Once Upon a Time


Having hit fifty a few months ago, I find myself increasingly looking to the past, at the people, places, books, music, and movies that helped shape me.

It used to be, I’m sure, a time for musing, wondering what happened to those elementary school friends, trying to conjure up faces on favorite television series watched as a child in a different country, remembering only the feelings provoked by movies that impressed at age fifteen.

The past moved further and further back, getting smaller as—inevitably–less of it was remembered.

At this point in time of exponential technological development, instead of wondering what happened to those elementary school friends, high school friends, college friends whom I lost touch with a long time ago, I can now search Facebook, school websites, and the internet in general and actually find many of them. And then stay in easy contact if both parties so desire.

I just can’t get over it.

My best friend in elementary school wears pearl necklaces and loves zinfandel. Clearly fifty and yet still very much the fun kid I knew. A college friend now lives in New Zealand. And the fact that people live in Holland, America, Australia, or New Zealand no longer matters.

When I want a blast from the past I can also visit my old school’s website, where former students post memories and class pictures. Browsing those, I was reminded of the slideshow our biology teacher in 7th grade showed us of the birth of his daughter. Because it had also made such an impression on somebody else and she had posted it as a memory.

I even chatted back and forth briefly with my fifth grade teacher and I thanked him for a great year. He actually remembered me, which is more than impressive, considering how many students he must have had in his career.

I grew up watching television (black and white, not because color wasn’t out there yet, but because my parents preferred black and white) when the programs were on and movies when they were presented in the cinema.

If something happened that made me miss an episode of a series, there was nothing to be done about it. If I wanted to see a movie again, I had to wait until it came to the big screen again, which in Holland the good ones did.

I saw Once Upon a Time in the West around 1976, already a rerun, and again when I was in college in the early 80’s. It made a tremendous impression on me, and I was blown away by the soundtrack, which I played to oblivion in my tiny bedroom.

A few days ago I found the DVD at the half price bookstore for $3.99 and I watched it yesterday with my 14-year-old son. I just couldn’t get over the fact that I was watching Once Upon a Time in the West, from my couch, on my TV, and that I can watch it again today if I want to.

And a few years ago I bought all the episodes of the 1950’s Robin Hood TV series with Richard Greene that I lived for in Australia at age 9. I hadn’t seen them since.

I spent days being a kid again, remembering my fantasies of running away from home and living in the greenwood. (It would have been trickier in the Australian bush, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming.)

My children talk of time and space travel, but I’m doing it. I’m revisiting the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s in Australia and Holland from my couch in America in a way I could never have imagined even ten years ago.

I wonder what possibilities my children will have decades from now, and at the same time I know they will never experience what I’m experiencing right now, because for them time and space is already less absolute.

They are already able to stay in touch with friends from former schools much easier via email and later via Facebook and such. They can communicate with relatives in Australia any time they want. They have grown up having videos and now DVD’s of their favorite movies to watch whenever they want, so the movie theater experience already continues at home for them.

Especially with movies I wonder if—looking back decades from now—they will have had the same impact as movies did on me. They must be less special, but at the same time they can know a movie so much better, noticing and remembering every detail after seeing it five times or more, whereas for me, seeing Once Upon a Time in the West again after such a long time, I realized that my memory of it was very different from the real thing.

I think that whatever comes next, our generation is the last one that will experience these blasts from the past, these moments where we revisit people, places, experiences for the first time again after many decades.

I experienced the tail end of an era where for most people, emigrating to Australia meant that you never saw your home country again.

Snail mail was sea mail as opposed to airmail. The fastest written communication was a telegram. Writing technology in the home had reached as far as the electric typewriter. In college, keeping in touch with friends meant writing handwritten letters on nice stationery.

Finding a school friend after decades occurred at reunions, once every ten years at most.

I wonder to what degree my children will be measuring their lifetime by the people they knew and the movies they saw and the places they went in the past, when all those people, images, and memories are at their fingertips all the time.

Mind-boggling as it is for me to find a friend after almost forty years, or to write back and forth at the speed of internet with someone in Australia, or to suddenly own my favorite movies from my teen years, it’s even more mind-boggling to think that for my children there won’t be nearly as much revisiting the past as I’m doing now.

Maybe time travel is something that happens so gradually that the generations experiencing it won’t even realize they’re doing it, because their sense of time and space has already been changing as technology evolves.

I would love to know what you think, even about old posts.

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