Reconstructing 1973

by James Wallace Harris, 1/5/22

[The photo above was probably taken in 1972-1973. It should do to show what I looked like in 1973. Jim Connell is on the left. I’m on the right. Connell was 6’4″ so I look tall and skinny. I’m much lower to the ground and wider today.]

How many memories can our brains hold? Is there a limit, like a hard drive? I know from experience there are limitations on accessing memories, so I assume there are storage limits. However, countless random forgotten experiences burble to the surface of my mind daily. And at night I have an apparently limitless supply of visual settings and characters to film my dreams.

I’ve always been obsessed with wanting perfect recall. Aren’t the things we obsessed over what we want and can’t have? 2023 is the 50th anniversary of 1973. I shall use that year for testing my memory in this essay.

This is not another nostalgic look back in time. In fact, I feel the golden glow of nostalgia is finally starting to wear off. 1973 is one of the least remembered years in my mind. At this moment I can’t recall anything specific I did in 1973. I know I was doing stuff, and some of my vaguer memories might have taken place that year, but for now, I just don’t remember what I was doing. I’m not even sure where I was living at the time.

Think of this essay as a cold case. I’m going to go through old drawers and paperwork looking for clues and use the internet to find out what was happening in the world at large to see if that triggers any memories of 1973.

Unfortunately, around 1975-77 I went into a Buddhist phase and gave away or threw away a lot of my possessions. I intentionally tossed most of my personal mementos because I didn’t want to be attached to them or be hung up on the past. I regret that now because I destroyed all my letters, photos, slides, 8mm films, and copies of my APAzines. When my mother died in 2007 I inherited all her photos and mementos. She kept a lot of my report cards. And over the years people have given me photos and old letters. Plus I have my college transcripts — if I can find them. Physical clues are theoretically slim, but I shall look for them.

I shall use full names in case some of my lost friends are Googling their own names. Who knows, maybe it might cause a reconnection.

Sadly, many of my close friends from the 1970s have died. My old roommate Greg Bridges has moved away and I’ve lost contact with him. 1973 was well before I met my wife in 1977. I’m still in contact with my old high school buddy Connell, and my sister Becky is still alive. Becky married in 1971 and moved to Dallas, so she won’t remember much of my 1973. Most of my relatives have also died, at least the ones I saw the most in 1973.

I did not remember a visit to Dallas in 1973 with Carol Suter and Jim Connell until after writing the first draft of this essay. The act of writing has caused memories to float to the surface. Sometimes it took hours, sometimes days to recall. I shall note these delayed experiences in italics.

I’ve written an essay like this before, in 2019, for the 50th anniversary of when I graduated high school. This time I want to go deeper into reconstructing the past. One of the best books I’ve read about being a historian is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman.

Ehrman covers all the sources of evidence a historian uses to reconstruct the past and discusses the effectiveness of each. Ehrman shows how memory is unreliable. He also shows how unreliable eyewitnesses are too. Even if I had lots of memories of 1973 I couldn’t trust them. Not everything I write here will be truly reliable. One of the most damning pieces of evidence Ehrman reviewed in his book was about a professor who had his students write down where they were and what they saw and felt the day after 9/11. Then a decade later he tracked down many of those students and asked them to write down what they remembered about 9/11. Several wrote something entirely different. But here’s the kicker. Some of those students who were shown their original essay written the day afterward claimed they didn’t believe what they had written. They believed their memory!

The first piece of evidence I found is a transcript from Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis).

I was a terrible college student. I dropped out many times. I hardly ever did homework, and it’s amazing I got grades as good as these. During 1971-1972 I attended State Technical Institute Memphis. There I majored in a two-year computer science degree. I loved computers, but the focus was on COBOL and getting a job in a bank. I decided I didn’t want that and transferred to Memphis State in 1973. This only came back to me as I studied the transcript.

Many of these courses are general requirements but the ones that weren’t, remind me of when I was searching for a major. I remember now I was considering history, sociology, English, and anthropology. Although, at some point, maybe even when I quit State Tech, I was considering getting a library degree. I needed a B.S. degree before moving to Knoxville to get an M.L.S. degree (Master of Library Science). I just can’t remember.

I remember liking Byzantine history but not the course. It required too much real work. I don’t know why I made an F in “U.S. Southern History Since 1865” since I made an A in “U. S. History Since 1865.” I have absolutely no memory of taking that course. I took “Southern Literature” in the Spring of 1974 and got an A. I also took two Library Science courses that spring, which backs up my memory theory that I was thinking about becoming a librarian.

One course I distinctly remember is “ENGL 3501 English Grammar” because it was about grammar theory and was really hard. And I have trouble with ordinary grammar. What improved my grade was writing a paper on computer translation of languages. I was really into that subject and I impressed the professor.

I lived at 140 Eastview Drive in Memphis during that year because that’s where I remember writing the paper on computer translation. I was sharing a duplex apartment with Greg Bridges who was my science fiction buddy. We went to conventions and produced a fanzine on Gestetner mimeograph which the two of us co-owned with Dennis McHaney. Another buddy John Williamson lived next door in the duplex across the driveway. We got our friend Claude Saxon to move onto this street too, just a couple doors down. We pictured ourselves creating a hippie-like commune by getting all our friends to move to Eastview. It was a rundown neighborhood in 1973, and it’s worse now in 2022. Here’s what it looks like today from Google Maps.

One of the reasons why my grades were falling off was having so much fun at the time. I was into fandom and a member of two APAs – Spectator Amateur Press (SAPS) and Southern Fandom Press Alliance (SFPA). I was also going to lots of rock concerts and smoking a lot of weed with many friends. Two that I remembered a day later were Tom and Sara. I ended up dating Sara’s sister Alice in 1975.

It was while Greg and I lived in this Eastview duplex that he worked on the Programs committee at Memphis State and he got Fred Pohl, John Brunner, and James Gunn to come and do a two-day seminar. The three writers took Greg and me to lunch and we got to listen to them talk about the old days for a couple hours before Pohl and Gunn had to go to the airport. Then we spent the afternoon taking John Brunner around Memphis. He wanted to see the Lorraine Hotel because he was the president of the Martin Luther King society in London. This was before it was renovated. Then Brunner took Greg and me out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant on Union Avenue before we took him to the airport.

I was able to document this from a fanzine article Greg Bridges wrote for Memphen 279 in 2002. The internet has become my real auxiliary memory. Pohl, Brunner, and Gunn were in Memphis on November 22 and 23 1972. That’s before 1973, and earlier than I thought. I assumed 1973 or 1974. But, can I trust Greg’s memory. I hope he had some kind of physical evidence.

I’ve always told people I never lived anyplace longer than 18 months during the 1970s. His date puts me in Eastview in 1972 and I’m pretty sure I moved out in the summer of 1975. I remember 1975 because that’s the year Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen came out. If Greg’s dates are correct I lived on Eastview for almost three years, maybe longer. That completely contradicts what I believed for years.

To me, the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades seemed like the longest years in my memory. I went to three different high schools in two states while living in four different houses. There’s got to be more to 1973. I was twenty-one for eleven months of 1973, that should have been a special time. I suppose going to college filled up the time in a way that made it seem quick and not memorable.

I found a timeline I made years ago. It gives me a few clues. Jim Connell came to visit me and he, Carol Suter, and I drove in Carol’s yellow Gremlin to Dallis to see my sister Becky and her husband Skip Suter, Carol’s brother. That was when I first met Becky’s future second husband Larry Gamer. I was very impressed with him since he was a computer programmer.

Another thing I remember is making a trip to Cape Kennedy with Carol. Her mother asked Carol and me to drive her nephew and niece back home to Titusville. They had been staying with Carol’s mother. Their father, Carol’s uncle, worked at NASA and he took Carol and me to his job site at a communication facility on base. While we were there they taped conversations with Skylab 3, which operated from July 7, 1973, to September 25, 1973. This was when we were out of school and could have made the trip. After we dropped off the kids, Carol and I drove to Gainesville to see my old friend Jim Connell. I remember sleeping on the floor in a communal house. But I’m not sure of this memory. It might have been another trip with Carol. But Gainesville would have been close to Titusville. I do remember we went by Six Flaggs in Atlanta. That’s when I saw Helen Reddy in concert.

I made that timeline decades ago to help me remember all the places I lived. It confirmed the trip to Gainesville. It said the Helen Reddy concert was on 8/31/73. It also said Carol and I went to see Edgar Winter and Dr. John the next day, 9/1/73.

So far I’ve been able to prove I took 12 college courses and visited Dallas, Atlanta, Gainesville, and Cape Kennedy in 1973. That’s something but not much.

I have found one letter from 7/29/73 that I wrote Connell which he returned in 1980. I wrote Connell hundreds of pages of letters, which he kept in a box, but his mother threw out sometime in the 1970s. I’d give anything to have that box now. Here’s the letter:

There’s something woo-woo in that letter. In the third-to-the-last paragraph on page one, I asked Connell to imagine a future where he has a daughter born deaf. Connell’s stepdaughter went deaf several years ago after having to take some major antibiotics.

This letter is also weird because it sounds like me now. But then I was trying to imagine the future and now I’m trying to reconstruct the past.

I had Connell read the letter to see what he remembered. He didn’t remember the letter but he thought we thought many more thoughts per second back then than we do now because the letter impressed him with my stream of ideas.

I don’t remember taking any photographs from 1973. I don’t think I owned a camera. That really limits my recall.

A day later I remembered that not only did I own a camera, but so did Greg Bridges and John Williamson. That we had built a darkroom, in the living-room closet at the house on Eastview and considered ourselves amateur photographers. I still don’t think we took pictures of ourselves. We were all into nature photography and macro photography. I did take several rolls of film using Carol as my model. Plus we made super8mm movies. Williamson was into various creative hobbies and even made silkscreen images. He made a silkscreen cover for my SAPS apazine After the Goldrush. I through all that out in my later Buddhist phase.

I’m now out of physical evidence to prove my existence in 1973. Wikipedia’s timeline of major events of 1973 triggers little for me. Neither the 1972-73 nor 1973-74 TV schedule triggers any memories. I’m not sure we watched TV at the Eastview house or even owned a TV.

In my letter above I review a movie. I can’t remember where I watched it. I sometimes rode my bike over to my mother’s house to watch TV there. Today I had a vague memory of a black and white TV in an old wooden cabinet sitting in a tiny living room that had one ugly couch. This memory was in black and white. All my memories of that Eastview living room are in black and white. I think it must have been dark and dingy.

In this post about 50 albums from 1973, I remember many of them, but most of them I bought later. The only ones I think I bought in 1973 were Brothers and Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band, ‘Pronounced ‘Leh-‘nerd ‘Skin-‘nerd’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Over-Nite Sensation by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, and Piano Man by Billy Joel.

I was able to verify going to a few concerts by recalling them and verifying the dates on the internet. Carol Suter and I went to see Elton John on October 11, 1973, at the Mid-South Coliseum for the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road tour. We also saw him one other time, but I can’t remember if it was in 1972 or 1974. Carol hurt my feelings because she said she would go with me to see Billy Joel during the Piano Man when he was at Lafeyette’s for several days but then went with someone else. I now wished I had seen Billy Joel before he was famous.

I also saw Frank Zappa twice during the 1970s. He was in Memphis in March of 1973, but I can’t verify I was at that concert, but I think it was around the time of Over-Night Sensation. I and my friends went to a lot of concerts during these years. It seemed like every week some big act would perform, often two or three at a time. And the tickets were less than ten dollars back then.

If I would go to the library and look at the microfilm of the Commerical Appeal for 1973 I could verify all those concerts probably. I might even dredge up some other 1973 events I remembered or attended.

Here are the most remembered science fiction books from 1973. I don’t remember reading any of them during that year. Greg and I were both science fiction collectors. I’m pretty sure I subscribed to F&SF that year because I had collected over 200 back issues. But I probably also subscribed to Galaxy, Analog, Amazing, and Fantastic. I also remember building several large bookcases for my collection. They were the same size as a sheet of 1/4″ plywood. I used 1 x 8-inch planks for the shelves and plywood for the backing. They were huge. Greg used giant metal shelves in his room. We even had bookcases in the hall and living room.

Greg and I also published fanzines, traded fanzines, and subscribed to fanzines. Our favorite was Richard Geis’s Science Fiction Review. A few years ago I bought most of them again on eBay and scanned them for the Internet Archive. Probably if I reread the 1973 issues it would trigger many memories.

A memory that came to me on the second day of writing this essay was about my Raleigh 3-speed bicycle. I didn’t have a car that year. When I needed a car I’d ride my bike over to my mom’s house and borrow her car. I rode that bike all over Memphis. Once, and I don’t remember when I visited Connell in Miami and he told me to bring my bike on the airline. I did. And we rode it all over Coconut Grove, where I used to live. I loved that bike. I have no idea what happened to it. That saddens me.

Well, this research is running too long for a blog post, but I think you get the idea. We can remember a lot. Especially if we have triggers. I often have vivid memories of the past pop into my head unbidden. It makes me wonder if everything is recorded and if the bottleneck is the mechanism of recall.

I’m sure if I kept at this experiment I could write a whole book about memory and what I could eventually remember from 1973. I doubt many would want to read it. I’m not even sure anyone will want to read all that I’ve written here. Most people don’t seem very interested in remembering the past. I even know people who say they intentionally try to forget the past and throw away anything that makes them recall it. That horrifies me. I hate that I went through that Buddhist phase.

How much can you remember from 1973?

JWH

Is It Worth the Effort to Create a Database to Store Memories I’ll Forget?

by James Wallace Harris, 11/16/22

This weekend, while my sister was here visiting from Florida, we watched The Automat. It’s a lovely nostalgic documentary about the Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants that were in Philadelphia and New York City from 1902 to 1991. What made the story so charming is it combined history with sociology, pop culture, and interviews with famous people who related fond memories of visiting the Automats. The Automat portrayed a unique subculture.

I told my sister this documentary reminded me of another I liked very much but I couldn’t remember its name or even its subject. That was rather frustrating. After she went to the airport yesterday, I began struggling to remember that documentary. I got on Google and tried search terms such as “nostalgic documentaries” and “quirky documentaries.” I went through many lists, discovering documentaries I had seen, liked, and forgotten, but didn’t find the one I wanted. I had a vague sense it involved a household fixture. During the hours of trying to dredge up what the documentary was about, I recalled it dealt with music, but not normal music, maybe it was about jingles in ads. Then the word “Broadway” popped into my mind.

I put the word Broadway in IMDB and came up with Bathtubs Over Broadway. It was on Netflix and I went and watched some of it again. It’s about a writer, Steve Young, who wrote for The Late Show with David Letterman. Part of his job was finding oddball records for Letterman to make fun of on the show. Young discovered that during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s corporations would spend huge sums of money putting on musicals at their conventions, and they made commemorative soundtrack albums to give to their salesmen. Sometimes these corporations spent more on producing these shows than some famous musicals on Broadway. Again, this documentary combined history, sociology, pop culture, and interviews to document a unique subculture.

Now, this essay isn’t about those shows, but about remembering those shows, or remembering anything. I often struggle to recall a name of a person, book, movie, album, TV show, event, etc. I’ve done this all my life, but it seems to be getting worse now that I’m older. And, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention, I’ve been wondering if there is a technique or system I could develop to help me remember.

My first thought was to keep lists. My second thought was to make flashcards. My third thought was it had to work with my phone. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has a feature that allows registered users to keep lists, so I started one for documentaries I’ve watched. Weeks ago, I also started a list in Notes on my iPhone for movies and TV shows I’ve seen, but I might move it to IMDB.

One reason I feel the pressure to remember books, TV shows, movies, and documentaries is that whenever I talk with my friends, one of the main topics is what we’ve been reading or watching. And during my weekly get-togethers or phone calls, I often forget what I’ve seen or read during the past week.

However, is all this list-making worth the effort? I’ve tried it before and failed. It takes a bit of time, a little effort, and discipline. I have faithfully maintained a books-read list since 1983 and that has paid off in many ways. I’ve often wished I had started that list with Treasure Island, a book my mother read to me in 3rd grade in 1959. So a log of all the TV shows and movies I’ve watched would have been just as handy.

But how practical is it to keep lists of everything we want to remember? What about a list of everyone I’ve ever known? Or a list of everywhere I’ve ever lived, including vacation spots? They wouldn’t be impractical long lists.

Most of my memory struggles could be solved with five to ten good lists.

Have I just come up with a new idea for a social media service or an extra feature for Facebook? When do kids get their first smartphone or tablet? How young can you start entering data into your memory database?

It’s amazing that we have memories at all. I have no idea how molecules in the brain record what we experience. It’s amazing but unreliable. What if we had a reliable external memory? How would that change us and society?

What if we had photos and video clips of everyone we’ve ever met? Or at least got to know? You know those videos of people whose fathers took one picture a day or year for decades to make a speeded-up version of their growth? What if we all did that with our family and friends over our lifetime?

What would this take to make this happen? We have some of the technology right now. It would just take discipline and maybe ten or fifteen minutes a day. I started with my reading log in 1983. Several years ago I began using Goodreads. Now I’m using IMDB. None of these methods is perfect. What’s needed is software designed specifically to be external memory, with features that helped with recording and retrieval.

All of this makes me wonder just how much we want to remember? It might not be that much. Theoretically, we could record everything we see and hear to video, but I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want that much. It would be nice to just have a few minutes of video of our peak experiences. Isn’t what we really want a finite number of concrete facts? A handful of lists, a diary, and a collection of photos and videos might do the trick.

So, how much of our life could be remembered in one terabyte?

JWH

What If Mrs. Saunders Had Read Us To Kill a Mockingbird Instead of A Wrinkle in Time?

by James Wallace Harris, 10/10/22

In 1962, when I was in the 6th grade, my teacher Mrs. Saunders would read to the class after lunch. The book I remember from that year is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I found it so exciting that I went to the school library and checked out a copy so I could read it faster than 30 minutes a day. At the time, I didn’t know the novel was science fiction, or that the story belong in a category of fiction. But looking back, I see Mrs. Saunders had put me on the road to becoming a science fiction fan.

Yesterday, I wondered if Mrs. Saunders’s influence on my life would have been different if she had read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee instead? Would I have become a different kind of bookworm? Instead of being fascinated with space and time travel, would I have become interested in social justice and equality? I did come to care about those issues later on in the 1960s as the decade progressed, but could I have been made aware of them sooner by reading the right book?

Even though I mostly read science fiction, I do read some serious literature. I was an English major in college. I know when they come out, The Best American Short Stories 2022 will have far deeper, more mature, better-written stories than The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 3: The Saga Anthology of Science Fiction 2022. Yet, the odds are I’ll probably buy and read the science fiction anthology.

In eighth grade, my English teacher required us to read three books each six-week grading period and raised our earned grade by one letter if we read five. She had an approved reading list. That’s how I discovered Heinlein. She gave me the chance to read science fiction and non-fiction, and I took it. What if I had read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank instead? Would I have matured sooner? Would I have been more conscious of the real world?

What if in 1965 I read The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński instead of Stranger in a Strange Land? Would I have become a different person? Or, did I read what I read because I was an immature kid that could only handle the immaturity of science fiction? I tend to think it’s the latter because I know serious literature is far superior to science fiction now and I still seldom choose to read it.

I believe I read science fiction then and now to escape from the real world. I read nonfiction as a kid and as an adult to learn about the world. However, I do wonder how I would have been different if I had gotten addicted to serious literature as a kid.

If I had a time machine and could go back to talk to my younger self I would tell him to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I’d say, “Kid, stop daydreaming about going to the Moon and Mars. Other people will do it, but not you. And if you could, you wouldn’t like it. Our personality isn’t suited for space travel. Spend more time with people and less time with books, and when you read a book, make sure it helps to know more about people.”

I’m pretty sure my younger self wouldn’t listen. People don’t take advice. Not even from our future selves.

For all I know, Mrs. Saunders may have read To Kill a Mockingbird to us and I just ignored it. She read us several books that year, and A Wrinkle in Time is the only one I remember.

JWH

Fiction v. History

by James Wallace Harris, 9/25/22

Ken Burns’s new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust, punched me in the soul. No documentary has ever moved me as much, and I’ve seen a lot of them. And it’s not because it’s about the Holocaust. I’ve even read about most of the painful facts it presents before. No, the gestalt of this film, which is well over six hours, is to set off an epiphany about our relationship with history.

At the highest level, the documentary asks: What did Americans know about the treatment of the Jews under the Nazis from 1932 to 1945 and when and how did they learn it? But to answer that question Ken Burns and company have to describe what Americans were like during those years. The U.S. and the Holocaust give a different history of America for those years from any I’ve ever encountered from people, in school, reading, at the movies, or on television.

Maybe the best way I can describe it is to say: Everything that has horrified me about living through the years 2016 to 2022 existed in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. The documentary cements a theory that I’ve been developing in recent decades – that people don’t change and even the percentages of the population that hold specific opinions don’t really change either.

The documentary set off this existential conundrum: Why didn’t I already know what the documentary revealed? Or did I just filter it out? Republicans are in an uproar over Critical Race Theory and other curricula that they’re afraid will upset their children. I imagine they will be just as upset at The U.S. and the Holocaust. I knew about the wide popularity of the KKK and eugenics in the 1920s. I knew Americans were mostly isolationists and anti-immigration in the late 1930s. But the documentary gives us a different take on history than what I was taught.

I have to wonder since FDR was president from 1932-1935, have we always gotten the Democratic party’s view of that history? I wonder if Ken Burns has rounded out the historical period by adding the Republican party’s take on those years? I do know the documentary feels very synergistic with today’s politics.

I love old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, and none of the hundreds of movies I’ve seen from that era convey what I learned from The U.S. and the Holocaust. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, all lived through those years, and none of them ever described the mood of the country revealed in the documentary. I’m a bookworm that has read countless works of both fiction and nonfiction about America in those decades, giving me some of the details from in the documentary, but not in the same gestalt. Two books that come to mind are One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

After I watched the Ken Burns documentary I read The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. It’s a kind of science fiction novel, an alternative history where Charles Lindbergh wins the 1938 presidential election and for many of the reasons described in the documentary. Roth was born in 1933, and he makes himself the point-of-view character in his novel. Young Phil is only 8 when it begins and 10 when it ends, but his viewpoint is mature. It’s about the anti-Semitism of those years.

I thought The Plot Against America was a well-told story about Jewish life in Newark, New Jersey 1938-1942. I thought Roth’s alternate history speculation was well done, deriving from the kind of knowledge I got watching The U.S. and the Holocaust. But the story is mainly a personal one, and its gestalt is different from the documentary.

Last night Susan and I watched Radio Days for the umpteenth time. It’s Woody Allen’s nostalgic look back at those same years. It completely ignores all the political history of The U.S. and the Holocaust. Radio Days is like both movies from that period and later films that worked to recall that era. They all filter out the nastiness of racism and xenophobia that existed in America back then. Although some of it came through in the film The Way We Were, and the book version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And just before I watched the three episodes of The U.S. and the Holocaust I read Revolt in 2100 which contains a 1940 short novel by Robert A. Heinlein called “If This Goes On….” Heinlein imagined America would go through decades of The Crazy Years, before undergoing a second American revolution that created an American theocracy. I was disappointed that Heinlein didn’t do more world-building for his novel, but after seeing the Ken Burns documentary I understand his inspiration for writing it. It’s obvious that many Americans back then wanted a Protestant theocracy. Consisting of only white people from England, Germany, and some Scandanavian countries.

I think it’s important to distinguish fascism as a political philosophy from the Nazis, who were also fascists. What many Americans wanted then and now is basic fascism, and the Philip Roth novel shows how America could have turned fascist.

The other day I saw a quote on Facebook that went something like this: If you get warm and fuzzy feelings reading history then you’re not studying history. I’m on the third volume of world history by Susan Wise Bauer, and it’s brutal. Most people want to romanticize history, which is what we get from novels and movies. The Republicans don’t want CRT taught because they want their kids to feel all warm and fuzzy studying American History. The new Ken Burns documentary will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.

My current theory is humans can’t handle reality. That we develop all kinds of psychological delusions to filter reality out. We prefer our fantasies. And popular history along with pop culture gives us nice takes on the past that allows us to cope. It’s also why most people’s theory of how reality works is no more complex than a comic book. It’s why we’ve always clung to religion. It’s why I have a life-long love of science fiction.

We just can’t handle complexity. There are plenty of real history books that document the reality of the times they cover, but they aren’t widely read. Maybe the Republicans are right, and history is too brutal for children. But maybe we keep repeating history because we’re all too wimpy to handle history.

I’m getting so I can’t stomach the historical lies of Hollywood, but I don’t know if I can handle all that much real history either. I used to think that maybe four percent of the population was mentally ill. In recent years, I’ve upped that to forty percent. But lately, I’m thinking there’s an entry for all of us in the DSM-5.

JWH

Getting Too Close to Helpless

by James Wallace Harris, July 14, 2022

For this essay, I’m defining helpless as being in a situation where we can’t help ourselves or get help from someone else. As I get older I worry that someday my wife Susan or I will find ourselves in a completely helpless situation. This weekend it almost happened. Our hot water heater in the attic broke and water was pooling on the sheetrock of the ceiling above my computer room. A seam then spread open and water was draining onto the floor. Susan and I had to find a solution fast and several times I wasn’t sure we would.

First, we were lucky I discovered it so soon. I have an overactive bladder so I’m frequently going back to the bathroom which is annoying. But in this one instance, it put me Johnny-on-the-spot as I went down the hall to the bathroom. The pool of water was only in the middle of the floor.

I yelled to Susan and ran into the kitchen and pulled the filled garbage bag out of the tall kitchen trash can and ran back and put that under the water flow. I saw that it would fill pretty fast so I ran back to the kitchen and got the recycle bin and dumped the contents out on the floor and took it back to the room. By then Susan was there with a pile of towels.

I then went out into the hall, pulled down the attic stairs, and rushed up into the attic. The hot water tank is right next to the stairs and I could see the overflow pan was full and not draining. Damn. I went back down the stairs and ran outside and unscrewed the hose from the outside faucet and dragged it back into the house and up the stairs and connected it to the flush drain. It didn’t have a faucet handle but a slot so I yelled for Susan to get me a large screwdriver. I tried to turn off the hot water heater but it would only let me shut it down to pilot light. For some reason, I couldn’t make the button turn to the off position. I looked at the pipes and saw a red handle so I turned it all the way to what I hoped was an off position. When I had the screwdriver I opened the flush faucet and water started spraying everywhere from a leak in the hose connection. I turned it off.

Two weeks ago my back was hurting so much, that I could barely walk, so I was thankful I was able to be going up and down the stairs. I was moving at a frantic pace but I was calm. I wondered what would have happened if I couldn’t go up the stairs. I don’t trust Susan on the attic stairs. It was then I realized I could be helpless. If I couldn’t fix this problem I had to get someone else. Help means either doing it yourself or finding someone who could. I was suddenly scared I couldn’t, and we’d be helpless. I know this is a minor emergency, but it was enlightening.

Then I went back down the stairs and called our regular plumber. I told them immediately I had an emergency of running water but they made me give me my information first before they told me they couldn’t have someone out until Monday. It was Saturday afternoon, but I thought it was Friday. So I called another plumber thinking I might catch someone still there. The same thing happened. Wanted my information before telling me the soonest would be Monday.

I got some duck tape and went back upstairs and wrapped the hose. I turned on the drain again. It didn’t shoot water. I went outside and saw that water was coming out of the hose. I then went back to the computer room and dragged the first bucket to the front door and emptied it on the front porch. I took the empty bucket and swapped it for the full and emptied it.

I felt I had a bit of breathing room. Then Susan said she still heard running water.

I went to the computer and looked up emergency plumbers. I found one that claimed 24/7 service and called them. Same thing. Can’t come until Monday. I then ran to the hall closet and got my T-wrench and went outside to the street to turn off the water to the house. However, I couldn’t get the valve to budge. I figured I had to call MLG&W to come shut off the water. I didn’t want to do that because I didn’t know how long they would take to get here, and I didn’t want to go days without water.

I went back upstairs and realized that I had shut off the gas, not the water. I started looking around. This time I looked at the top of the water tank, which almost goes to the ceiling of the attic. There I saw water spraying from around the intake pipe, but I also saw another turn-off handle. I gave it a quarter turn and the water stopped running.

That gave me a sense of release. The flow of water from the computer room ceiling slowed, and in about fifteen minutes it stopped. I called the plumber and made an appointment for Monday.

However, I kept wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t been able to shut off the water. What would we have done? What would Susan have done if I wasn’t home? She probably would have called a neighbor, her brother, or MLG&W. I pictured us taking turns swapping filled buckets all weekend, even taking sleeping shifts at night.

It’s incidents like this when I want more control. I should have been prepared. I should have known where the water shut-off to the tank was located. I thought I was prepared by buying the tool to shut off the water at the street. When the plumber came Monday I ordered a new tank and ordered an automatic shut-off device that works with a water sensor in the overflow pan. I also ordered a new overflow pan and all new drainage pipes. But is that enough? I prefer not to deal with another computer room flood. This was the second. Years ago the HVAC installers made the mistake of putting in the condensation pan at a tilt – a tilt away from the drainage outlet.

We don’t have complete control of our lives. On the news that night there were stories about flooding in the east that ruined entire homes. Our flooding was nothing, so I was thankful. However, knowing we can’t control everything doesn’t stop me from worrying about becoming helpless. One sight that always scares me when I see it on the news is when first responders have to rescue old helpless people.

I know I’m worrying about the inevitable, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. It doesn’t stop me from thinking of ways to be prepared. If I designed houses I wouldn’t put the HVAC and hot water heater in the attic. Every house should have a little machine room on the ground floor, with a floor drain and sensors for flooding. This house has had a hot water heater in the attic since 1952 and things have been mostly good 99.9999% of the time.

Getting old has made me worry about my body breaking down or my house breaking down. I realize there are things I can do to help myself. I also realize there are things I depend on Susan to help me do. And I know there will be other things I will have to depend on friends or hired help. This flooding incident has made me think about the times I might not find any kind of help. Generally, that’s never a problem because we have each other. But it’s a thought.

JWH

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