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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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!



Rethinking Star Trek: “The Cage”

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 22, 2016

“The Cage” was the first pilot for Star Trek, made in 1964-65. Wikipedia has an excellent history and plot summary, so I won’t repeat it. I’m sure most fans remember this proto Star Trek with Mr. Spock as the only main character from the regular series. The sets, special effects, costumes, models, gadgets, were are all much more primitive than what we see in later episodes. However, the story is exactly the kind of story Star Trek was known for, and was later recycled into the two-part episode “The Menagerie.”

spock smiles the-cage

What I discovered watching “The Cage” a half-century after seeing “The Man Trap” on 9/8/66, is a different impression of Star Trek. I was never a fanatical fan, but I loved the original series, and watched all the later series as they came out. To be honest, I’ve always thought of Star Trek as Sci-Fi Lite. Quite often television and movies make science fictional ideas look silly, and all too often I criticized Star Trek for not being scientific. In recent decades I found it almost impossible to sit through the old shows because I lost the patience for 20th century television. But something in me changed recently, when I began watching the old shows as a way of understanding myself as I was fifty years ago.

For some reason, I got into a headspace where Star Trek worked again. I was able to forget the limitations of 1960s television production, my skepticism about scientific plausibility, the silliness of plotting, and enjoyed the show as its creators intended. This time around I discovered Roddenberry was less into science fiction than I remembered.

As I watch each episode with my friend Annie, I’m actually looking forward to seeing Star Trek again. We’re playing the series in order the episodes were broadcast in 1966-69 using Netflix streaming. Annie and I were both born in 1951, and we watched the show when it first came out, me in Mississippi and Florida, and she in New Mexico. This time traveling is bringing back memories of discovering science fiction, first in television and movies in the 1950s, and then in books in the early 1960s. Star Trek actually repackages all the common science fictional ideas of the times. We like to think of Star Trek as being an original television series, and it was, but sometimes it was The Beatles, but quite often it was The Monkees. Don’t get me wrong, The Monkees had some great tunes, but they were manufactured hits. What fascinates me now is how Roddenberry repacked 1950s science fiction for his 1960s philosophy.

Gene Roddenberry never had the science fiction originality of science fiction writers of the 1950s. I don’t think he was even a big fan of the genre before discovering Star Trek fans in the 1970s. Except for a few episodes written by science fiction writers, Star Trek wasn’t contemporary with 1960s written science fiction. The New Wave in science fiction hit just before the series premiered. Watching these old shows again in the 21st century lets me see them differently from how they appeared in 1966. This time around, I’m focusing on the history of science fiction, and the ideas science fiction were exploring at that time.

Watching these shows again, I realized that Star Trek was less about science fiction, and more about allegory. Roddenberry was using science fiction to express his political beliefs. For those who didn’t live through 1964-1966, these were exciting years intellectually. Science fiction is the main ingredient in Star Trek, but there’s many other ingredients as well, including 1950s television, Civil Rights, feminism, anti-war, Pop Art, the Counter Culture, and so on. Each screenwriter brought something different, and Roddenberry squeezed all of it into allegories.

The Allegorical View


The words Talos and Talosians sound close to theology and theologians. In “The Cage” the Talosians have god-like powers. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist, and “The Cage” seems less about aliens from outer space, and more about beings from heaven. The show is about how theologians keep us imprisoned by our thoughts and the promise of heaven. Throughout the episode, the Talosians struggle to convince Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) to accept their fantasies for reality, tempting him with a beautiful woman, Vina (Susan Oliver). They want Pike and Vina to play Adam and Eve, and repopulate their planet. To be their servants, their hands in the physical world. It’s very Biblical.

The symbolism of this first show is rather striking. Humans reject god, leaving a rundown Eden to escape into space. Vina stays home, trapped in god’s delusion, disfigured by god’s image of what she should be. Rewatch “The Cage” and think allegory rather than science fiction. Think about the last temptation of Christ.

The Science Fiction


The warp drive was one of Star Trek’s most famous science fictional ideas, and it evolved over time. Science fiction has come up with many ideas about traveling faster than light. Ultimately, they’re all gimmicks to further the plot. In Star Trek, interstellar travel takes about as much time to get between the stars as ocean liners traveling between the continents did in the 1960s. In Star Wars, interstellar travel is faster than jet travel between countries in the 1970s. Science fiction seldom deals with the reality that interstellar travel, which will probably take centuries, if we’re lucky.

The transporter was another “invention” of Star Trek,  even though matter transporters had existed in science fiction before 1966. The story that’s always told, is the producers of Star Trek couldn’t afford using a shuttle craft, so they came up with the transporter to save on production costs. That’s fine, but there is a huge logic hole in their design. Why does it take a machine to send people, but not another machine to receive people? If they could grab people off a planet, why didn’t Scotty just beam Kirk from the bridge to the planet? Why did they always have to go to the transporter room to beam down, but didn’t need a machine to beam up. Think of the jokes Scotty could have played on Kirk, beaming him to a different Yeoman’s bedroom every night after he had gone to sleep.

Also, how many exabytes of data are required to describe a human in transporter logic? And the transporter appears to beam people faster than light. Does that require warping space? And how are people decoded at a distance without a machine?

The aliens in Star Trek often had super-powers, or even god-like powers. The Talosians could create perfect delusions in humans. The first regular episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” the creature was called a shape shifter, but obviously that was incorrect, because it appeared in one scene to several men, looking different to each. It evidently had the same power as the Talosians. But think about what such a power means. First it means faster-than-light data communication between two minds, with very massive amounts of data transferred. And with multiple humans, means multitasking at a tremendous rate.

Our minds can create very realistic, vivid hallucinations, but only when our senses are turned off. Like when we’re asleep and dreaming, or in a sensory deprivation tank, or we’ve taken some powerful drugs. Even then, the details of hallucinations are never even close to details of how we experience reality processed through our senses. Creating perfect illusions is impossible. This is only a gimmick for the allegory.

I don’t know why, but most “advanced” aliens are always given PSI-powers in science fiction. These super-powers are always very similar to the powers we attribute to gods. There’s no scientific reasons to think such powers exist in us, or aliens. Quite often in Star Trek, Kirk and crew meet aliens with such god-like powers. In each case Kirk is required to outthink such beings, and he does, although often with silly gimmicks. I get the feeling Roddenberry hated authority, religion, and any kind of mind control, and many of his science fiction stories reflect this in allegory. Often Roddenberry is much closer to The Twilight Zone than Astounding/Analog. But then again, maybe I need to revisit 1950s/1960s science fiction to see if it was more allegorical than science fiction.

To me, real science fiction was always about preparing us to go to the stars. Fans think that’s true of Star Trek. I’m not so sure, at least for the original series. My hunch is Roddenberry didn’t get the science fiction religion until after Star Trek:TOS. As I watch the shows, I’m wondering if the fans didn’t read the pro-space theology into the original series. I’ll see as we watch.


Star Trek Histories at 50

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 15, 2016

My celebration of Star Trek at 50 continues, which began with “Remembering Star Trek—50 Years” and then “Star Trek: Dystopia in the Utopia.” I was never a Trekkie/Trekker, never went to a Star Trek convention, and I’ve only read a couple of the novels, so I don’t know why I’ve developed this sudden fascination with Star Trek. For decades I’ve had a hard time watching any old TV shows again—they were just too simplistic. Only the latest and best TV keeps my attention. Then something happened, something clicked, and I didn’t hate ancient television anymore. WTF?

It all started when I caught a few episodes of Gunsmoke, and then I read Leonard by William Shatner, which described working in 1950s television. This week I’ve caught episodes of I Love Lucy, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Make Room For Daddy, and Perry Mason, all from the 1950s. And, Annie, my Star Trek buddy, and I, are chronologically going through the 1960s Star Treks. I’m in some kind of time warp, and I can’t get out. Why?

Maybe it started when I was bingeing on 1950s science fiction books, and that somehow altered my consciousness so I could enjoy the old television again. Maybe the 1950s is just a comfortable place to hide out for a while. Living in the 1950s for a while evidently prepared me to enjoy 1960s Star Trek again. After reading Leonard and beginning the systematic rewatching of ST:TOS, I began craving more data about Star Trek.

The Fifty-Year Mission v1The Fifty-Year Mission v2

That’s when I discovered the two-volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years and The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, both by Edward Gross Mark A. Altman. The first volume is even available on audio. These are beautiful books, massive in scope, that includes hundreds of new interviews, that attempt to cover the entire subject of Star Trek and its legacy. What Gross and Altman do is cut and paste thousands of quotations from everyone involved into one long, two-volume, chronological narrative. It’s both a history of Star Trek and a study in how television and movies are made, and how a cult phenomenon was created.


Because there was so much written about Star Trek, I wondered what are considered the most comprehensive books on just ST:TOS, so I started poking around Amazon and found this three volume set by Marc Cushman:

Because these books are an episode-by-episode history of the classic 79 ST:TOS shows, I bought the first volume to read along with my rewatching of the series. These five books should keep me busy for years. Maybe three years. I’ve been thinking of writing a review of each show on it’s 50th anniversary. Of course, that sounds like one of those projects that I’ll start and give up quickly. However, my new fascinating with these old Star Trek shows is different this time. Fifty years ago I judged each show by my then standard for science fiction. Many episodes seemed way too silly to be considered science fiction because the science didn’t seem believable. This time around, I’m seeing the shows as allegories and metaphors, and not concerning myself as much with the science.

From the handful of episodes we’ve seen again, I realize each episode makes a statement about science fiction, the social and political climate of the day, and the ambitions of their creators. Fifty years down the road, I’m using Star Trek to study what we were all like in the 1960s – a kind of cultural anthropology. With 79 episodes, I’m sure Star Trek probably said everything anyone could about what’s possible with science fiction.

Star Trek was never my vision of science fiction. I’ve never really liked television and movie science fiction as much as I love written science fiction. Quite often, visual science fiction seems silly, even demeaning to written science fiction. Now, that’s my POV, and I know it’s not a common one. For example, the first four episodes of Star Trek (as seen on Netflix streaming, including the first pilot) have stories built around aliens or humans with god-like powers. Annie and I were arguing about that last night. She claims aliens could have super-powers, because we don’t know what’s possible. I say destroying a space ship and its crew light years away with just a thought is an unbelievable god-like power. I’m an atheist – not only do I not believe in God, I don’t believe in god-like powers. But what does it say when science fiction creators and fans do?

Roddenberry was known to be an atheist, so why does he write about god-like beings? In the first pilot, humans reject any paradise the Talosians promise because we refuse to be their playthings. In the second pilot, Kirk kills the two crewmen who become gods. How symbolic! Are those stories allegories, and Gary Mitchell, and later Q, stand in for something Roddenberry wants to attack? Is this science fiction or theology? What do the Talosians stand for in the story? Are they merely powerful aliens, or metaphor for gods? The crew of Star Trek always rejects, escapes, destroys or outwits powerful god-like aliens. Hell, they have a tough time accepting Spock, and his cold logical mind. This show is amazingly pro-human. Should I even say, humanistic.

If I study these history books about Star Trek will I find out why each show was written? Are their academic books that critically analyze the stories. Or, are the stories merely cribbed from 1950s science fiction. “Charlie X” seems to borrow from Stranger in a Strange Land and “The Good Life” by Jerome Bixby. How often in the original 79 episodes of Star Trek do the the writers reprocess for the current week’s show something they read in F&SF, Galaxy, If and Astounding during the previous decade? Science fictional ideas that were spread to thousands in the 1950s with magazines, were now being spread to millions on television.

I’m currently fascinating by Star Trek for many reasons. I’m rethinking my own brain programming. I rejected God and religion back when I began embracing science fiction. But after a lifetime of accepting my science fictional faith, I’m developing skeptical thoughts. The foundation of my thinking comes from 1950s television, reading science fiction in the 1960s, and absorbing the 1960s counter culture. Strangely, I believe Star Trek did the same thing.


1964–Fifty Years of Reading Robert A. Heinlein

While everyone is remembering it was fifty years ago that America discovered The Beatles, I’m remembering it was fifty years ago that I discovered Robert A. Heinlein – a discovery that had far more importance to me.  1964 was the year after Project Mercury, and the year before Project Gemini.  Back then each space mission got uninterrupted coverage on CBS, NBC and ABC, and I always got to stay home from school and watch.  1964 was also the year a very futuristic World’s Fair in NYC and everyone seemed to be thinking about the decades to come. 

1964 was the year I turned 13 and I started thinking about my future. 

Now it’s 2014 and I’ll turn 63 later is year, and I think about my past.

As much as I love The Beatles and remembering 1964, 2014 is my 50th anniversary of reading Robert A. Heinlein.  I thought it might be interesting to analyze why reading the twelve Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964 was so much more important than “Twist and Shout.”  Wouldn’t it be fun to read a series of blogs by baby boomers remembering all the artists that meant more to them from 1964 than The Beatles?


I read science fiction before 1964, but it wasn’t until I discovered Heinlein that I became a hardcore science fiction fan.  I turned 13 on November 25, 1964.  For some reason I started puberty by rejecting religion and God, becoming an atheist, and embracing science fiction.  I’ve always joked that science fiction was my religion, which made Heinlein my messiah.

I have my 8th grade English teacher to thank for introducing me to Heinlein, although I’m pretty sure I would have discovered him one way or another.  I wished I remembered this lady’s name, and had a photograph of her.  She had a remarkable teaching method.  For each six weeks grading period she required the class to read and report on three books.  However, if you read five, she would raise your grade one letter.  That allowed me to be a B student that year – at least for my English class.  My teacher provided us with a list of approved authors and Robert A. Heinlein was one.  In the 1940s and 1950s Heinlein had published twelve young adult novels with Charles Scribner’s Sons that had gotten a lot of recognition with librarians and teachers.

The first of the twelve juveniles I discovered was Red Planet, after that I quickly consumed the other eleven, and then went on to read the Heinlein adult novels.  Sadly I don’t remember the order in which I read them.  I do remember the night I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, my favorite Heinlein book, and my all-time favorite science fiction novel.


I was babysitting for an airman my dad knew from work at Homestead Air Force Base.  I was dropped off at their house around eight, after the kids were already put to bed, and the couple didn’t return home until after three.  So I was paid fifty cents an hour to read Have Space Suit-Will Travel.  I was blown away.  When the couple came home the young dad offered to drive me home, I told him I’d walk.  It was 3:30am, and I wasn’t even sure where I was.  I had a vague idea my house was north of their house, so I started walking.  It was eerie out – completely dead, with a bit of a mist from the dew. 

I wasn’t afraid, but the long walk was surreal.  All I could think about was Kip’s adventures, going from Earth, to the Moon, to Pluto, to a planet orbiting Vega, to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.  My brain speeded on thinking about the future and I felt very alive.

A sliver of the Moon glowed in the sky that dark night fifty years ago, and the stars looked down on me, and I up at them.  I was living the mundane life of an 8th grader, the 1960s was heating up, and all I could think about was living in the 21st century.  Now, it’s 2014, and my future is almost over, and more and more, I think about the past.

The promise and potential of space travel was why I loved Heinlein.  Elementary school had been about Project Mercury, Project Gemini was going to be my junior high years, and Project Apollo my high school years.  I started the 1st grade a couple months before Sputnik went into orbit, and graduated high school a couple months before Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon.  That, reading science fiction, and being a baby boomer growing up with the rock music revolution of the 1960s, did a number on me. 

So did the drugs.  Strangely, by 1968, science fiction had taken me far further than the chemical trips I had started taking.  Reading Stranger in a Stranger Land in 1965, I’m sure I saw it way different than Heinlein intended.

I read everything I could about NASA.  In 1964 all I could think about was the rock music on the radio, the science fiction I read, and the future of manned space flight.  I was positive I’d grow up and in my lifetime we’d build a colony on the Moon and Mars, and just maybe, I might get to go. 

Boy, was I wrong.

Heinlein made it all sound so simple, so obvious, so right.  Humans were meant to go to the stars.  His twelve young adult novels were a roadmap for all my tomorrows.

1947 Rocket Ship Galileo Moon
1948 Space Cadet Asteroids, Venus
1949 Red Planet Mars
1950 Farmer in the Sky Ganymede
1951 Between Planets Venus
1952 The Rolling Stones Moon, Mars, Asteroids
1953 Starman Jones interstellar
1954 The Star Beast Earth with interstellar visitors
1955 Tunnel in the Sky interstellar
1956 Time for the Stars interstellar
1957 Citizen of the Galaxy interstellar
1958 Have Space Suit—Will Travel Moon, Pluto, Vega 5, Lesser Magellanic Cloud

Ross, Morrie and Art, three teens in Heinlein’s first juvenile only go as far as the Moon, but in the last book, Kip and Peewee leave the galaxy.  The first half-dozen are about interplanetary travel, the second half-dozen have youngsters like me going to the stars.  These books made me a true believer in space travel in the same way Christians believe in heaven.

I’m now an atheist to my own religion, and Heinlein and his books are in my past.  They are just fun stories now, myths I lived by growing up a half-century ago.  The future was everything I never expected.  As I spend my retirement years trying to write science fiction, I imagine a much different future than I did at age thirteen.  What will the next 50 years be like? Can I conceive of a more realistic future, one that might happen, or will I only invented imaginary futures that will become fantasies like the Heinlein stories?  Do I stir up the passion of kids to believe in scientific fairy tales, or do I try to give them hope about real scientific possibilities?

Like the 1964 me, I still contemplate the future.  I have no space suit, I will not travel to the stars, but the future still holds exciting possibilities.  If I’m alive in 2051, what will I write about looking back on the next fifty years?


JWH – 2/3/14

Losing My Faith in Space Travel

Science fiction promised children growing up in the 1950s something different than what it does to our children today.  The innocent expectations of tomorrow culminated in the 1964 World’s Fair which seemed all about the future and the promise of space travel?  Was there ever another time in history where kids truly believed they would walk on the Moon or Mars when they grew up?  Between 1961 and 1972 NASA always went further and faster with Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs.  For the forty years since 1972 we’ve been retracing old orbital paths below those reached in Project Gemini in 1965.  Now, the U.S. can’t even launch men and women into orbit.  When did the final frontier fizzle out?  I’m sure the budget bean counters know.

It’s not like we don’t have the technology to travel to the planets, we just don’t have the desire, or at least the desire to spend the money.

Like religion, science fiction promised true believers life in the heavens.  As long as NASA kept rocketing to new heights it was easy to believe the faith of space travel.  Like religion, space travel has failed to answer the prayers of its devoted – nobody leaves Earth.  Could it be that humans are meant to stay on Earth?  Forever?

What if it becomes obvious we’re not going to the planets and stars, and humans must live for thousands, if not millions of year here on planet Earth?  How does that change science fiction and the faith in the final frontier?  What if we come to realize that travel in space isn’t practical or even desirable?  What if we come to realize that alien spaceships will never visit us either?  That gulf between the stars is too vast for travel by biological creatures.  Robots might go, but not us.  How will that change our faith in science fiction?

We won’t know our limits in space until we hit them.  So far, we’ve only hit the money barrier!

I always believed science fiction was the sacred writing of the space travel faithful, but again like other belief systems, tenets of the faithful change.  If humans aren’t meant to travel to the stars, what is our destiny?  Science fiction, instead of selling space travel, promotes turning inward with artificial intelligence, cybernetic worlds, brain downloading, biological immortality, and other fabulous speculation about living on Earth.   I can accept the confinement if there are real limitations to humans traveling in space, but I’d sure hate it if we’ve just reached the limits of our vision.

Oh sure, there are still true believers who can’t give up the idea there’s a world just 35 million miles away that’s ripe for terraforming.  They keep preaching their gospel hoping to convert enough believers to make their visions come true, but their creed dwindles.

Yes, there is another time when kids grow up thinking they will walk on the Moon and Mars.  It’s now, and those kids live in China.  Do they dream my old 1950s dreams?  Will their dreams come true this time for all us humans?

This is what we get for cutting taxes.

A small government leads to smaller dreams.

China will get bigger with bigger dreams, while we grow small, clutching our tax dollars.

Thank you, Republicans.


JWH – 4/9/12

Nonfiction, Fiction, History, Myth and States of Consciousness

Have you ever read a book about a real life event and then watched a documentary about the same subject?  The contrast of what we can learn from words and what we can learn from film is often jarring and sometimes shocking.  One of my favorite books from youth is The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.  Wolfe made literary fame by pioneering “new journalism” which is now called creative nonfictionThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was considered the book that defined the hippies and their philosophy.  I read this book back in 1969, and now 42 years later I got to watch Magic Trip, a documentary that used actual film footage of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.   Wolfe interviewed all the principal people right after the events, and he also must have seen the original 30 hours of film, and I was blown away by the difference between the two ways of telling the same story.


Truth is the actual events.  How close can we ever come to reconstructing the truth?  What is the best evidence for the truth?  When Farmer Ted bets his geeky friends he’ll hook up with Samantha in Sixteen Candles and his friends demand proof, he asks them what kind, and they say in unison, “Video!”   As far as I can imagine, video comes closest to the truth as any evidence we can find – but even then it’s far from perfect.  For centuries, before the advent of video, our knowledge of past events was based on writing.

How much can we know from reading?  Before writing was invented our worldview was limited to the here and now.  We had oral storytellers that conveyed news from distant lands and remembered events and people from the past, but it was very limited.  Most of the time people’s consciousness was focused on the present and the immediate world around them.  Then reading and writing was invented and information about endless places and countless past moments could be recorded so people could conjure up in their minds things that weren’t here and now.  But how effective is reading at reproducing the past?  How accurate can reading describe distant places and events?

All my life I’ve been a bookworm, spending hours a day with my head in a book.  When young I most read fiction, and felt that time away from reality was just escapist entertainment, but over the decades I’ve shifted to reading more nonfiction, and felt I was learning stuff about other places, people and the past.  But am I?

Lately I’ve been reading nonfiction books and then seeking out documentaries and photographs to supplement my reading, and in every case I’m shocked by how different my mental image from reading is from the photograph or film.  Words are black marks on white paper, but they attempt to encode information that comes through our five senses.  How well does any word for a color convey the actual color? Does the word blue suggest any particular shade of blue?  Picture the wall of paint sample colors at your local Home Depot.  Which of the thousands of blues are the one we call blue?  Now think about the other four senses and words for sounds, textures, tastes and smells.  How close do words come to the infinite varieties of sensual details?

Last night I watched a documentary Magic Trip about Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters taking a bus from the west coast to visit New York City for the 1964 Worlds Fair.  In 1969 when I read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe it blew me away by how exciting his non-fiction writing was at vividly conveying the story of these freaks on acid traveling across the country.  Over the years I’ve read more books and articles about this event, and the people involved.  To me this cross country trip was the legendary beginning of the hippies.  Of course I was wrong.   Kesey and his Merry Pranksters met the real hippies, like the Grateful Dead, when they got back from the trip and started promoting their acid test events.  Hippies already existed in 1964.

The documentary Magic Trip was created around the actual film the Pranksters took while on the trip and it blew my mind again.  It was absolutely nothing like I pictured from the Tom Wolfe book.  First off, Kesey and the Pranksters didn’t look like hippies – only the women had long hair.  And they all looked ordinary – I wouldn’t have named them the Merry Pranksters – that moniker seems way to grand for them.  The people in the film looked like college kids from the late 1950s or early 1960s acting really silly.  They looked more like early Beach Boys wearing stripe shirts.  Their antics looked as sophisticated as old episodes of The Monkees.

In some of the film clips Kesey and the Pranksters are on heavy doses of acid but you couldn’t tell that from what you see.  Now I know what they were feeling, I can remember that from those days.  Acid is like having a hurricane in your head, but you don’t see that from the outside.  What you see is kids being goofy and stupid.  Now in the book, Tom Wolfe tries to convey the epic psychological discoveries they were making – things going on in their heads, and the Magic Trip film tries to suggest that too, but the physical evidence of visuals from the film and sound recordings from tape just don’t back it up.  Wolfe wrote about what was going on in their heads and we can’t see that in the film.

As evidence of what actually happened I credit the film over Wolfe.  But is that fair or even accurate?  How much can we judge the truth of an event from what we can see and hear?  As counter evidence, how much do people know you from seeing you and hearing you talk?  See what I mean?  Reality and truth is deceptive.

It’s impossible to convey a psychedelic trip in words – and the clips of the trip festivals at the end of the movie don’t even come close.  What you see is kids dancing and acting weird and idiotic – no wonder the silent-majority Americans were freaked out by the freaks.  Back then the claim was drugs took you to a state of higher consciousness, but I always felt like they took me to a state of animal consciousness – a lowering.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite revealing, and you can learn a lot about how the mind functions, but all that talk about higher states was bullshit.  But then I value the verbal mind over the nonverbal mind.

In one part of the film, the west coast Merry Pranksters, along with their legendary bus driver Neal Cassidy, famed beat character Dean Moriarty from On the Road, meet up with his fellow real life On the Road beat characters Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  Hippies meet their beatnik idols.  But things don’t go off well.  Jack is morose and turned off by the silly pranksters.  Then the west coast psychedelic legends go and meet the east coast prophets of LSD, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.  Leary is so turned off by them that he runs away and hides and leaves the future Ram Das to deal with them.  Leary and Alpert were trying to make LSD a serious tool for studying consciousness and these proto-hippies were abusing acid like teenagers breaking into their parents liquor cabinet.  In 1964 most people did not know what to make of these crazy kids.

Seeing Magic Trip was shocking to me.  Imagine how disturbing it would be to discover films of Jesus and his merry band of disciples.  Christianity has created thousands of different interpretations of the history of Jesus – so imagine if we got to see what Jesus really said and did?   Video can be so shocking to see after studying words.  We have no idea what Jesus was like or what he said.  Everything he supposedly said was recreated decades after the fact.  In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe is deifying Kesey and his disciples just three years after the real event, and it’s impossible to know how much of the legend is Wolfe and how much is Kesey?

Tom Wolfe had used words to make this trip into an epic adventure, a transcendental experience of the first order.  He totally mythologized the people involved – of course the Pranksters were trying to do that themselves even while they were on the trip.  They gave each other funny names making themselves into characters on an epic adventure traveling in their legendary bus Further.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that these folks weren’t experiencing eye opening philosophical experiences.  They were exploring a new consciousness, breaking out of the rigid 1950s stereotypes, and exploring new experiences that would come to be known as the psychedelic sixties – but it wasn’t new consciousness.   Throughout history groups of people have rediscovered the Dionysian joys of intoxication and ecstasy – and wanting to escape from the rigid confines of society.  Even in the film Kesey says they were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.

I remember my psychedelic days from over forty years ago, and it pretty much followed the Pranksters.  Me and my friends did a lot of silly and stupid things while exploring the doors of perception.  I had been inspired by Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley and wanted my trips to be scientific experiments into the mind, but they weren’t.  It was just me and my friends doing many of the same exact things the Pranksters did in Magic Trip – going group swimming, driving around in funny vehicles that got a lot of attention, trying to play musical instruments when we had no ability, getting zonked out by nature, admiring the beats, upsetting the older people.  Oh, I learned a lot, but I can safely say to kids today, don’t bother, there are much better ways to explore the mind.  Read Steven Pinker, and learn how to achieve Zen mindfulness.

But does any of this answer the question about how much truth we can attain from words?  In terms of acquiring knowledge, words can get you far higher than any amount of acid.  Truth and experience are wordless – ineffable.  I’ve experienced wordless states of consciousness through drugs and a mini-stroke, and that’s not a normal human state of consciousness.  As humans, like it or not, our consciousness minds are based on words and language – and language and words do not mirror reality perfectly.  Or even closely.  I know there are non-verbal conscious states of mind but the past and future don’t exist in those states.  The mere act of trying to recreate the past is a verbal state of consciousness.

The real question is:  How close does the nonverbal reality match our verbal reality?  I don’t think very much at all.  My proof is the fact that we all live in different verbal realities, and even when several people experience the same event they seldom recreate the shared reality with the same words.

A good lesson in understanding this is to study writing creative nonfiction.  I took two MFA writing courses with Kristen Iversen dealing with Creative Nonfiction and I learned quite a lot about “telling the truth” with words.  It’s actually very hard, if not impossible.  One of the first writing lessons she gave our class was to take a memory from when we were young and put it into words.   Even here I’m being misleading.  I can’t remember the exact assignment.  I think she might have told us to pick a memory from when we were twelve, but I’m not sure.  What immediately occurred to me to write about was a memory of me staying with my grandmother who maintained an old apartment building on Biscayne Bay in Miami, and the night she gave me an old fishing tackle box left in one of the apartments, and how I went out alone to fish off the concrete wall by the bay.  The more I thought about the memory the more details I could dredge up, but eventually I realized I couldn’t be sure of any of the exact details.  Memory is so faulty, but they’re also tricky.  It’s easy to create false memories. But my final essay was praised in class for its vivid details.

Was the essay absolutely true?  No, it wasn’t.  But I didn’t feel I was lying either.  I had recreated in words what were vague impressions and memories in my mind.  Mining those memories took work.  There’s a quality of effort in recreating memories that is very enlightening.  But still this brings us no closer to explaining the difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.

I have read many nonfiction books on Wyatt Earp.  I have seen many documentaries on Wyatt Earp.  I have read many fictional stories about Wyatt Earp.  I have seen many fictional movies about Wyatt Earp.  I have heard many people discuss Wyatt Earp as a legendary mythic character of the old west.  Which of these various modes of learning about Wyatt Earp are the best for knowing who the real Wyatt Earp was like?  Is Tombstone the movie better than The Last Gunfight the nonfiction book, or Doc, a fictional novel where Wyatt is a prominent character?  Or the  PBS American Experience episode about Wyatt Earp?

Here’s what I can tell you.  It’s only based on personal feelings.  Wyatt Earp the man who lived in the nonverbal reality of the 19th century is long gone and unknowable.  That kind of reality is unknowable.  That’s why it’s called ineffable.  I can say some fictional versions of Wyatt Earp vary far from the actual reality of the nonfictional evidence, but can we say the Wyatt we create with historical evidence is actually close the to real flesh and blood Wyatt?  Yes, I think we can, even though there are many nonfictional Wyatt Earps to consider.  Every account, whether fiction or nonfiction creates a new edition of Wyatt Earp.  But I actually doubt we really get that close to the real man – some accounts are just more factual than others.

Scientists like to entertain the idea of multiple universes because there should be an infinity of these other universes allowing endless versions of our own world, many just slightly different.  That’s how verbally reconstructed Wyatt Earps exists.  There’s an infinity of them.  Some of them are close to the real world that did exist, but it’s very hard to judge which are the closest.  We can spot the absurd examples easy enough like all the Wyatt Earps in science fiction stories, but we can’t say which historical Wyatt is actually the best.

I think we’re getting closer to understand nonfiction, fiction, history and myth, but we’re not there yet.  I am reminded of a book called The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.  What Jaynes suggested was for early humanity they had a different state of mind than we do now, which he called the bicameral mind.  I don’t want to go into the details of his theory other than to say that in the past we shifted from one kind of consciousness to another.  I just want to suggest that as our verbal consciousness evolved, we’re now shifting into a third state of consciousness.  This new consciousness is based on sharing facts and building a consensus model of reality based on science.

We’re not that good at it yet – the proof can be seen by how Democrats and Republicans model our political reality.  And even conservatives and liberals seldom share the same ideas.  But in theory we believe through science and other forms of knowledge, that we can model our complex social reality in political and economic laws, as well as nonfiction, history and even fiction.

In other words, many of us believe given enough facts we could prove to each other the validity of a model of reality.  Science has gone the furthest by explaining the physical world.  The consensus is very strong with that – there’s very little fiction or myth in science.  All other areas of knowledge, like politics, ethics, law, economics are a long way from matching reality with any kind of common agreement.  In other words, they are mostly built on fiction and myths.

What I’m saying finally is, we all like to believe that we can separate nonfiction and history from fiction and myths.  Whether that’s true or even possible, is still open for scientific evaluation.  In other words, if you hold any beliefs other than those covered by a narrow range of scientific study, you can’t be sure if there is any difference between nonfiction, fiction, history and myth.

There is no way to know who Ken Kesey or Wyatt Earp was scientifically, but is there any emerging discipline that could use consensus like science, to measure the accuracy between nonfiction and fiction?  Is the scholarship of History rigorous enough to make that claim?  Or will all areas of knowledge outside of science always by undermined by subjectivity?

JWH – 12/30/11

Reliving the Sixties: Freedom Riders (May 1961)

Last night I caught the riveting documentary Freedom Riders on the PBS American Experience series.  May 4th, was the fiftieth anniversary of the first freedom riders who rode down south to challenge the Jim Crow laws.  Check your PBS stations because they often repeat shows and this show is a standout that’s worth tracking down.  You can also watch the show online.

Last night I wasn’t in the mood to watch TV at all, but I caught the beginning of this show and just couldn’t stop watching, and the film was two hours long.  I love history, I read a lot of history books, and watch a lot of documentaries on TV about history, and I’ve read and seen references to freedom riders my whole life, but until I saw this film I never understood their real importance and how these people affected our everyday lives.  This film, in a day-by-day diary, made history riveting, but more than that, it was a revelation because it was history I had lived though, even though I was only nine at the time, and I realized just how little I had been paying attention.

Even if we’re news addicts, reading newspapers, magazines, blogs and spend all our time watching TV news, we still miss so much.  It takes time to put history together into a story that’s understandable.  Sometimes it takes a long time before we really want to put the facts together to make a story.  That’s why great books are often written years and decades later.

I realized as I was watching this film – we’re going to be reliving the 1960s day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month as 50th anniversary news stories and documentaries appear to remind us of how things happened as we were growing up.  I don’t know why I didn’t realize this sooner.  They’ve already had 50th anniversary stories about John F. Kennedy’s inauguration (January 20), the Beatles perform at the Cavern Club (February 9),  the Peace Corp creation (March 1), Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight (April 12),  Bay of Pigs (April 17), Alan Shepard goes into space (May 5), and so on.  I’m waiting for anniversary of  Kennedy announcing our plan to go to the Moon (May 25).

Fifty years is a long time.  I grew up in the 60s, so I love stories about that decade.  I turn 60 this year, and will be hearing all the anniversaries about the 1960s all through my sixties.  I felt like I came of age in the 1960s, so watching documentaries about those times is like filling in gaps to my memory.  Seeing that show last night was like SNAP! – and suddenly so much became clear.  My actual knowledge of the 1960s is rather sketchy, like having a 1,000 word puzzle with just a few clumps of pieces put together and no box cover to know what the image looks like.  The Freedom Riders show connected several pieces were I can actually see part of an image.

I was 9 years old in May of 1961 when the freedom riders started their trips south.  I was finishing up the third grade and I knew very little about the world around me.  I was very excited by the space program, and I remember being at school and they played Alan Shepard’s flight over the PA system.  I remember a lot of excitement about John F. Kennedy – my mom loved him.  I remember doing duck and cover drills, and I had fantasies about B-52 bombers dropping atomic bombs on our playground as part of the drills, and being disappointed when they didn’t. 

But if I heard about the freedom riders it made no impression on me.  I was living in Hollywood, Florida at the time, but just before that, when my mom and dad were separated for awhile, my Mom, sister and I lived in Marks, Mississippi.  My first memory of Jim Crow in action was at Marks, when I was getting a drink at the Piggly-Wiggly.  A big white guy came running out of the back and started screaming at me, calling me all kinds of names for being stupid.  I was drinking out of the fountain for black people.  I didn’t like that guy.  I didn’t like any of the racists I met there, but it wasn’t because I was enlightened and understood civil rights.  I just never liked violent people.

I don’t know when I became aware of civil rights as a cause.  Growing up the the 1960s I saw a lot of social upheaval, and civil rights was just one of many causes I grew up hearing about.  Because my family moved around so much, I was always the new kid, the outsider, and it was easy for me to identify with other outsiders.  I grew up embracing liberal ideas and thinking radical thoughts.  I have no idea why.  And often what I knew was fragmentary at best, third and fourth hand knowledge, passed around by kids who didn’t know shit.  I don’t think it was until 1965 that I started watching the nightly news regularly.  I got a few fun bits of news from Life Magazine and The Today Show, but how much?

My awareness of living through the early sixties was extremely limited at best, so seeing something like Freedom Riders brings a clarity to me, putting youthful memories into perspective.  I knew what civil rights were by 1965, but mainly because of Bob Dylan, so I’m sketchy on how things developed in the early 60s.  The Freedom Riders were the beginning of the end of Jim Crow, but I never knew that until last night.  And I had just finished The Warmth of Other Suns, that had chronicled the effects of Jim Crow in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  History is amazing when the puzzle pieces start coming together.

The trouble is we all know so little about history.  How can we make sense of our times?  Look at this report, “STILL AT RISK:  What Students Don’t Know, Even Now.”   Only 43% of students can place the Civil War in the 1850-1900 time period?  April 11th was the 150th anniversary of attack on Fort Sumter.  Is the Civil War just too old to matter?  Well, most students don’t know much about WWI or WWII or Korea or Vietnam.  Maybe we’ve been in too many wars for our students to remember.  But should high school kids be expected to understand the wars in which they lived through?  Will it take kids who were 9 when 9/11 happened fifty years to finally put the puzzle pieces together abut their times?

History is something we learn our whole life.  As a kid I lived in the now, which was the 1950s and early 1960s, then as I started reading, watching the news, seeing documentaries, I started living backwards in time, studying the past.  While still young I explored the 1930s through MGM movies, or 1950s with jazz music, or the 1940s by reading Jack Kerouac.  I’m currently exploring 1870s England by reading Anthony Trollope.  But I think for the next ten years I’ll be concentrating on the 1960s again because of all the 50th anniversary remembrances.

Wikipedia has a nice year by year summary, and you can check 1961 to see what’s coming up.  June 25 is the anniversary of Iraq trying to annex Kuwait.  I didn’t know that, and that only proves Santayana’s famous quote "the one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."

1961 was the year that Catch-22 and Stranger in a Strange Land were first published.  In 1961 Bob Dylan moved to New York City, and Ben E. King sang “Stand By Me” on the radio, and The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on TV, but I didn’t know all that because I was 9 and was watching shows like The FlintstonesMr. Ed and Car 54, Where Are You?  What’s weird is I can go back to 1961 now by watching the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show on Netflix.

I remember even more about 1962, 1963 and 1964.  As I got older I paid more attention to the things around me, and I can look at the Wikipedia listings of events during those years and remember that I heard about more of them when they happened, but most of those events I don’t remember at all, or learned about later.  But even by the year 1969, the year I graduated high school, I was still unaware of most of the events listed by Wikipedia.  How many of them will be remembered on the nightly news in the upcoming decade? 

How many of these historical events will get a 2 hour documentary made about them, like the Freedom Riders show?  I expect the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 to get the full treatment.  But what about the New York World’s Fair from the same year?  Most events might get 30 seconds on the nightly news, but the special ones will get  1-2 hour documentaries on PBS.

Remember Vietnam?  Reliving the 1960s will be reliving the Vietnam War.  Plus we have the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs.  Remember the generation gap, the sexual revolution, hippies, rock and roll, communism, feminism, gay rights, and on and on.  There should be a wealth of 50th Anniversary documentaries in our future.  Why did we suddenly start changing so violently fifties years ago?  History is always about change, so was there really more change in the 1960s, or did it just seem so?

Why didn’t the 1950s get showcased in the last decade?  There was plenty of looking back to the 1950s, but I don’t remember the level of remembrances like we’re probably going to see for the 1960s.  The 1960s were when the baby boomers came of age, and we loved the spotlight, so I think my generation is going to do a lot more looking backwards.  Maybe the 1960s is more memorable because that was the decade that television and satellite communications took off.  Camera crews went everywhere.  But what does that mean for now, when historians start making documentaries about the twenty-tens?  There are way more cameras watching.  We’ll have to wait and see, but I doubt I’ll be around.

JWH – 5/21/11