I wouldn't give for some videos of my mom (or dad, whom I never knew) back when they were young. But, at least, I can share the experience of the recordings she heard, and other sounds she shared with her generation.

My mother and other family members often talked about their excitement listening to the first radio broadcasts just after World War I, back in Pittsburgh, Pa. They had a crystal set and several pairs of earphones. When there was an important broadcast, or a musical program they all wanted to hear, they would tune the crystal and gather at the kitchen table, place all the earphones in a big bowl and hover around it, leaning forward on their elbows, to listen.

It was quite a step up when they got a "superheterodyne" radio with a huge round speaker on top of it, so they could sit back and listen in the living room. I can connect with mother's "radio days" because some of the most pleasant experiences of my early childhood involved evenings in the kitchen, doing homework and listening with other family members to our favorite radio programs -- comedies like Duffy's Tavern and The Great Gildersleeve; mystery and terror like Johnny Dollar or Inner Sanctum; variety shows like those hosted by Jack Benny, Bob Hope or Bing Crosby.

Thanks to the advances of the first vivid century I have tapes and CDs of some of these old radio programs -- ones I listened to, and earlier ones that entertained my mother and her family. I am able, as well, to view many of the movies I often heard my mother talk about. These shared experiences give me some sense of my family's past - what amused them and provided staples for conversation ("Did you listen to Benny last night? What a riot!").

There are no exact counterparts to such shared experiences in the silent centuries that went before. When old friends got together, perhaps at a funeral, in 1705, their shared experiences would have been much narrower, more local in nature, and centered entirely on their memories -- of school days, church meetings, the village fair or muster day.

Shared experience beyond these things would have involved, for the literate among them, the Bible, or oft-recited poems and some popular books. Their musical experience might include the singing of old drinking songs, or hymns, or childhood tunes. Very, very few people, mostly from the upper classes, would have ever had the chance to hear music by professional musicians or the great artists of the day.

But we, in these vivid centuries, can throw out the name of a song or an artist and bring a flood of memories and experiences into the minds of friends and family. We commonly share lines from hit films or popular television programs. My son and daughter don't just know that I once enjoyed "Leave It to Beaver" or "Perry Mason;" they've seen the shows themselves. Much of our nostalgia is an electronic nostalgia, a Nickelodeon nostalgia.

It is difficult to imagine the breadth and depth of the electronic legacies we will leave to our descendants. If recent decades are a guide we will leave much more than they want -- from birth videos to wedding videos to video insurance inventories and video wills -- the sometimes excruciating minutiae of our lives.

But social historians will have a treasure trove from which to detail our amusements, our enthusiasms, or life's work -- what we searched for online, what clothes we wore, what cars we bought. We will be seen in our most ordinary, embarrassing, tedious, funny, sad moments, in greater detail than any other generation.


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