The Mysteries of Me

I read this article yesterday about some Vietnam-era protesters, ones who adopted the strategy of committing civil disobedience and then waiting around to be arrested, so-called Hit and Stay. One particular incident was focused on, as it happened 50 years ago. People went to jail, etc. The perpetrators are now in their 70s and seem to feel OK about that whole thing.

I skimmed the piece for the most part, barely interested, until I read this tidbit:

In the days before copiers and computers, local draft boards kept Selective Service registrations on 3-by-5-inch index cards. There was no central registry in the United States, Bransome said.

“If you managed to spirit away or destroy the cards, you could keep someone from getting drafted since there was no backup system,” he said. “These actions had a very real impact on the draft.”

This seems intuitive, given that I was alive at the time and so I’m aware of the state of technology, but it never occurred to me before. We’ve become so dependent on the nothing ever goes away aspect of digital life, I think it’s easy to forget that documentation used to be tenuous, dependent on index cards and fire safety classes.

I thought about this as I stared at my birth certificate yesterday. I had an appointment at the passport office today, so I was double-checking forms against my original vital statistics. I wondered about a big fire, say, at the Los Angeles County something that destroyed all evidence of my birth. Suddenly it feels like a real thing, losing vital records.

It makes me think of Cinderella Liberty, as a matter of fact, the story of a sailor whose records get lost, and thus can’t be transferred or discharged, stuck in a hospital where he went for a minor procedure. He’s given a pass every day, everyone being sympathetic, although he has to be back by midnight (thus the title).

Caan and Mason, “Cinderella Liberty” (1973)

Caan and Mason, “Cinderella Liberty” (1973)

They made a movie of it in 1973, with James Caan and Marsha Mason. I think I saw it (it was filmed in Seattle, so maybe I should watch it again just to see what the place looked like then; kind of seedy downtown, as I recall) but I definitely read the book a couple of times.

The whole thing is kind of fascinating to me, the way at one point it would have been fairly simple to drop off the grid and become an unperson (or a Unabomber, I guess). These days, not so easy. My daughter mentioned the other day that she has absolutely no expectation of privacy in this world, and neither do her peers. This surprised me a little, but also made a lot of sense.

This is the world they grew up in, a world of sharing details online, and then the rising of the surveillance state. There are two sides to this, with the usual polarity: Good stuff, bad stuff. Younger people may be resigned, and just opt in for the positive aspects (GPS directions, ordering everything online, etc.) and are probably sophisticated enough by their age and experience to decline the more obvious traps.

For the olds? Not such good news. Those Nigerian millions aren’t going to give themselves away.

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This birth certificate/passport business kickstarted a bunch of stuff. For one thing, I kept looking at the names and ages of my parents. They were 21. They should have been still in school, having a blast, still a ways from adulthood and all that dreary stuff.

Instead, they were surviving on probably $500 a month (if that), with a new baby and a toddler at home. My mind has trouble comprehending, or understanding how unremarkable that was in 1958. I grew up with the children of their high school friends, all about the same age.

And of course I’m imagining the hospital, with scenes from Mad Men to help me. I can see the doctor delivering me, cigarette dangling from his mouth, sexually harassing the nurses in their starched uniforms and automatic subservience.

Mostly, I’m just thinking about how long I’ve been alive. And how I’m getting my first passport at the age of nearly 61, having never had the need, desire, or opportunity to get east of New England (or west of Vancouver Island). Been to Mexico and Canada, when we didn’t need passports.

There are good reasons for this, and I’m not alone, although my wife and daughter have both traveled in Europe. I was never in the military. I never belonged to a musical or other extracurricular organization in school that might take a foreign trip. I never had a junior year abroad. I’m not sure I had a junior year.

And then there was just being self-employed, and the few breaks I could manage were spent on visiting family, most of whom live a distance and need some travel to reach.

All of this is great, and I’m anticipating the trip, knowing I’m heading to the part of the world I’d most like to explore, for whatever reason. I want to wander the entire UK, Scandinavia, Iceland. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s some weird genetic pull, but other than my skin coloring I don’t take this all that seriously. My distant relatives were all colonists or early Americans. I’d no more relate to being Scottish or Danish or English (as I guess I am) than I would to being Texan (for example), where a bunch of relatives resided (also Missouri, Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania). I’m me. Just an older me, and kind of parochial when it comes to places.

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Finally, at some point with all this musing about mortality and long lives (not in a morbid or blue way, just curious), I started thinking about influential teachers. I have a long list, something from each that lives on, loves and interests inspired by excellent instructors.

And I was thinking that they all must be dead by now. My favorite teacher, a good friend, passed away a year ago, and I know of several other favorites who have left us. Makes sense. I mentioned being nearly 61, I think.

But a few names popped up, and I actually found my eighth-grade English teacher, apparently alive and well and very active in education, even though in her early 80s and retired from teaching, per se. I think about her a lot, mostly because her passion for books and language was passed on in certain ways, particularly breaking down certain novels and understanding structure.

So I’m not that old, maybe. I did find an obituary for a teacher that made me sad, being a younger one (would have been 73 today, had she not died at 64), and there was another one I found on Facebook, although I’m less interested in him. I’m not really inclined to reach out to any of these people, although I’m a big fan of thanking teachers for their influence. It just was a long time ago, and they had a lot of students.

But I remember, and that’s enough, and I was grateful to know some are still around.

And that I’m still around, and I’ll leave this here to end, because my passport photo (they insist you take off your glasses, and I always wear glasses, and I suspect there’s a Clark Kent thing going on because I really, really don’t seem to look like myself without them) to my eyes looks like they took a photo from me from 45 years ago and then digitally aged it. Hard to explain, because really, it looks like an older me, which duh. But it made me smile. Here I am, same guy. Just more wrinkled and worn.

And heading for Heathrow, where some bloke is bound to not be chuffed and all Blimey, you really bodged that, mate and sending me to some posh prison called Attica-on-Ludlam where I get a cuppa once a day and only have to bathe once a month. Just because I don’t look like me.

On the other hand, I think I sort of look like Jon Voight. Unsure about that. Brilliant, though.

Above: Current picture, passport photo, Jon Voight

Chuck SigarsComment