Categories
Science Fiction short stories

To Engage With Time


Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, Oil painting, Americana,

What makes Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting one of his most celebrated works? Created in 1942, Nighthawks is considered the incarnation of existential art, capturing the alienation and loneliness symptomatic of modern urban life. The following story is inspired by the painting.

I mount the time machine and dial the year nineteen-forty-two. I have a keen interest in the war years. Activities like storming the beaches of Normandy are not high on my priorities list. I stay far behind the front lines. I find the study of American culture during the war years fascinating. I stay away from heavily populated cities to remain inconspicuous. You might say I’m not truly adventurous, excluding, of course, time travel and my voracious appetite for knowledge. I’m a scientist, first and foremost. As soon as I’ve perfected my time-traveling technology, I intend to unveil it in a white paper report and work with a team to use my discoveries for the betterment of mankind.

I finish entering all of the pertinent data into the onboard computer and push the launch button.  Seconds later, the machine deposits me in the small town of Independence, Ohio. On this trip, I find myself on a corner across the street from an all-night diner. My trans-spacial watch tells me it’s two-thirty in the morning. Materializing in small towns on deserted streets in the middle of the night is a proven method for avoiding stampeding crowds.

Illustration of a time machine from the story "A Lesson In Time" by David Gittlin

I’m a bit freaked out by the feeling of emptiness the town exudes. I console myself with the thought that I’ve arrived in the middle of the night and everything is closed except, it seems, the diner across the street.

Through the panoramic window, I see four people sitting at the counter inside. My curiosity peaks as I begin, once again, to study life in the past, this time eighty years ago. This morning will be different than the others in one important respect. It marks the first time I will interact with people and environments of the past. I feel that I’ve learned enough from my previous trips to take this momentous step. And, I can no longer resist the urge to relate to people instead of simply observing them.

As I cross the street, I check my reflection in the large window. I’m dressed appropriately for the era in a blue business suit and matching tie with black wingtip shoes and neatly barbered hair. I’ll blend right in. Swinging open the glass and chrome door, I enter the cafe and take a seat at the counter a measured two seats away from a man sitting by himself. 

The small diner smells of stale cigarette smoke, fresh coffee, and the faint scent of body odor from the man two seats away. To my right, half the wall is fitted with small bins containing tempting muffins, cakes, and breads.  Across the counter, a nice-looking middle-aged couple sit demurely drinking coffee. The man is wearing a gray suit with a matching hat, blue tie, and he’s smoking a chesterfield unfiltered cigarette. The pack lying by his hand on the counter tells me the cigarette brand. The man looks like a lawyer or a doctor. The woman is wearing a green silken cocktail dress. It sets off her blazing red hair nicely. By the looks of the two-carat diamond ring on her hand, I figure the couple is well-off and married.  I suppose the couple is drinking coffee to sober up for the drive home after a festive dinner party.

The man behind the counter approaches me. He is undoubtedly either the owner, or someone related to him. This is an independent operation as so many of these places were before chain automats and eventually Starbucks put most of them out of business.

“Coffee?” the man behind the counter offers. Wearing a blazing white uniform, he’s a smallish man with wire-rimmed glasses who is going prematurely bald.

“Black,” I say.

“You must be new around here,” the man says.

“You could say that,” I reply.

Lifting his eyes from his coffee cup, the man across the counter stares at me. He tips his hat revealing bright blonde hair. Combined with his deep blue-grey eyes, he’s a dead ringer for Peter O’Toole in his signature role as Lawrence of Arabia.

“My name’s Kendall,” he says in a friendly tone.” I wonder if it’s his first or last name. I happen to hate my first name. Who names their kid Saul forty years after the war? It would be a good name for my grandfather. Not for me.

“And I’m Allison,” the woman next to him says.

I’m surprised by the couple’s friendliness. Maybe it’s the late hour and the intimate setting. Maybe people here are friendlier to strangers than they usually are in the other the small towns I’ve visited. Maybe–just maybe–this will be easier than I thought it would be.

Illustration of time travel from the story "A Lesson In Time" by David Gittlin

“My name’s Saul,” I say to the couple. “Nice to meet you.” I turn to the man next to me, half-expecting him to introduce himself. It suddenly occurs to me that the guy hasn’t moved a muscle since I came through the door.

“Ignore him,” Kendall says. “He’s just part of the scenery.”

“I’m sorry for that unkind remark,” I say to the motionless man. He’s heavy-set, dressed in a brownish green striped suit, and looks every bit like a non-descript traveling salesman.

I turn back to the man named Kendall. “If that was a joke, I don’t think it’s funny. People have feelings. Didn’t your mother teach you that?”

The last thing I want to do is get into an argument with these people, but I can’t help saying something.

“You don’t have to worry about his feelings,” Kendall says.

“And what do you think?” I ask Allison. On closer examination, she looks uncannily like Julianne Moore in her role as Clarice Starling in the sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs.”

“Allison is new,” Kendall replies. “She’s still in training. She’s not supposed to talk much.”

“Wait a minute,” I say. “Who are you people?”

Kendall leans down and pulls a strapped leather briefcase from below the counter. He extracts a file, opens it, and begins reading.

“Let’s see. Saul Grossman, age thirty-two, engineer/designer employed by Raytheon Technologies, assigned to jet engine development, invented and now operates a time machine in his spare time. Does that about cover it, Saul?”

I am beyond shocked. Fear and anger compete to control me. Somehow, I manage not to panic. I don’t want to hear the answer to my next question, but I have to ask.

“How do you know so much about me?”

“You’ve been on our radar,” Kendall says. “Now that you’ve decided to interact with the past, it’s time for us to step in.”

I’m still in shock, but a ray of hope may be peaking through the gathering storm clouds. “Are you time lords, or some sort of benevolent time control agency from the future?”

“Sorry to disappoint, Saul. We’re your local branch office of the NSA. We made some adjustments to your time machine after reading your time journal in which you wrote, ‘I’m now confident that I can interact with the past to make the present better.'”

“So, you broke into my house without my knowledge or consent.”

“That’s about the size of it,” Kendal confirms.

I feel my intestines start to melt. “What sort of ‘adjustments’ are we talking about?”

“For starters, we’re not in the past. We’re in a computer simulation where the only thing that’s real is you.”

I try to imagine how this can be happening. Am I talking to naked human bodies floating in an electrochemical solution inside giant Pyrex glass tubs? Are they fitted with electrodes attached to their heads to facilitate thought-transference-voice-activation to their virtual avatars? Or is it a cutting-edge holographic computer program capable of interacting with a real-live me?

I reach into my pocket to push the button on my remote control extractor. I’m not going to stand still for this. Literally. I’ll be out of here and back in good old 2021 in no time–or a few seconds.

Nothing happens.

I try again. Still nothing.

“I forgot to mention we disabled your extractor,” Kendall says with a cheeky wink of an eye.

“So now what?”

“Now you stay here for the rest of your natural born existence, my friend.”

“You’re kidding. Right?

“Afraid not, Saul.”

“You can’t do this.”

“Would you rather be thrown in jail?”

“On what grounds?”

Kendall takes the last sip of his coffee. “We’ll think of something. It won’t be pretty.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“It’s an unfortunate situation, Saul. You’ve become a danger to yourself and the rest of us. You played with fire, and now you’re burned. The good news is we know how to use your technology better than you would have used it.”

Kendall grabs the briefcase and guides Allison to the front door. Before they leave, Kendall and Allison wave goodbye. “Have some fun,” Kendall says. “You’re an inventive guy.”

“Don’t leave. Please.”

“We’ll check back with you in another thirty years, if you’re still around,” Allison says with a cheerful smile.

Outside the door, I watch Kendall and Allison dissolve into ghostly vapors, then disperse into thin air.

The Time Travel Spiral
Categories
issues Politics Uncategorized

We Turned The Lights Back On


We Turned The Lights Back On When We Elected Biden

Ever felt like you were in a pitch-black closet fumbling for a light switch you couldn’t find?

I’ve felt that way many times. More than ever in the last four years.

I was afraid four more years of The Trump Administration would drive this nation into chaos, uncontrollable violence, and eventual destruction. I’ve never been this concerned about an election before. I thought our country was teetering on the edge of the cone of an active volcano. Below us, bubbling lava and acrid, poisonous smoke billowing upwards. If we had taken a wrong step, we would have fallen to our collective deaths in the seething lava a mile below.

Fortunately, there are enough sane and prescient people left in this country to look beyond their limited perspectives and see the big picture. An image of a large, rudderless sailing vessel comes to mind, headed in a zig-zag direction towards a swirling whirlpool in the ocean. We just missed sailing straight into that black hole. Instead, we corrected our course. We turned the lights back on.

Whew! That was a close one.

I’m particularly encouraged by the stance the Biden Administration will take concerning the environment. I’m encouraged that General Motors recently dropped out of the lawsuit Trump initiated against California regarding motor vehicle emission standards. This is an early example that we are regaining our sanity. We are already playing catch up with the programs needed to foster and enforce clean energy development and greenhouse gas emissions. As it stands, we are losing the battle to save the environment. Radical action and a new level of commitment are required to reverse the trends.

Now, at least, we have hope, not only concerning the environment. We have hope that caring attention and fresh ideas will be applied in many areas plaguing life in these United States, starting with an intelligent, cohesive, and coordinated governmental response to the Corona crisis.

I could go on, but I’ll spare you.

If you didn’t like the way the election turned out, then fine. You are entitled to your vote and your opinion. If you wanted more lunacy, then I’m sorry. We’re not going there. If you don’t want to get with the new program, no problem. It’s a free country. JUST PLEASE: DON’T GET IN THE WAY.

And, if you liked the election results, let’s get back to civility. Let’s put aside our differences. (There’s nothing wrong with healthy, respectful debate). Let’s work together towards a brighter future. Congratulations on pulling off this nail-biter. Good work and…

…Shine on.

We Turned The Lights Back On. There Is Hope For The Future.
Categories
Essays international issues

The Destruction of Our Rivers: Business as Usual


The earth is one big ecosystem. Think of it as a human body. Every cell, every organ, every system of organs is interdependent. Think of the water in the earth’s rivers as blood in the body’s circulatory system. What happens to the body when infection invades the blood stream? What happens when the body cannot produce enough cells to maintain a sufficient, systemic blood level? The answer, of course, is illness.

Industrialization, urbanization, and global warming have adversely affected the rivers of the world. Pollution and insufficient water levels pose a serious health threat to all life in the surrounding regions. The problem is common to big cities as well as rural areas. The best way to illustrate this point is to cite specific examples.

From approximately 1947 to 1977, the General Electric Company poured an estimated 1.3 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Hudson River from manufacturing plants at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward.

The health of area residents is at risk due to the accumulation of PCBs in the human body caused by eating the river’s contaminated fish. Since 1976, high levels of PCBs in fish have led New York State to close various recreational and commercial fisheries and to issue advisories restricting the consumption of fish caught in the Hudson River. PCBs contain carcinogenic substances known to stimulate the growth of cancer cells in humans. Additional adverse health effects include low birth weight, thyroid disease, nervous and immune system disorders. PCBs in the river sediment also affect fish and wildlife.

Runoff in urban and rural areas can easily affect a river’s health, putting local wildlife and human life at risk. Nitrates from fertilizers and pesticides collect in rainwater draining from surrounding land into rivers. These chemicals stimulate the growth of algae, throwing delicate, ecologic relationships out of whack. The result is a clogged, dysfunctional river system.

Runoff from acid rain and rain falling through polluted air is another source of contamination. A recent report states that pollution from urban runoff has become the Potomac River region’s fastest-growing water quality problem, threatening the quality of drinking water for 86 percent of local residents.

Several Abandoned mines located in England and Wales have caused significant pollution in nearby rivers. Dangerous metals such as iron, aluminum, tin, lead, mercury and cadmium from old mine workings contaminate drinking water extracted from regional rivers fed by polluted tributaries.

Phosphorous from detergents in sewage flushed into rivers is another dangerous pollutant. The chemical stays in the system for a long time, threatening plant life by taking up oxygen and poisoning the drinking water of animals and humans alike. The impact of a slow buildup of river pollution in a wide area can be devastating. In the 1950’s, the otter population in England was nearly wiped out by the accumulation of toxic wastes in major rivers throughout the country.

Rising weather temperatures caused by global warming have had a dramatic effect on fresh water levels in rivers around the world. Persistent drought conditions in Australia’s major farming region, the Murray-Darling river basin, threaten the nation’s food supply. The Murray-Darling crosses most of southeastern Australia and is one of the region’s most important river systems. It provides water for growing 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables, fruits, and grains.

Corey Watts, of the Australian Conservation Foundation in Melbourne, told reporters that drought conditions were becoming the norm in the area instead of occurring once every 20 to 25 years.

“We’ve had a string of official reports over the last fortnight painting a pretty grim picture for the climate and the future of our economy and our environment,” Watts said. “So now we’re looking at a future in the next few decades where drought will occur once every two years.”

The 2,000 year-old Yamuna is a river that “fell from heaven,” according to Hindu mythology. The residents of New Delhi worship the river and depend on it for life. Residents tossing coins and sweets into the river, or scattering the ashes of dead relatives from bridges jutting across the waters are a common sight. Unfortunately, the actions of the citizenry and the New Delhi governmental water board do not coincide with this feeling of reverence.

As the Yamuna enters the capital city, its waters are still relatively clean after a 246-mile descent from atop the Himalayas. New Delhi’s public water authority, the Jal Board, extracts 229 million gallons from the river daily for drinking water. As the river leaves the city, residents pour an average 950 gallons of sewage into the Yamuna every day.

As it winds through India’s capital city, the Yamuna transforms into a filthy band of black ink with clumps of raw sewage floating on the surface. Methane gas bubbles to the surface. The river is hardly safe for fish, let alone bathing or drinking water.

A recent government audit condemned the Jal Board for spending 200 million dollars on the construction of sewage treatment plants with minimal results. One of the city’s Pollution Control Board Directors said the situation “has not improved at all because the quantity of sewage is always increasing.” The regular occurrence of power failures adds to the problem.

The above examples are only a tiny representation of the problem. The health of the world’s rivers and their effects on plant, animal, and human life is a complex problem difficult to summarize in one short article. Governmental water management boards worldwide are struggling to deal with the problem now to avoid catastrophic water shortages in the next twenty years. Bold, new initiatives are under consideration along with traditional methods. One point is clear, however. Change in the way we treat the environment, collectively and individually, is essential.

The new movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” explores this theme. The story posits the theory that painful and necessary change can occur when it becomes obvious that doing things the same old way will lead to certain destruction. Certainly, we have reached this point with respect to the environment. Two questions remain. Will we change? Can we change in time to prevent a complete breakdown of the earth’s life sustaining ecosystem?

Sources: Gertner, Jon, “The Future Is Drying Up,” Time Magazine, October 21, 2007; Government of Australia — Waters and Rivers Commission, “Water Facts,” July 1997; Sengupta, Somini, “In Teeming India, Water Crisis Means Dry Pipes and Foul Sludge,” The New York Times, September 26, 2006.