Where No Man Has Gone Before

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 22, 2016

Fifty years ago tonight, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the second Star Trek pilot, was the third episode of the series to be shown in the U.S. (It was the first to be shown in the United Kingdom.) This was the first Star Trek episode I really liked in 1966. Partly because it had cool ideas, partly because it had Sally Kellerman, but mainly because of Mr. Spock. Leonard Nimoy shaped his famous character over many episodes. Spock was the only main character from “The Cage,” the first pilot, to carry over to the second pilot. Its fascinating to see how the famous Vulcan evolves in these early episodes. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before” Mr. Spock wants to kill Gary Mitchell as soon as he thinks he’s a threat, and at one points strides around with a very large phaser rifle looking like a hot-headed enforcer. This aggressive nature disappears after this episode.

Last night I watched For the Love of Spock, a documentary about Nimoy and Spock made by his son Adam Nimoy. I highly recommend this film, which I rented on Amazon, as well as rewatching these early episodes to see how the Spock character emerged on the show. Mr. Spock even looks different in each of several episodes.

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For the Love of Spock is a wonderful tribute to Leonard Nimoy, and a history of a fictional character. I actually learned more details about Nimoy from William Shatner’s recent book, Leonard, but more about Spock from the documentary. Shatner’s book was about a friendship. The subtext of Adam Nimoy’s film was father and son. Nimoy was so much more interesting than his most famous creation, so I assume detail biographies in the future will be worth reading.

Mr. Spock was the only character in Star Trek that I really liked. In an interview in For the Love of Spock, William Shatner admitted feeling professional jealousy in the early days of the show, when Nimoy got the larger portion of fan attention. Shatner said Roddenberry told him that he should embrace Nimoy’s good fortune because that fan mania would make both Shatner and the show a success. I’m not sure Star Trek would have succeeded without Mr. Spock. And, this documentary could have been called Where No Man Has Gone Before, because its about a real man becoming a myth in his own lifetime. Early on Nimoy tried to escape that fate and wrote, I Am Not Spock. Eventually he wrote, I Am Spock.

For those who wish to know all the compulsive details of the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” I recommend reading about it as Memory-Alpha. What I want to do is continue my remembering of 1966 impressions of the show and compare them with my 2016 viewing. Every time I write about these old episodes of Star Trek I feel like I’m trying to get into character, of me in 1966. Seeing photographs and home movies of Leonard Nimoy and his family from the 1950s and 1960s reminded me just how different things were back then compared to today. In just a few years, normal life changed. Television is no measure of reality, but the transition from 1966 to 1969 was somewhat like going from That Girl to All in the Family. But the fifty-year transition was like the background life you saw in The Fugitive evolving into the background life you see in Breaking Bad.

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Living from 1966 to 2016 could be filmed as “Where No Human Has Gone Before.” The fourteen-year-old kid who watched Star Trek in 1966 assumed the future would be dramatically different. I never figured we’d evolve powers like Gary Mitchell, but I expected the future would be science fictional. What’s weird is we’re living in a very science fictional era, but everyone seems to be wearing clothes fairly similar to 1966. People look about the same. Houses look about the same. Cars are different. TVs look different. But living rooms and bedrooms are very similar.

In 1966 you saw more ordinary, even homely people, on TV. Today, everyone is beautiful and buff. There were lots more character actors back then. Nimoy always said he wanted to be a great character actor. It was Shatner that wanted to be a lead. The walk-on characters you saw on Perry Mason often seemed like people you saw on the streets back then. If you want to see normal people today you have to watch the local news, or Walmart people on YouTube, because TV isn’t very representative.

To be honest, a story about flying to the edge of the galaxy and having two people become god-like in their abilities, is about as realistic in 1966 or 2016 as reading Greek Mythology or Marvel Comics. In 1966 I wished I could speed-read like Gary Mitchell, once his latent psychic powers emerge. It would have been great help with homework. But why did the writers of this episode assume Humans 2.0 would have no ethical qualms about killing 1.0 Humans? What was cool in 1966 to a 14-year-old kid, seems lame to a 64-year-old man. Why couldn’t writers imagine evolved humans actually being better beings?

Either as science fiction or allegory, the plot of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” reveals the pitiful nature of our species. Our one tool solution for every problem, no matter how smart we are, is to kill, kill, kill. In that, Star Trek pegged the future, our present.

It’s a shame we all didn’t become more like Mr. Spock, or at least more creative, like Leonard Nimoy.

JWH

My Mother Would Have Been 100 Today

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 10, 2016

When I was a child, I felt my parents ruined my life. Looking back, I believe I ruined theirs.

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[Click on all photos for a larger view.]

My mother, born Virginia Dare Little in 1916, would have been one hundred today. She died back in 2007. A century is a very long time, especially to exist in our memories. There are people who live well beyond the 100-year mark, who cram a whole century in their mind. My soul shivers. I now have sixty years that haunt me, which seems too much. I can’t imagine carry around 36,525 days. My mother was 35 when she had me, so I have little knowledge of her life before forty. Using photographs, family lore, and discussions with my sister, I hope to give a quick overview of her ninety-one years.

Instead of driving down to visit her grave for her centennial celebration, I thought I’d spend a few days and create a memorial blog post. There are two books I often thought about when writing this essay: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, about a family tragedy that results from parents and children not communicating , and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a book that aims to teach writing, but really teaches us about the limits of memory. I highly recommend both to anyone who writes about families, or remembrances of things past.

Because I’m an atheist I don’t believe I’ll be reunited with my parents after I die. I should have asked them more questions when they were alive. I should have been a better son, but I wasn’t. I could say my mother and father should have been better parents, but they did the best they could. I was the best kid I could be under the circumstances. Our failure was not comprehending each other.

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In the years since my mother’s death I’ve often wished she was around to answer questions about her history. I inherited all her photographs, many of which aren’t dated or labeled. So I have those kinds of questions. I’ve often thought about my own life, wishing she was around to verify my memory. My mom stayed sharp till the end, but she didn’t like to hang onto the past, especially if it embarrassed her. But her memory in her eighties was no worse than mine in my sixties. I used to ask her lots of questions that neither of us could answer – like, what years did we live in South Carolina the first time. Now I want to ask questions like, what books did you love as a kid. I only know one – Little Women.

As I have said many times, I wish blogging at been invented in 4300 B.C.E. If everyone in the past we want to know began blogging when they learned to read and write, think how many mysteries of history would be solved. I know surprising little about my mother and father’s lives. I wish I had their blogs to read, or just old fashion diaries. I’m going to try and piece together 91 years of my mother’s history with damn little physical evidence. I’m going to tell family secrets that would have embarrassed her, but they are all clues of trying to remember who she really was. My nuclear family, George Delany Harris father, Virginia Little Harris mother, Becky Harris sister, myself son and brother, was probably very typical for the 1950s. We never knew one another because we always withheld information. It’s a kind of family tragedy. We were all good people who had good intentions, but hurt each other because we really understood each other.

For much of my life I didn’t like my mother, but I tried hard not to hate her. She made it very hard for people to like her. To survive my parents, who had problems of their own, including alcoholism, I had to build a barrier between myself and them. The way I survived was to focus on myself, and selfishly ignore everyone else, starting around the first grade. I did not know when I was young, that my mother suffered from depression, and was probably bipolar. Her method of survival was to demand that everyone do exactly as she said, because I can see now she believed she’d be happy if only everyone followed her wishes. No one ever did, which caused her no end of agitation. Before she was given anti-depressants in the 1970s, she would try to cope by drinking. My dad was a steady drinker, but my mother was a binge drinker. She never binged for long because she couldn’t handle booze, and it made her Baptist soul feel deeply guilty. I used to think she kept her drinking secret from her sisters, but my sister recently told me that wasn’t true. That’s why I feel it’s okay to write about it now.

Looking through the photographs, my mother seemed happiest before she had me and my sister. We came late in life, at 35 and 37, and added a intense stress to her life. Becky and I were wild and willful, and she wanted us to be quiet and obedient. We were good kids – we just didn’t like being told what to do. Unfortunately, my mother loved telling people how things should be done. One lucky benefit of this friction was Becky and I were given almost complete independence. Both my parents worked, and after I was nine, and Becky was seven, we never even had babysitters. We truly lived in a Charlie Brown world where adults were seldom seen. It was easier for my parents to let us go do our thing rather than hang around them.

From what I can recall and theorize, my dad didn’t have a clue about children, or how to talk to them. He tried. He seem to expect us to be like kids in the 1920s, which was respectful, adventurous and independent, adhering to old fashioned roles for boys and girls. He expected me to drink and smoke like a regular guy, and join the Air Force like him, but I smoked dope and wanted to dodge the draft. I had long hair and was liberal, he worried I might be gay and a communist. I was neither, but he never could make out what I was. He was a Joe Pine conservative. We didn’t talk much, and he was never around much. Which stressed out my mother, who constantly bitched at him. Looking back, I wonder if my dad worked two or three jobs just to avoid my mother and us kids. My mother had 99% of the burden of raising us. And she would use her razor sharp tongue to let him know. They have so many fights burned into my memory that I can’t remember them ever having any happy times together.

As a kid I use to wonder, “Was my dad a drunk because my mother was a bitch, or was my mother a bitch because my father was a drunk.” But then I’d see photographs, like some below, where my father and mother looked very happy together. All those photographs were taken before we were born. I was born on my parent’s sixth wedding anniversary. When we were little, they’d tell me and my sister of their days of living in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico – and they seemed very fond of those memoires.

I don’t have any photos of my mother when she was a baby or small child. Here is one of the earliest photos I do have of her, the problem is I don’t know which kid she. She would have been 11-12 in this school photo. One of her classmates gave me this photo before he died. He pointed my mom out nine years ago, but I’ve since forgotten. Now that he’s gone, I have no way to know. Maybe my Aunt Louise knows. My mom was one of five sisters, and Aunt Louise is the only one still with us.

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My mother’s family centered around my grandmother, Lou Little, and she had five daughters. My father’s family centered around his mother, Helen Delany Harris, and she had three sons. I never knew either of my grandfathers. My mother’s family was from Mississippi, and my father’s family from Miami, Florida. Becky, my sister, and I traveled back and forth between these two worlds.

The five sisters, in order of age, were Arrah Belle (Aunt Belle), Flake Jerrine (Aunt Sissy), Teletta May (Aunt Let), Virginia Dare (Aunt Gen to my cousins), and Martha Louise (Aunt Louise) . They were born in 1908, 1909, 1911, 1916 and 1922. My mother, and maybe a couple aunts, and probably many relatives are in school photo above. I just don’t know who is who.

I’m guess this next photo, of three of the sisters, is the second oldest photo I have. I believe my mom is the one at the top, and the bottom are Aunt Sissy and Aunt Let. I’m guessing early to mid 1930s on this photo. I would be great if we could know our parents when they were young.

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This might be next. It’s dated 1938, so my mom would have been 22.

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The next photo I have has all five sisters looking fairly grown. My guess is this photo was taking in the early 1940s. From right to left they are, Aunt Let, my mom, Aunt Louise, Aunt Sissy, and Aunt Belle. It’s interesting the two brunettes were on the left, and the three redheads on the right.

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This photo below is dated 1944. My mother is on the right. On the back it was labeled Mrs. Embery, Dorothy Atkins, and Annie Laurie Tillman. I think my mother was working at the phone company then, and probably before she married my father. My mother was married once before my father. Over the years I’ve heard stories about how she had married a bootlegger. Mississippi was dry even after the repeal of prohibition. There’s also a story that the bootlegger brought my mother home to her parents and told them he didn’t want her any more because she was too mean. And my mother could be mean. Now, I know it was a manifestation of her depression, and probably bipolar nature.

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My mother was the wild sister I imagine. She’s the one that married and left the south. I know nothing about her teenage years, her first marriage, her moving to Memphis to live on her own, her meeting my father, or their years of traveling around the country without children.

The next several photos are ones I think were taken after my parents married, but before I was born. But I’m not completely sure. Odd as it might seem, I don’t always recognize my own mother in these photographs. Nor am I very good at judging her age. I do know mom and dad lived in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. before I was born. Several of these photos are from Puerto Rico.

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Here’s my mom and her mother. No idea of the date. My sister and I called this grandmother Nanny. My sister was always crazy about Nanny, and I liked her too, but never got close to her. She was very religious, and that was barrier to me. I realize now that because I kept my distance from so many people, I never really got to know them. My sister was far more aware of family dynamics than I was.

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Here’s a photo of my mother with my father’s mother, whom my sister and I called Ma. She took care of us for a good part of a year when I was seven because my mother was sent to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania to recover from TB, and my father was stationed in Canada. I really wish I had known her better. I always thought of her as the happy person in our family.

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Along the way, I was born in 1951, in Ohio. I’m guessing this older woman was my father’s grandmother, but I’m not sure.

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I have no idea who this lady is with me and my mom, or why they wore loud plaid skirts.

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This looks like a house in Florida. I was born in Ohio, moved to Miami, then to Memphis, back to Miami, but I’m never sure of when the photos were taking. My sister was born in Miami in 1953. The two of us lived in Memphis as small children for a short while before returning to Miami.

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This is me, and that’s my grandmother, my mother’s mother. She was born in 1881. I’m guessing I’m about two or three, which means my baby sister should be somewhere. I bet my outfit was made by my mother. She liked to make clothes of us. I protested when I started school, and she stopped making clothes for me.

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I am not the son my mother and father imagined. I was born on their sixth wedding anniversary. My Uncle Bob told me that my mother didn’t believe she was pregnant for months, because a doctor had told her years earlier she couldn’t have kids. My sister came along two years later. Having kids at 35 and 37, back in 1951 and 1953, was hard at that age. My sister and I were full of active energy, and my mom was in her forties, and way too nervous to handle us. I realized early on, that my father didn’t know how to communicate with kids at all, and my mother expected us to be respectful and obedient, and when we weren’t, would go nuts on us. My solution was to stand back, and detach myself from the family. However, my sister spent her childhood trying to please both my mother and father, and she was routinely hurt when she failed to make them happy.

I’m not sure when this photo was taken. I assume my father took the picture. He’s not in our childhood pictures. I’m not sure why I’m the only one to look happy in this picture. My mother was crazy about us when we were little. I think she loved having kids, and while we were little and manageable, she was happier. Because I have stories about my mother having problems throughout her life, I assume I just didn’t see her spells early on.

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It was around the time of this photograph that I actually remember choosing to back away from my mother. I remember two separate incidences when I was in the first grade, one with my mother, and one with my father. Each time I was trying to get close to them, trying to communicate, and each of them losing patience with me. My mother ended up spanking me in a store, and this freaked me out. But my father disappointed me quietly, because I realized he just wasn’t understanding what I was trying to tell him. That’s when I began thinking of my parents as robots – not literally of course, but figuratively. I realized they were all about discipline and telling me what to do, and they refused to consider my feelings, or even seem to be aware of them. So I stopped trying to explain myself. And that has shaped my whole life. I was too young to understand this then. I was too young to empathize with their problems. Growing up I thought adults were robots because they wanted to live by rigid rules.

Looking back, this is where I start my lists of regrets about my life. I don’t blame myself. I have no sense of guilt. But to survive I had to become very selfish. I am a happy person, and I’m totally nostalgic about my childhood, but that’s because I tuned out my alcoholic parents. Now that I’m older, I wish I had paid more attention to their lives. My mother and father were fascinating people, but they had problems that made them hard to like. In many ways, I realize how I am like both of them. My mother’s survival strategy was to demand that other people fulfill her wishes, and when they didn’t, she’d turn controlling. She could spend days, even weeks, worrying over slights. I called that “gnawing her bone.” And if you were the subject of that gnawing, it could get vicious.

The trouble is, my mother was a wonderful person when she was in her up moods. But because I feared her down moods, I was wary of enjoying being with my mother when she was in good spirits. After my mother retired, and moved back to Mississippi, and bought a little house she lived alone in for almost thirty years, she found more peace of mind. She had stopped drinking, and had anti-depressants. She still had her black moods, but she was by herself. She had many hobbies and craft, and she made some friends. She had her sisters. And she had a series of collie dogs. She read hundreds, probably thousands of books. She had her church. My sister provided her with two grandchildren, and she became a granny, and eventually a great grandmother.

I spent more time with my mother in her later years than my sister. Becky had moved away, and always had to come back for short visits. My father had died when my mother was 53. Until she died a couple weeks shy of her 91st birthday, she had a long life, mostly by herself, living with her dogs. I would visit fairly regularly, and talk to her on the phone every week. I avoided a lot of subjects. I would talk to her about old times, but carefully. Sometimes I would probe, but I learned she had rewritten her own history.

That’s the thing, we all live too distant from one another. That’s why I wished my parents had been bloggers since they were kids. I’ve love to know what they thought about their life. I never knew their ambitions, fantasies or dreams. I’m sure Becky and I were their dream when we were little, but I don’t think the kids they got were how they imagined kids beforehand. I probably heard my mother ask me a thousand times, “Are you ashamed? Aren’t you embarrassed?” I never was. My father was always quiet about what he expected of me, but I know I wasn’t the son of his imagination.

I’m going to cut this narrative short here. I don’t want to write a biography. I will finish things out with the photographs that show my mother getting older and older. They each have a long story, but I’m going to let the pictures tell them.

I think this photo is from 1968. My mother is leaving with my Aunt Let. It was at my Aunt’s house, which I always loved.

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I think this is also from 1968. That’s Nanny on the right, Becky, and my Uncle Barnwell and Aunt Louise. My mother looks very young here now, but at a time I thought she was getting old. I’m now older than she was then.

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JWH

Reconstructing 1966 by Watching Star Trek

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 8, 2016

[Soundtrack for this essay. Listen while you read if you were around in 1966, it may trigger some 1966 memories.]

I am obsessed with memory. Are memories lost or erased? Why do long forgotten memories return at odd moments? Are there keys to unlocking the hidden treasures of our minds?

I want to channel my fourteen-year-old self from 1966 using television as my crystal ball. “The Man Trap,” the first episode of Star Trek, which premiered fifty years ago today, will be my wormhole to the past. From there, I hope to follow links to lost memory segments – like defragging my mind. I’d love to own a time machine, and visit my younger self, but the best I can do is become a medium of memory. Generally we struggle to recall a few facts from the past – I want to strike the memory mother lode. That’s a difficult quest, because the ghosts of memory are chimeras of self-deceptions.

I rewatched “The Man Trap” to trick my brain into remembering 1966. And like panning for gold, it’s hard work for a few flecks of recollections. The internet offers a wealth of tools for triggering memories, revealing just another way 1966 is different from 2016. That’s one of the big revelations of this expedition. My assumption was 1966 would be much like 2016, with the same problems, and the same desires, but with different toys. That’s probably wrong. It seems our toys alter who we are.

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The me on the left, is what I looked like when I first watched Star Trek in 1966. The 2016 me on the right is trying to imagine how the me on the left thought about the future in 1966. The 1966 me never imagined becoming the me on the right. Some of this essay will be about watching Star Trek, but most of it will be about remembering 1966. I can watch “The Man Trap” on a 56” HDTD today, and its 100% of what I saw on a 25” RCA color TV then, probably 200% considering high resolution. The trouble is, we’re watching with our 2016 minds. What I want to remember is how I thought about science fiction with my 1966 brain.

What I’ve learned by dwelling on this past, is reality was just as complex in 1966, but both my younger mind, and our culture in general, were much simpler. I was was able to find a larger sense of wonder, but discovered my science fiction universe was smaller. When I look at the original episodes of Star Trek today, they seem quaint, even primitive, but in their day, they were adult, and even sophisticated, compared to the television I had been watching from 1955-1965. Star Trek was mostly allegories about problems folks faced in 1966. Because I was a kid with adolescent dreams about the future, I saw those shows much different then. My hopes for my future were unrealistic. Star Trek fueled those impractical desires for millions of people. Why did we all see so much we wanted in a TV show?

As with my previous essay on “The Cage,” what I viewed at fourteen and sixty-four are two different shows. The show we view doesn’t change, but how we interpret it does. No one steps in the same river twice.

All during the summer of 1966 I had been seeing ads for Star Trek on NBC. Those previews were more exciting to me than memories of Christmas morning when I was a kid. That summer I was living in Miami, but by September, my mother left my father and took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi – a very small town. That was a cultural shock. When I tuned in that Thursday evening, I was needing escape, and wanted that show to be everything the previews promised.

But watching that first episode, with my high expectations, and seeing a story about a monster sucking salt out of people, was like getting a nice school shirt under the tree. Something I could use, but not exciting. For the previous two years, I had been gorging myself on Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Norton, Wells, Verne, and that science fictional knowledge made the first episode of Star Trek feel silly in comparison. Yet, everything else about the show, promised so much. The Enterprise, interstellar travel, transporter, lost alien civilizations, Mr. Spock were marvels to me in 1966. But aren’t they the same marvels today? After fifty years, we still haven’t achieved any of those things we long for in Star Trek. Sure, cell phones are great, but I wanted to go to the stars. I wanted a razor sharp analytical mind, free of pesky emotions, like Mr. Spock. I’m now an old man, with failing memory and health, illogical and emotional, who has never left Earth. Did I really believe anything in Star Trek would come true for me? For a short while, during the 1966-1967 television season, I had hope.

But my science fiction fantasies were no more realistic than my sex fantasies. Be honest if you’re a science fiction fan. As a kid, didn’t you want to live science fiction instead of watching or reading it? Think about this. If your 1966 self could time travel to September 8, 2016, wouldn’t she think you were living in a science fiction story?

Most people can’t remember everyday life before the science fiction boom in the 1970s. It’s like asking a college freshman today to write about daily life before the Internet. And remembering 1966 is exactly that. If the science fiction world had a calendar, we should mark BST (Before Star Trek) and AST (After Star Trek), with the year 1966 becoming year zero. By 1969, the year Star Trek ended, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, everything was radically different. I often tell people that 1964-1969 were the longest five years of my life because so much happened.

There had been plenty of science fiction on television before Star Trek, including The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, but the world still felt like the 1950s in their stories. Those shows were in black and white. The 1960s didn’t really get going until 1965-67. It needed the space race, civil rights, psychedelic drugs, a rock and roll revolution, color television, anti-war protests, and the counter culture. Living in rural Mississippi for nine months in 1966 was Leave It To Beaver , not Dangerous Visions.

I was a weird kid in 1966. I had realized I was an atheist in 1964, while I was living in Miami. Strange, but not too strange for the times. But being a atheist in the heart of the Bible Belt was something else. I had to constantly listen the people talk about God and Jesus. It felt like I was living in The Twilight Zone. I was also frightened by their racism, but that’s another 5o,000 words. I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, but I always felt like a stranger in a strange land. I was a liberal, but lacked the intellectual education to understand why. Science fiction was my substitute for religion. I was ready for a different world, a different reality, a revolution. The 1960s, science fiction, Star Trek, NASA, psychedelic rock, the counter culture, was the perfect storm for transformation.

I wasn’t the only one waiting for the future, but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I was singularly weird. You know how some kids like to believe they’re adopted because they can’t relate to their parents? I secretly fantasized that Martians had impregnated my mother. My dad was stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB where I was born in 1951, and if you remember your UFO lore, that’s not too far fetch for a X-Files daydream, at least for 1966. I didn’t believe that fantasy – I just wanted to believe.

Seeing the Future from 1966

By September, 1966, all but two of the Project Gemini flights had flown. We knew Americans were going to the Moon, and hoped before the end of the decade. The Gemini capsule is my all-time favorite space ship. I was crazy about the space program and would talk my parents into letting me stay home from school when there were launches. Back then, the space program would preempt television, sometimes for days. I was starting the 10th grade that September, my first year in high school. Back in Florida, in the 9th grade, at my junior high school, my friends and I had built a series of Estes rockets. But even those guys didn’t read science fiction.

People were thinking about bright futures. The 1964 New York World’s Fair (4/22/64-10/17/65) was fresh in our memories. It was futuristic, forward looking, and even featured a Space Park. The space race thrilled Americans in the 1960s. NASA only validated our science fiction dreams. The country was ready for Star Trek. I wish I knew how many closeted science fiction fans existed then.

At this time in 1966, I assumed for the duration of my life, the nightly news would feature stories of humans going further and further into space. I expected manned missions to Mars in the 1970s. I assumed the complete manned exploration of the solar system before I died. I dreamed of being an astronaut, or working for NASA, even though I didn’t apply myself in school like the young protagonists of Heinlein stories.

Star Trek premiered as the space race was blasting off. But so much that would unfold in the future was unexpected in 1966. No glimmer of personal computers, or the Internet, much less data mining, AI, or Deep Learning. We didn’t even have pocket calculators or cell phones. I did have cable TV in 1966, only because I lived in a rural town. Cable TV was invented to bring TV to rural communities. We still only had three channels: ABC, CBS and NBS. I don’t even remember seeing public TV until 1968 or 1969. We had lots of war, poverty, terrorism, riots, crime, injustice, inequality, disease, back then, but there was plenty of hope. We have less of all those horrible things today, but we have less hope. Why?

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Back then I was the only person I knew that read science fiction. I’d tell everyone about what I was reading, but they just thought I was a strange. I joined the science club that year. That’s me on the right with the sweater with vertical stripes. Most of the other boys were also in the 4-H club. I remember giving a talk about cryogenics at one of the meetings. I had recently read The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein and had started researching suspended hibernation with frogs and liquid nitrogen. My classmates just stared at me blankly. I think even the science teacher thought I was over the galactic rim. I pitched him the idea for a science fair project of buying a weather balloon to launch around town to see if any of the residents of Charleston would call in a UFO report. I eventually settled on building a controlled environment with my friend Mack Peters, to show that plants could provide oxygen in space. We built a very large plywood box with a picture window, and sealed in two mice, some plants, and a florescent light. The mice survived for weeks until they escaped by gnawing a hole through the plywood. We did win a prize at the science fair.

And even though I loved science fiction, finding it was hard. In Florida, I had discovered a large cache at the Homestead Air Force Base library in 1964. Evidently, servicemen loved science fiction. But East Tallahassee High School had little. Charleston had a tiny library on the main square, in an old storefront. It was a rental library. Most of the books were ancient. I found a couple old books about UFOs written by George Adamski – thus the science fair project. And a copy of Worlds in Collision by Immanuel Velikovsky. Other than Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I don’t remember finding any science fiction in Charleston. I never found a paperback SF book on a twirling rack at the drugstore where I bought my copies of Popular Science and MAD Magazine. To claim the nine months I spent living in Charleston, Mississippi was living in the science fiction wilderness is not an exaggeration.

Stranger in a Strange Land AvonThe Worlds of Robert A. HeinleinThe Mysterious Island

I brought only a few paperbacks to Charleston in late August. On September 8, 1966, Star Trek was born, and for a few months it was my main source of science fiction. I had no income. My mom had brought us to Charleston, where one of her sisters lived. I had mown lawns, babysat, and had a paper route in Florida before I moved to Mississippi. I’d eventually get a paper route in Charleston, and would join the Science Fiction Book Club. That would be a major transformation, because up until then I only stumbled on old science fiction in libraries, and had little knowledge of current science fiction. The SFBC would bring me up to date, and open a much larger world of science fiction. Probably 80% of what I had read was by Heinlein. From 1964-1966 I had searched out every Heinlein book I could find, and I believe I had read nearly all that he had published. My schools had the juveniles, and the Air Base library had all the rest. I was also a fan of Arthur C. Clarke. It was at this time I read most of the Winston Science Fiction series.

Rocket landed on fins

In 1966, my image of rockets of the future were those that landed on their tail fins, as someone once said, “the way God and Bob Heinlein intended.” Most of the science fiction I had read up until then was about exploring and colonizing the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Most of the black and white science fiction movies from the 1950s I saw on TV were either about the Moon or Mars, with a few invaders from the stars. Only some of Heinlein’s books were about traveling beyond the solar system. Thus a television series dedicated to exploring the galaxy was a big deal. Star Trek was a leap of faith, telling Americans the final frontier went way beyond landing on the Moon. The U.S.S. Enterprise was a breakthrough in space ship design, taking science fiction out of the 1950s.

Where I Got My News in 1966

My sources of news in 1966 were extremely limited. I believe I can name them all: the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite on some nights, The Today Show on rare occasions when I stayed home from school, Life Magazine and The Reader’s Digest when I visited other homes, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics which I bought myself at the drugstore, TV Guide, the only family magazine we all read, and National Geographic at school (but not to read, but for finding pictures of naked women – boys today have no idea how obscure porn was in 1966). Even though I’d eventually deliver the paper, I didn’t read it. Not much news to live on. But one good story in Popular Science and I’d have something exciting to think about for days. We have too many sources of news today.

My only news of music came from AM disc jockeys. I wouldn’t have The Rolling Stone or Crawdaddy for a few years. Documentaries were almost never shown. I read nothing about movies. In November, my cousin Robert brought me to his house in Memphis, and he and his wife Charlotte took me to see Fantastic Voyage at the drive-in for my 15th birthday. One movie in nine months. Which also explains why Star Trek was so compelling. However, the 1966/67 television season was probably the most exciting in my whole life. Besides Star Trek, and old favorites, I watched several new shows: The Monkees, The Time Tunnel, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Smothers Brothers, Tarzan, The Rat Patrol, The Invaders, ABC Stage 67, That Girl, and The Dating Game. Most of my knowledge about the world came from fictional TV shows. Life without the internet gave us lots of time for TV. The following year, after I had moved back to Miami, I got a job in a grocery store after school, working from 4-10, and lost my TV habit.

Star Trek:TOS “The Man Trap”

“The Man Trap” is described in extensive detail at Wikipedia, so I won’t repeat what it does so well. While I thought the salt vampire of the first show was stupid, I was totally seduced by the U.S.S. Enterprise. I had not yet seen Forbidden Planet in 1966, that wouldn’t happen until my first science fiction convention in 1972, so I didn’t know about the precedent of a spaceship on a peaceful mission of galactic exploration. The diverse crew of the Enterprise was a revelation. I wanted to believe in such a future, one where humans would routinely travel between the stars. I had no idea how Star Trek would play out, or how each episode would be a story about something different. Nor did this first episode give us a sense of the crew, and who they would become.

The Man Trap 1

In terms of sense of wonder science fiction, the salt vampire had little to offer. Even in 1966 I didn’t believe aliens could shape shift, or create such illusions. That seemed like something out of mythology, and I didn’t like fantasy stories. Ever since reading After Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, I’ve always been thrilled by stories about discovering the remains of lost alien civilizations. I was sorry “The Man Trap” didn’t go into that.

Because this was the first show, I wouldn’t learn until later, that the series focused in on certain kinds of incidents to build around plots, and it never spent too much time explaining life aboard the Enterprise, or go into details about how things existed on the planets they were visiting. The idea that two humans were left on a planet for years to do alien archeology didn’t seem practical. Where did they get their food? They only wanted salt? Realistically, they’d ask for tons of food and supplies, and hundreds of pounds of salt, just to fit the existing plot. To be realistic, it should have been about a large team of scientists and their support. But Star Trek didn’t go into such realism.

I wouldn’t learn until much later the limitations of production budgets on plots. Star Trek had to paint in extremely limited impressionistic strokes. We never see many of the Enterprise’s 400+ crew. For this first story, having the captain and doctor go down to see an old friend seemed like a logical away crew. We wouldn’t learn until later that Kirk gets most of the air time, although having the captain always lead the missions planet-side is sort of like having a general take point when a squad goes penetrating enemy lines.

The Allegorical View

In 2016 “The Man Trap” was actually a more appealing show than what my younger self saw in 1966. The plot was still broken, and actually seemed to be two plots welded together. I could easily imagine an unhappy writer using the monster as a metaphor for his spouse, maybe written during the middle of a divorce, with salt standing in for money. The idea that a woman appearing different to everyone who sees her is quite interesting. At this phase of the story the salt vampire is not a shape shifter, but puts illusions in every mind that sees her. At one point three men are looking at the salt vampire and see three different women. That’s not shape shifting. It’s revealing the same ability as the Talosians, but fans of the show wouldn’t know that until “The Menagerie.”

The Man Trap 2

In the second part of the story, which takes place on the Enterprise, the monster appears to each person in the same disguise, and thus could be a shape shifter. This is more akin to The Thing. That presents a different kind of allegorical theme, of living with people who look normal but are something else. That was a popular theme during the era of fearing communist infiltration. From what Wikipedia says, this screenplay was written and rewritten several times. Roddenberry was notorious for doctoring stories. Thus, there’s no consistent allegory like we had in “The Cage.” I assume from too many cooks in the kitchen.

“The Man Trap” has always been one of my least favorite Star Trek episodes. It’s nowhere near as bad as some to come, but it hangs in my memory as a bad first impression. It’s a shame the story didn’t stick with the first allegory, of a woman who appears different to each man who sees her. Especially if they had jettison the salt vampire idea, and just had her as the last of a race of alien sirens. “The Man Trap” has gotten better with extra viewings, because I see elements the writers intended for adults, things that would have bored my younger self.

Star Trek provided one hour of science fiction escape each week, but it was 1966 music that continues to define that year for me. I still regularly listen to songs from 1966.

The Soundtrack for 1966

The popular music for 1966 is rather funky, but not in a Bootsy Collins way, but more like this food seems kind of funky. At least for some hits like “Winchester Cathedral,” “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” “Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron,” and many more. They were not the kind of songs you wanted stuck on continuous rotation.   I considered 1965 to be the pinnacle of pop music, even today. 1964 had been a tremendous year with The Beatles and the British invasion, but 1965 had been even more astounding with the arrival of folk rock and Bob Dylan’s transformation. For some reason, 1966 was a transition year to the psychedelic 1967.

If you look at the Cash Box Top 100 for 9/3/66 you’ll see what I mean, or look at the Cash Box Year-End Chart: 1966.

While I was in Charlestown I didn’t have access to a record store, but I may have joined the Columbia Record Club during that year. I just can’t remember. I had just started buying albums in 1966 when I lived in Miami, and the first album I bought was the soundtrack to Our Man Flint. The next album I remember getting is If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears by The Mamas and the Papas. There were many great 1966 albums that I eventually got, but I don’t think I got them before 9/8/66.

Our-Man-FlintThe_Mamas_&_The_Papas_-_If_You_Can_Believe_Your_Eyes_And_Ears

I lived musically by AM radio that year. My all-time favorite album comes from 1966, Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, but I didn’t own a copy until 1968. My bedroom was a small attic room with slanted ceilings. I played my radio from the time I got home from school, while I slept, and until I left for school the next day. These are some of the songs that are burned into my memory bank that come from 1966.

  • “I Am a Rock” – Simon & Garfunkel
  • “California Dreamin’” – The Mamas and the Papas
  • “Lightnin’ Strikes” – Lou Christie
  • “Time Won’t Let Me” – The Outsiders
  • “Lady Godiva” – Peter and Gordon
  • “Shapes of Things” – The Yardbirds
  • “Cherish” – The Association
  • “96 Tears” – ? & the Mysterians
  • “Monday, Monday” – The Mamas and the Papas”
  • “You Can’t Hurry Love” – The Supremes
  • “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – The Four Tops
  • “Summer in the City” – Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” – Jimmy Ruffin
  • “Paint It, Black” – The Rolling Stones
  • “When a Man Loves a Woman” – Percy Sledge
  • “Paperback Writer” – The Beatles
  • “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” – The Supremes
  • “Kicks” – Paul Revere & the Raiders
  • “Walk Away Renée” – The Left Banke
  • “Daydream” – The Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “Sounds of Silence” – Simon and Garfunkle
  • “Secret Agent Man” – Johnny Rivers
  • “Barbara Ann” – The Beach Boys
  • “You Baby” – The Turtles
  • “These Boots are Made for Walking” – Nancy Sinatra
  • “Strangers in the Night” – Frank Sinatra
  • “Last Train to Clarksville” – The Monkees
  • “Bus Stop” – The Hollies
  • “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” – Cher
  • “Nowhere Man” – The Beatles
  • “(You’re My) Soul & Inspiration” – The Righteous Brothers
  • “God Only Knows” – The Beach Boys
  • “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” – James Brown
  • “Homeward Bound” – Simon & Garfunke“
  • “River Deep Mount High” – Ike & Tina Turner
  • “Land of 1000 Dances” – Wilson Pickett
  • “Poor Side of Town” – Johnny Rivers
  • “As Tears Go By” – The Rolling Stones
  • “Eight Miles High” – The Byrds
  • “Devil With the Blue Dress” – Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels
  • “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?” – Lovin’ Spoonful
  • “Psychotic Reaction” – The Count Five
  • “Rain” – The Beatles

Cars of 1966

In Mississippi at the time, kids could get their license at 15. Because I was 14 until November, I daydreamed a lot about cars.  Not as much as I fantasized about girls, but almost as much. My parents were on the opposite end of the well-to-do spectrum, so the family car wasn’t much. Living in a small town is weird, because class distinctions are sharper. I envied my classmates whose parents could afford stylish cars. 1966 was the year of the swept back design, which was very futuristic. There was a cute blonde girl in my class whose dad owned a Oldsmobile Toronado. I sat behind this girl, who had the habit of twirling a lock of her long hair in one spot, which made small bald patch. She was still cute though, and I lusted after her, and her dad’s Toronado.

For some reason that year, I loved the way cars looked from going away.

1966-Toronado-front1966-Toronado
1966-Charger-rear1966-Charger
1966-Marlin
1966-Mustang

What Remembering 1966 Is Teaching Me

Time travel is probably absolutely impossible, but a fun concept in science fiction. In the first season of Star Trek, Kirk and crew return to 1969 via a dubious method in D. C. Fontana’s “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” The Enterprise made several visits to the past throughout the series and in a later movie. I wonder what it would really be like to return to 1966 and walk the streets of Charleston, Mississippi again, and maybe talk to my younger self. It’s a fun idea to entertain, but I truly don’t believe time travel is possible.

To me, my favorite songs, books, television shows and movies from 1966, as well as certain news events, and all my memories of what happened to me personally, define the year. I could go watch, read and listen to a completely different selection of books, songs, movies and television shows from 1966, and my concept of that year would be different. Or would it? Planet Earth had about three billion human residents back then, with each of them experiencing 1966 in a different way. Time is a funny thing. We perceive time as change, but if we can find things from 1966 that haven’t changed, say an old house that hasn’t changed much, or a place in the woods that looks the same, does it now feel like we’re returned to the past? Some physicists have claimed that time is an illusion and doesn’t exist, but that can’t possible be true. 2016 is not 1966.

1966-Charleston-House2016-Charleston-House

Top=1966, Bottom=2016. My house was the yellow one.

I got on Google Maps and did a Street View trip to where I used to live in 1966. That house is still there. I suppose if I could walk inside that house it would trigger many more memories. Ditto for walking the streets of Charleston, or the halls of my old school. It’s extremely science fictional that I can visit Charleston via Street View. Did anyone predict that? Our brains process our experiences unconsciously, and delete memories. Can you imagine being a robot that could perfectly record all it’s input from its digital senses. They could VR the past by playing those recordings, and the past should feel identical. I think many of us wish we could do that trick – but we can’t. Our brains retain only tiny bits of the past. We can supplement our ghostly memories with solid artifacts from back then, like books, albums, movies and television shows. But I’m not sure how much time we should spend in the long ago – why reject the now for the when?

My friend Annie and I are going through all the episodes of the original Star Trek series in order. It’s a fun trip down memory lane, but I’m not sure how rewarding such travels are for our souls. Remembering old hopes and dreams can be inspiring, and even regenerate new hopes. But were those hopes just another kind of opium dream? Science fiction has always been a coping tool for me, but it’s never been a cure. I’ll never travel to the Moon, Mars or worlds beyond in other solar systems. Ultimately, it might not be the dream of the final frontier that makes Star Trek worthy, but its allegories for living here and now, that is its true legacy.

I could keep writing for thousands of words. Writing this essay has proved that memories lie dormant, and can be found. The more I write, the more that well up. Before I started this experiment I didn’t think my dad had lived with us during our nine months in Charleston, but I unearthed a memory of him, of the two of us staying in a downtown hotel in Memphis. I assume he came to visit to talk my mother into returning to Miami, because we did in March of 1967. I also remember how little my father and mother told me and my sister about what was going on with them. I remember observing their fights, but not what was said. I wish I could remember if either of my parents, or my sister, had watched Star Trek with me, and what they had said.

I realize these memories I recall here were just for the Fall of 1966. Memories of Winter, Spring and Summer also came flooding back. I also remembered my time with science fiction was solitary, and I had a much larger social life then. I made two friends while I was in Charleston, Ben White and Mack Peters, plus my sister and I spent a lot of time with our cousins Gary and Liz, who were our age. And we also spent a lot of time with my aunts and uncles. My mother was one of five sisters, and her grandmother had been married to a guy who outlived several wives, making me related to about half of north Mississippi.

I hadn’t realized until now how isolated science fiction made me. Reading science fiction in 1966 was about as solitary as masturbation. Hell, my buddies and I probably spent more time joking about jacking off than talking about Star Trek. Science fiction just wasn’t on the map then. It’s strange how science fiction has become so damn popular these last fifty years. Why? Countless books have been written about the enduring success of Star Trek. Has any television show ever had such an impact? The only competition Star Trek has had for its kind of story has been Star Wars.

And I think we need to ask how science fiction appeals to us. Is it a literature that prepares us for the future because we all hope to travel to the stars? Or is science fiction like the stories the ancient Greeks told each other, the ones we now call Greek Mythology. Is science fiction just allegories for our times? Maybe literal interpretation of allegories is a product of our times, because we have the technology to make things real. Maybe the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews of the B.C.E., all knew their stories were only stories, and just used them as entertainment and metaphor. We marvel that Star Trek communicators became flip-phones, but wasn’t that an accident? The creators of Star Trek weren’t trying to predict the future, or even inspire it. They were out to make a buck, and the writers, actors, producers, and all the other people that worked on the show, merely wanted a steady paying gig.

The more I watch Star Trek in 2016, the more I see it was about 1966. But why in 1966, did we hope Star Trek would become our future? It hasn’t. I’m sure there are young people in 2016 that hope Star Trek unfolds in their lifetime, and when they look back from 2076, lament their future didn’t turn out as expected either.

The irony of all this, is 2016 is a science fiction world, at least compared to the world of 1966. And it’s getting more science fictional every day. Soon we’ll have driverless cars, practical personal robots, and probably intelligent machines. Astronomy and SETI may make breakthroughs in the next 50 years that was astound us. But what we don’t remember is how science fictional 1966 was to people who could remember 1916. That was the year my mother was born. My mother’s mother was born in 1881. She came to Memphis to work as a secretary before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. I remember in 1966 my grandmother telling me God wouldn’t let astronauts land on the Moon, that it was too unnatural. She was born before radio, cars, television and airplanes.

I didn’t become an astronaut, but in 1971 I started studying computers at a tech school. That turned out to be my science fictional destiny. Along the way, I learned that Earth is a much better planet to live on than Mars. 2016 is a far more exciting time to live in than 1966. I can’t imagine living without the internet or smartphones. And we know so much more now. I can remember the astronomy books I read in 1966, with muddled black and white photos that amazed us. I can buy an amateur telescope and CCD camera that surpasses the photographs Mt. Palomar was taking back then. Even my toy Raspberry Pi is more powerful than the best mainframes of 1966.

We should be asking why we even bother thinking about Star Trek in 2016. What does it offer us that we can’t get in real life.

Happy 50th Birthday, Star Trek!

classic-star-trek-montage

JWH

When Is Forgetting Natural or Dementia?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 25, 2016

This morning I sat down to write an essay, “What are the Most Important Concepts You’ve Learned Reading Science Fiction?” I was going to base it on Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. I knew I’ve mentioned Empire Star many times on my blog, so I searched on that title. That’s when I discovered I had already written, “What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?” And it was just over a year ago! How could I have forgotten that? Even the titles are almost identical (but not quite).

Pug26

I’ve written 1,039 essays for this blog, and I’ve written hundreds more for other reasons. Let’s call it 2,000 essays. At what point is forgetting what I’ve written something natural, and when is it a sign of impending dementia? Occasionally, I’ve rediscover essays I’ve written and have no memory of writing them. Sometimes reading them brings back vague memories, sometimes not. Who remembers every meal they’ve eaten? Some forgetting is natural. Who can remember 2,000 of anything? Has any writer forgotten a whole novel?

Sometimes I know I’ve written an essay and intentionally rewrite it hoping to do a better job. Not this time. I thought I had a new idea. And I don’t think I could do better if I tried again. In fact, I was planning something smaller.

I don’t think I have dementia, but I wonder about the dynamics of forgetting. One of the fascinating aspects of getting older is learning my limitations. Everyone has limitations, but they’re less obvious when we’re young.

I wonder what the second essay would have been like if I hadn’t discovered the first.

Have I written this essay before?

JWH

The Fiction at the Bottom of Our Souls

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 17, 2016

  • Can we trust who we think we are?
  • Can we assume our convictions are correct?
  • Why are we so passionately convinced our version of reality is the right one?
  • Is fiction truer than memory?
  • How does fiction consumed in childhood affect the way we perceive reality?

Of your earliest memories, which do you favor: remembered events or stories? I can dredge up some exceeding vague memories from when I was three, but lately I’ve been reading about scientists studying memory that makes me doubt what I recall. I know what I think of as actual events might not be recordings of reality, but memories of memories of memories. Every time we replay an old memory, science now thinks, we record over the original memory with the impressions of remembering that memory. (Watch “Memory Hackers” on PBS NOVA or The Brain with David Eagleman.)

Treasure Island

There is nothing in my memory bank as vivid as the photo above.

Mixed in with all my memories of reality are memories of fiction. I was born in 1951, but my earliest memories of television come from 1954-55. A few years later, are memories of seeing my first movie on TV, High Barbaree. I’m sure I saw others, but its the one I remember. My late 1950s memories are filled with black-and-white science fiction films and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan flicks.  Around 1959 I encountered Treasury Island, the first book I remember reading.

I have many memories of external reality growing up in the 1950s, but I also have more memories from television. Because I’ve seen those TV shows & old movies repeatedly over the years and decades, and often reread my favorite books, those fictional memories have gain vividness, while my real life memories fade. Is it any wonder that Turner Classic Movies has become so meaningful to the social security set?

I once returned to the house I lived in when I was four. I think of age four as the beginning of my personality.  When I stood on that sidewalk in front of that house, I felt like I was at the Big Bang beginning of my existence. From 1955 till today, I have two kinds of memory. What happened in my life and what happened in stories. In terms of deciding which programmed my soul more, I’m undecided.

Robert Silverberg has a wonderful essay, “Writing Under the Influence” in the March 2016 Asimov’s Science Fiction about how a favorite fantasy story he discovered in childhood influenced two novels he wrote as an adult (Son of Man, Lord of Darkness). The story, The Three Mulla-Mulgars, by Walter de la Mare, from 1919, is one I’ve never heard of before. Folks at GoodReads gush about how delightful this forgotten fairytale is to read. I snagged a free Kindle edition from Amazon and hope to read it soon.

I highly recommend reading Silverberg’s essay. I love people’s reading histories. Unfortunately the link to read the essay online will quit working when the next issue comes out. You can get Asimov’s at your newsstand, or from Amazon as a Kindle ebook.

dorothy-lathrop-three-royal-monkeys

Here’s one of the original Dorothy P. Lathrop illustrations from The Three Mulla-Mulgars, from a collection of them at 50 Watts.

Partly why Silverberg’s essay resonates so deeply with me is because he describes how an earlier true-life African explorer narrative, The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions figured in The Three Mulla-Mulgars. I’m fascinated by how stories inspire stories. Or how writers are inspired by authors from earlier generations. The memories of authors are encapsulated into their stories, and we share their memories by reading, and their memories as passed on through us. And if we write stories, using older memories from those we’ve read, those memories are rerecorded for another generation, much like brain memories, and just as distorted.

High BarbareeHigh Barbaree Movie

I’ve often fantasized about writing a story based on my memory of my first encounter with fiction. My earliest memory of seeing a movie is waking up in the middle of the night, and watching the all-night movies with my dad. This was before I went to school, and I didn’t comprehend movies, acting or fiction. All I can remember is a scene of two kids who were friends being separated, when the girl and her family moved away. Even at that young age, that had already happened to me more than once, because my father was in the Air Force. It was a strong fictional emotion bonding with my own remembered emotions.

This was when I was too young to remember the title of movies. Years later I saw the movie again, and that’s when I memorized its name, High Barbaree, with Van Johnson and June Allyson. I was in the sixth grade. I used to trust my memories from that age, but I don’t anymore. I caught High Barbaree again in my twenties, after I got married. This time it occurred to me that it might be based on a book. I wasn’t able to find the book until the internet age, and AbeBooks.com. It was then I discovered the book was written the same guys who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and they also have a fascinating history. I was also able to track down a biography of those two writers at that time too, In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr.

Between the original novel, and the biography, I learned High Barbaree was about memory, and a fictionalized autobiography of sorts for James Norman Hall. Hall was writing about how our souls are formed by early memory and fiction. He was remembering the writers who influenced him. His memories became my memories, and if I could ever write a novel, their memories would get passed down, along with some of mine. I guess I am a believer in the collective unconscious.

It’s now possible to buy High Barbaree on DVD, but I’m not sure I can recommend it. It’s slight, sometimes silly, and very sentimental. The book is more serious, and fits the memories I have of seeing the story as a child. Or at least, that’s how I remember it now. I know my original impressions, however vaguely they were recorded by my brain, have been lost to rewriting by all the times I’ve recalled that memory. Each time I’ve watched that film again, dwelled on those memories, reread the book, or written about all of this, I’ve recolored those deep original memories with newer philosophical musings.

I used to believe we could discover the truth of history. I used to think memories were real and trustworthy. Now I doubt the reliability of neural recordings, and any collective knowledge we have about actual history. We constantly rewrite our own memories, and we constantly rewrite history. For example, the new book by Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, has more than convinced me that it’s absolutely impossible to know anything about Jesus as a real person in history. Ehrman’s analysis of history and memory applies to recent historical figures as well, where we have solid documentation, like for Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein. All these revisiting and new recordings have written over any real history that happened.

rashomon

The best nonfiction is still fiction. I’ve taken classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, and I know from experience I can’t write the absolute truth.  Memories are just stories we tell ourselves about fleeting impressions of the past poorly etched in our brains. Our minds are not DVRs. And even if they were, how often have you seen a video in the news where people argue over what actually happened? Realty was never our version of events—it’s always the Rashomon effect.  Even if we average out all the eyewitnesses, we can never definitively say what happened.

All during 2016, we hear folks wanting to be president tell stories they swear are true. And we’ll vote for the candidate whose stories match our own stories the best. All of those stories were shaped by the fiction everyone encountered growing up. Remember how Ronald Reagan used to blend movie scenes into his recollections? I used to think he was a doddering old man, but now I wonder if he wasn’t wiser than he appeared. We’re all going to look like silly old fools someday, dwelling on fleeting memories of our past, poorly remembered. But that doesn’t mean the stories we tell ourselves and others don’t have a kind of elegant logic. It won’t be the truth, but if we could only get our stories to work together, it might be true enough.

My reality is colored by stories I encountered in my early years, like High Barbaree. Just like Robert Silverberg’s reality was colored by The Three Mulla-Mulgars, which he discovered when he was young. We might think the fiction at the bottom of our souls are merely stories, but I’m not so sure anymore. Those early tales had a butterfly effect on shaping who we became. We can’t understand reality in black and white certainty. But we do make sense of our external existence by storytelling, and so we need to understand the truth of that.

JWH

Cross Generational Music Appreciation

By James Wallace Harris, March 14, 2016

In his new book, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, John Seabrook begins by telling how his young son took over the car radio during their morning ride to school. Seabrook loves music and wanted his son to love his music, but the kid was adamant that he wanted his own music. I remember doing this to my dad back in the late 1950s. I’m sure all of us have been on both sides of that divide of music generations. Seabrook decided to get into his son’s music, and ended up writing a fascinating book.

How much cross generation listening goes on? Don’t most people bond with the music from their teenage and college years and then essentially stop listening to new stuff when the next generation annoys them with their music? In recent years though, I’ve noticed that some kids have embraced a few bands, songs and albums from my generation, the 1960s. I belong to their grandparents’ times. Are these kids rebelling against their parents’ by listening to the music their parents rejected?

My generation (who knew the Who could be so prophetic) has become terribly nostalgic for music history, seemingly to never tire of documentaries like, The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Searching For Sugar Man, Atlantic Records, and Respect Yourself: The Stax Years. Just last week I watched documentaries on Fats Domino and Carole King. I’d watch more if I could find them. It’s funny, but this music is the one bridge I have with my Fox News watching conservative friends. We hate each other for our politics but commune over music.

But if I tell my peers I have Katy Perry or Nicki Minaj on my playlists they laugh at me. But if I tell them I’ve been listening to Ronnie Spector or Dionne Warwick it sparks a memory fest. And if tell them I’m been playing Peggy Lee or Lena Horne, a few of them will perk up. Among my music loving buddies who do cross generations, they generally travel backwards. I guess the young people I meet with Jimi Hendrix T-shirts are traveling backwards in time too. I don’t know why older folks look down on the music of younger generations. I have a number of friends who stopped listening to new music around 1975, and no matter what I play for them, I can’t seem to get them to move forward in time.

That’s a shame because musical creativity didn’t stop in the 1970s. Seabrook writes specifically about pop music (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Rihanna, KPOP, American Idol, Denniz Pop, Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Ester Dean) and how they make hits with computers and teams of creative personnel that collaborate with the performing artist. There are no singer-songwriters here. No bands that play all their instruments. Producers are the emperors of the studio, hiring up to a dozen people to write a song. But wouldn’t that be true back in the Motown era if everyone who added anything to a song got credit? The Song Machine was absolutely fascinating to me, even though I’m not from that generation. It annoys me that my friends won’t give new music a chance, and probably refuse to read this book.

the-song-machine-john-seabrook

All this cogitation about cross generation listening has made wonder about many things. How do kids today choose what they listen to from past generations? And why? Are they mesmerized by tunes in movies and end up chasing them down? Have they found LPs at Granny’s or Goodwill, which inspired them to dig up an old record player, curious about the tunes on those strange black discs? This morning I was wondering why young people remember The Beatles, but not The Byrds. Is there any reason for one generation to remember the pop culture from another generation? Has classic rock become the elevator music of today, and Beatles songs became ear worms boring into young brains? Do they teach The Beatles in school? Maybe kids clicked past nostalgia shows on PBS and got hooked. I don’t know what percentage of today’s generation discover old music, but is there any reason to expect them know about my music, or even like it? And why don’t I ever hear them express their love for The Byrds—my favorite band from the 1960s?

Mr Tamborine Man - The ByrdsTurn Turn Turn - The Byrds

At the moment I’m listening to a collection of 1950s songs on Spotify because I caught an episode of American Masters on PBS about Fats Domino. One thing I didn’t know, Fats was as popular as Elvis for a short while during the 1950s, but people now remember the 1950s belonging to Elvis. That makes me think there are some people like me, who remember their decade of music differently. I hardly play The Beatles anymore, but I play music from the 1960s constantly. Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Motown, San Francisco rock and pre-1965 Brill Building pop dominate my memories. If I made list of my favorite songs, I bet there would be a couple hundred songs from the 1960s at the top of my list before I even listed my first Beatles tune.

And I loved The Beatles, but I loved other artists from the 1960s more. Should I encourage young people to discover their music? Should schools teach 1960s music like they teach classical music in music appreciation courses? As I got older I sought out popular music that came out before the 1960s, going back into the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s and even the 1920s. I crossed genres into jazz, country, big band, folk, pop, world, opera and classical. I suppose some of the kids who are discovering The Beatles are doing that today.

Fifth Dimension - The ByrdsYounger Than Yesterday - The Byrds

When does pop culture become history? When does memory become nostalgia? They used to play Fats Domino songs like I’m listening to as I write on the weekends in 1962, on WQAM and WFUN, and called them “Oldie Goldies” even though they were less than ten years old. Now they’re over sixty. People from my generation go to concerts today performed by acts they grew up with, even though those artists are even a generation older than us. I’m not keen on seeing dinosaur rock. I love remembering those performers when they were young, vibrant and in their times. On Facebook I have friends who post photos from parties where they act like they are still in high school. That’s cool. But should they listen to some new music too? It’s really hard to give up the pop culture that imprinted on us as teens.

I’m not sure there are reasons to require listeners to cross generational divides. When I watch “People Are Awesome” videos on YouTube I realize the current generation have plenty to keep them busy, more than I ever had. Now is always more important than the past—or the future. On the other hand, I’ve switched from Fats to “Jealous” by Ester Dean, playing it over and over. It’s definitely not from the 1950s! I’m too old to live in the times in which this song belongs, but Dean’s voice and melody touches my heart in a way that I wish I could.

Nortorious Byrd Brothers - The Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo - The Byrds

Do the young today long to visit my era in the same way I wish I could be young now? The Beatles were tremendously exciting, but were they more exciting than the groups now? Why are the sounds of The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Jefferson Airplane still siren calls that hold me back in time? If I stopped listening to the songs that tie me to the past, could I modernize my brain by only playing new songs on Spotify?

I often think about my future when my body will be fading out of existence and my mind barely floats in reality. I’ve often thought listening to music on headphones while I die would be a great way to go. Will I be listening to seventy year old songs? More and more, the songs on my main Spotify list are newer ones. I play my tunes on random play. Will I leave reality hearing 1965, or 2037? Wouldn’t it be weird if I lived long enough to live The Sixties again?

JWH

Why Do We Fall In Love With The Past?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 28, 2016

We explore the past through infinite paths. The past no longer exists, yet we recreate “what was” with artifacts that continue to exist in the now. We use our neurons as virtual reality machines to remember. Most of us have a rough map of our own life, and hazier maps of our own culture. Beyond those maps lie the unknown territory of the collective past, which we are all deeply rooted. We have all shook hands with someone who shook hands with a 19th century person, who had shaken hands with someone from the 18th century. I am old enough to have shaken hands with many people born in the 19th century. Every history book we read weaves thousands of threads that link us to a past.

Have you ever contemplated how we build the past in our minds? As individuals we use memories. We talk to other people and use their memories. Novels, movies, songs, television shows, paintings – are fundamental ways of recalling the past. Art is recorded memories. Think of cave paintings, probably among our oldest memories. Slowly, education and scholarship evolved to organize the details of the past. Whether you’re studying math or The New Testament, you’re recreating the past. The discipline of history isn’t that old in the big scheme of things. In recent times we have journalism and the internet to extend our sense of the past.

Whenever we play an old piece of music or see a work if art in a museum, it connects us to people, places and things who lived and died long ago. For example, I’m currently reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead by Emmanuel Carrère (19281982, San Francisco, Berkeley, Point Reyes, Santa Ana) a biography of Philip K. Dick. Or I recently saw The Revenant (1823, Montana, South Dakota) about Hugh Glass. I could link to dozen more movies and books I’ve recently seen that connect me to the past. Just follow those few links to understand how we network with the past, and how far and quickly that web of memory will carry you away. Trying to grasp the fullness of past is like falling into a black hole.

1920s - Dad's father on right - with parents and brothers - cropped

Here’s a photo of my father’s father, his brothers and their parents (my great grand parents). I know next to nothing about these people, and can only remember a couple of anecdotes. What would it take to learn about them?

The answer comes in a book I just finished, The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, who took a couple years out of his life to learn about his ancestors on his father’s side. This wondrous book will delight lovers of history, art and culture. There’s enough material here for six fascinating historical movies, and seeds for many more. The challenge here is for me to describe it in a way that will make you want to read it. It’s not a book for everyone, but it is a book for everyone that loves the past.

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

When I was young, I’d often hear or read that America had no old culture, not like the Europeans. It’s taken me a lifetime to understand what they meant. Except for a few mementos, like your granny’s quilt, or collecting antiques, we seldom dwell on our own heritage. We’re always thinking about the next new gadget to buy (as we throw away the old ones), or the next new show to binge-watch. Some Americans are into genealogy, but not that many. We generally embrace the pop culture of our teenage years, which we cherish our whole life, but few people branch from from there.

Edmund de Waal has written a book that succeeds in capturing a panoramic snapshot of his cultural heritage that spans three centuries. The Hare with the Amber Eyes starts off as a quiet unassuming memoir that slowly builds into an atomic explosion of multicultural history of art collecting. The story is anchored by a collection of 264 Japanese netsukes that came into his family in 19th century, and de Waal inherited in 21st. The book is set in Paris, Vienna, Odessa, Tokyo and London.

I have read this book for three book clubs now. It’s a challenge to explain its appeal. If you love art history, especially French Impressionism, or how Japanese art came to 19th century Europe and 20th century America, this book will appeal to you. If you like to read about Jewish history, especially about Jews living in Odessa, Vienna and Paris in the 19th and 20th century before WWII, this book will grab your attention. If you are fascinated by the American occupation of Japan after the war, the book has insights for you too. If you’re fascinated by Nazi art theft like The Monuments Men (the book, not the movie) and The Woman in Gold (the movie), then this book has stories for you. If you’ve ever tried to write your own families history and wondered what kind of effort it takes, then this book is for you. If you love the PBS shows Antiques Roadshow and Finding Your Roots, then this book is for you.

Most of all, if you’ve ever seen old photographs of your great grandparents and your great great grandparents and wonder what their daily lives were like, this book is for you.

I would be hard press to make a list of all the subjects de Waal touches upon in his small book. The frame of his story is to take his 21st readers back to the 19th century Paris to explain how his family first acquired the netsuke. His story begins in France as Impressionism is coming into vogue, which is concurrent with Europeans becoming obsessed with Japanese culture and art. The story then travels to turn of the century Vienna, past WWI, through the years between the wars, WWII in Europe, to the Japanese occupation by Americans, and then into the home stretch of this century. Along the way, The Hare With Amber Eyes encounters many famous people and events in 20th century history. If de Waal played six-degrees of separation, he’s only a few degrees from some very historical folk. Yet, de Waal current life is very unassuming. He’s an artist, a maker of porcelain. When heading into the past, you never know what you’ll find. Besides, we have four grandparents, eight great grandparents and sixteen great great grandparents. It gets pretty easy to make some marvelous connections.

My goal is to try and explain why I liked the particular details in The Hare With Amber Eyes, and that’s rather difficult. I’m not that into Japanese netsuke, although they are impressive little sculptures. There’s no reason for me to identify with de Waal’s genealogy, my family was nothing like his. What enchanted my reading is their love of art and culture. The book’s connections to 19th century Paris and early 20th century Vienna provides vivid details of what it’s like to be great patrons of art. The book gives me another side of the history of Impressionism – the buyers side. Charles Ephrussi, who originally bought the netsuke, was even painted into Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Charles is the guy in the top hat. What a way to be remembered!

But why should I care about Charles? Reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes makes me wonder why I care about anyone in the past. But I do. We all do. Most of us are obsessed with the past. I keep looking at that painting above and wonder what it was like to have been at that party. In the book, the netsuke are touchstones to the past. De Waal owns them now, and the netsuke put him one degree from Charles and many of his relatives between the 1870s and now. They tie a family history together. De Waal focuses on three of his ancestors, and the cities that shaped their souls, Paris, Vienna and Tokyo.

I can’t think of anything I own that ties me to the past like that, other than photographs. I wonder how many hands have held that photograph of my great grand parents? My mother’s mother, Lou Dare Little, was born in 1881. She held my mother’s side of the family together for decades. She bore five daughters, which held the family together for several more decades. But now that only my Aunt Louise is still alive, the family seems to be coming undone. What de Waal shows with The Hare with Amber Eyes, is how history and art can sew a family back together. However, it took two years out of his regular life to accomplish that effort. My cousin Jane wrote a book many years ago that tied the descendants of Lou Dare Little together – at least for a while. How many of my cousins and their descendants will keep reading Jane’s book in the future? Will anyone from newer generations write another book? We don’t have anything like the netsuke to travel into the future, to get later generations to remember us. Or do we?

I’m not sure I’m accomplishing my goal here. All I can really say is read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and let it convey what I want to say. It is a cornucopia of memory triggers. But also, every time you turn on your TV, or go to a movie, think about what you’re seeing is saying about the past. Whenever you read a book, have a family reunion, or go to an antiques dealer, think about how the past won’t let us go, or we won’t let it go.

JWH