Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Time Out — Science Fiction by Postino

January 19, 2017

I know my story sounds crazy, but I need to get it down before I forget everything. This document will be my only record of what was, and what happened. In a matter of hours my mind will have absorbed and adjusted to my new reality, and the old reality will cease to be.

That’s what they told us during our basic training of course, when we were given both the theories and actual nuts-and-bolts of time travel. Twenty years ago I was a college graduate looking for a career in government service. Because of my graduate and post-graduate studies in nineteenth century history, with an emphasis on the American Civil War, the interviewer shuttled me over to what turned out to be the most secret black op of all, Project Yesterday. It is so secret even the President of the United States doesn’t have a need to know. (Some unscrupulous president might want to use it to go back in time and purposely alter history for political reasons, which, next to a giant meteor hitting Earth, would be the worst thing that could happen.) We were told Project Yesterday is a history project, studying every aspect of American and world history up to the present, so the definitive history of life on Earth can someday be revealed. (I think there is probably more to it than studying history, but it’s above my pay grade to know more than I am told.)

The basic science of time travel was originally developed by the Germans in the 1930s, but did not work until  taken over by the Americans at the end of World War II. With captured German scientists and equipment, of course. It is terrifying to think of what would have happened had the Nazis gotten control of time travel.

We are not supposed to divulge any details of the Project under pain of imprisonment. But I felt it was important enough to risk even that.

Despite that,  here is a very broad view of what my team of Temps (short for our title, Temperonaut) does. With any secret program and need to know, we are compartmentalized, and we don’t know what else is going on within the Project, just the work of our own unit. Our unit studies the Battle of Gettysburg. We record every second of the fighting from every angle possible. We have made a record of every soldier from either side, with photos and names, and every action, gunshot, saber rattle and death during the battle. It would be impossible to do it in Live time, so we operate under a different time system, where we are invisible to the participants of the battles. We call it Time Out. I’m a historian, not a techie, but from what I can understand, we are watching it from a time in between time. So we see everything as a tableau, soldiers frozen in the act, standing like statues. It took some getting used to, seeing minie balls hanging in mid-air, or exploding into some poor guy’s face, and us Temps moving between the action, taking pictures.

It was quite an experience the first time I stood in front of a guy with a stream of blood coming down his face from a bullet hole between his eyes. I took the pictures, and went through his pack or his uniform, looking for his name on a letter, or a bible with an inscription, or anything else that might give me his identity. We take DNA samples, too, with blood draws on everyone who participated in the battle.

We use special digital cameras, so when a soldier is identified, that information goes into the main database. Every picture taken of him uses facial recognition technology to identify him.

In my latest assignment, I was photographing a teenage Confederate rifleman, and there was a power glitch. That glitch meant that as I was photographing him Time Out suddenly went Live, and I was in the middle of the battle. In a sudden panic I dropped my camera.

It happens very rarely, but occasionally there is some overload or problem with the hard drive, and until it corrects itself, usually within seconds, those of us on the battlefield are suddenly in grave danger. Not to mention looking like apparitions to our subjects. We wear coveralls, helmets and masks to keep us from spreading our viruses, or from inhaling any 1863 germs. Detecting our presence can cause a distortion of the time stream, at least momentarily, so the software is supposed to correct it. This time that didn’t happen. I was photographing the kid from the front and when he went Live it shocked me. I jumped out of his way and dropped the camera. I dove behind a nearby tree, just before a shouting pack of a half-dozen or so riflemen ran by me. In about 30 seconds the computer came back on line, corrected itself and went back to Time Out. Even after a careful search I could not find the camera. Maybe one of the riflemen saw the camera and stopped to pick it up. Regardless of why, it was not there when I looked for it.

No one living in 1863 would know what they were looking at if they stumbled onto a digital camera. But we have to be very careful of what we are supposed to be constantly on the lookout for when introducing anachronisms into the time stream: the Bradbury Effect.

Do you remember that story by Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder”? In it some time travelers on a hunting expedition in the dinosaur era wander off a designated path and one guy steps on a butterfly. That changes history down the line. So when the main characters get back to their original time period everything is changed. They even have a new president, an “iron man.” Would the Bradbury Effect happen in real life? In theory reality would change in a way a person would be shifted into a new reality without remembering the old reality. That is how it was explained to us, anyway. But here I am, knowing I am proof of the Bradbury Effect, and hurrying to write it down before the alternate time stream in which I now find myself causes my brain to erase the old stream and let the new take over.

Which brings me to Live, right now. Before leaving the time travel facility adjacent to Gettysburg, I had to make a report and admit I lost the camera. My boss was not one bit happy about it. I got a lecture on abandoned anachronisms and what they are thought to do — and it made me think, am I really the first Temp to lose something in the time stream? —then he added another indignity. He put me on temporary suspension while the effect of my screw-up could be studied.

Well, he needn’t bother, because I can see the effect for myself, and that is why I have to write this before my brain adjusts to a new reality.

When I was last in 2016 it was the day of the general election. As I reported for duty, just before slipping back to 1863, the news was all abuzz about how the first female president was sure to be elected, and what it was going to mean. On the other hand, her opponent, a cranky curmudgeon with a bad comb-over hairstyle and an orange spray tan, would hopefully disappear into the night and never be heard from again.

All the polls said she would win. Everyone I knew voted for her. Everyone hated the orange man. They didn’t like anything he said or did. She was a shoo-in!

Imagine my surprise on coming back today and finding out there is no first female president. The orange-faced guy is now our new president. The inevitable question is, what the hell happened?

I sit here shaking. Something like that could not have happened had we not had an alteration to the time stream. It is my fault. I know it. My lost camera is the reason that this man is now President of the United States.

I do not think any punishment could be severe enough for putting this pumpkin-head in the top office of the most powerful country in the world.

The only solace I have is that within a very short period of time, as the theory holds, I will not remember being the cause, but until I blissfully lose this memory I offer here my mea culpa, and if allowed to go back to 1863, I promise this time I will attach my camera by a strap so I can’t lose it again. But then…how much worse could I confuse the time stream than what I have already done?

January 20, 2017

It is inauguration day and that man is now officially the President of the United States. Unfortunately, the part about having memories replaced when time changes occur is not true. I remember everything. I may have to live with this nightmare for the rest of my life.

Lord help us if that man in the White House ever finds out about Project Yesterday, and what he would do with it if he seized control of time travel technology. Remember what I said about it being terrifying if the Nazis had control of time travel?

Forgive me, America. Forgive me, world! I am the one who did this to you!

Copyright © 2017 Postino

Friday, January 20, 2017

“...and curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid get!” A 40-year anniversary of the day I quit smoking

Today is another anniversary for me. I have kept it in memory for 40 years. Because my wife was pregnant I quit smoking cigarettes on January 20, 1977. I made note of the date. I had smoked for ten years, at least two packs a day, and yet I was able to quit on my first try. (Hurrah for me.)

Well, amend that. It wasn't until the mid-'90s when I went on the anti-depressant, Wellbutrin (trade name for bupropion), that the cravings for nicotine left me for good. Bupropion is also marketed as Zyban, for smoking cessation. In my case Wellbutrin was working on two things at once.

 Stock photo of a couple of 1960s GI’s firing up their gaspers.

I had smoked off and on as a teenager, mostly with friends, but could go days or weeks without a cigarette. I was sent to Germany by the U.S. Army in May, 1967. When I got to my duty station I bought two cartons of cigarettes for $1.70 each. Individual packs were 17¢. (You folks who are smokers now are paying around $5.00 a pack, mostly because of taxes. We had no taxes on our cigarettes bought in the PX.)

I remember the day 50 years ago I realized I was addicted to cigarettes.  One evening we were on a field maneuver, and some old sarge gathered us around to talk to us. We had been listening to him talk for about a half hour when one of the guys couldn't stand it anymore and lit a cigarette. The sergeant told us, “Okay, if you want a smoke, go ahead and light up.” I lit up because I had a strong craving. I knew I was addicted. At that moment the nicotine drug had finally taken hold, and in a strange way I was relieved. No more playing around, I was a full-fledged smoker.

As is common with addictions, soon the addiction is running you and not the other way around. Until my wife got pregnant I had not intended to quit, or at least not quit until sometime in the future, but thinking of a baby growing up in a cloud of smoke (as I did, since my father was a smoker) made me determined to quit.

When I was a two-pack-a-day smoker it became a drag. Stinky cars, stinky clothes, stinky breath. Ugh. I wanted to change that. And then the writing was on the wall for all smokers. The clean air acts were being put into law, limiting where smokers could light up. The pariah status for smokers was slowly implemented over time.

When my doctors took my medical history and asked if I had ever smoked I told them I quit in 1977. As the years have gone by it seems less likely that there would be any lingering health effects. Maybe I’m wrong, but if I get lung cancer I don’t believe it will be as a result of my history of smoking half a century ago.

Over time we have learned that the companies that sold cigarettes were not only aware of the health risks and tried to deflect attention from them, but by careful study they knew exactly what the effects of the chemicals in cigarettes were doing to the human body.* They knew the mechanisms of nicotine addiction. One line that came from an employee of a big tobacco company stayed with me when he described cigarettes as “a nicotine delivery system.” Big Tobacco is a legal death dealer, and has never been made to pay the full price for its deadly deception and being the cause of thousands of deaths per year. There is nothing I can do about that but tell people not to start smoking just because you want to be cool, or look like all of the dopes who smoke in movies and TV shows.

*The Big Book of Vice is one of a series of “Factoids, ” drawn comics style, and published by Paradox Press, a division of DC Comics. A chapter in the book is devoted to tobacco and cigarettes. One four-page section of that chapter is about the tobacco companies that sacrificed their fellow citizens for profits. It is written by Steve Vance, and drawn by Seth Fisher.

Copyright © 1999 Steve Vance and Seth Fisher

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Life and Legend (and Art) of Wallace Wood

On a day in 1956, while Mom did her grocery shopping, I passed the time waiting for her by looking at the paperback book rack. I found The Mad Reader paperback. It was one of those moments I can say changed my life. I was already a comic book fan, but this tipped me over into the world of Mad, satire, Harvey Kurtzman and his retinue of fabulous cartoonists: Will (then called Bill) Elder, Jack Davis, and Wallace Wood. “Superduperman” and this Wood splash panel in particular, was what did it for me.

Wood’s short and unhappy life was in sharp contrast to all of the joy he brought to his fans. He died in 1981, yet the cult of Wood refuses to die. I believe everything Wood ever drew professionally, or even as a kid, has been reprinted somewhere. What was meant as a throwaway medium, the comic book, has been elevated to the status of art, and has value as a collectible. Wood is one of those artists high on the collector’s want list.

The Life and Legend of Wallace Wood, published by Fantagraphics, reprints in a deluxe format a lot of the highlights of Wood’s career, as well as tell the story of an obsessed artist. It is enlightening, but also sad. Wood destroyed himself by overwork, cigarettes and alcohol. In the end suicide by gun brought the end to his torment.

I prefer to think of Wood in the way that I saw him when I was a youngster reading Mad paperback books and then Mad magazine, as a somewhat mystical figure who came up with drawings that fascinated and delighted and inspired me. As far as I knew Wood did not even put pen and ink to paper, but drawings came in a ray from his forehead and transferred themselves to my brain via the printed page.

In the late fifties and early sixties Wood’s work reached a form of glossy perfection that is still a wonder to me. He did illustrations for science fiction magazines (Galaxy, primarily), and his work in Mad went from pen-and-ink line illustrations to an ink wash technique that gave his figures a modeled effect on the page.

These examples of his Mad work are from issues number 44, 45, and 49, all from 1959.

Copyright © 1959, 2017 E.C. Publications, Inc.

This illustration was done for Galaxy magazine, cover dated December, 1958.

Copyright © 1958 Galaxy Publishing, Inc.