Archive for Time Travel

La Belle Epoque: Just a Moment in Time

 

 

A time of optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, the apex of social order, and technological, scientific, and cultural innovation.
I wonder what it felt like to be there, then?
La_Belle_Epoque_ConVivio_Aug30_2018
 
On a slow-moving Tuesday afternoon in Carmel, California, Liam found himself wandering along Ocean Avenue staring into the front windows of the dozens of art galleries that brightened this otherwise foggy neighborhood. What was he doing there? The factual answer was that the company he worked for had sent its senior staff for a week-long conference by the sea to re-think some of its marketing strategies. Apparently, a secondary plan was to force the group together in an unfamiliar setting to promote some personal team building. The boss wasn’t satisfied with the way the group was functioning together and he figured that a week by the ocean in a relaxed setting with some good food and wine might loosen them up a bit. The schedule called for an agenda that sat them down in a conference room over breakfast and lunch to go through a list of issues. They had the rest of the day off. The hope was that they might spend the afternoons getting to know each other.
 
It didn’t sound like a bad plan, but the underlying reason the group didn’t function well together was that, at every opportunity, their conversations descended into their strong and differing opinions about the national news and politics of the day. For this little company, like so many others with an international clientele, these factors had a negative effect on their business. As a result, they had developed an unhealthy dislike for one another. So, Liam found a way to escape and wander downtown to get away from the … uh … “heat.”
 
Turning the corner onto Dolores Avenue, Liam found himself staring at a group of paintings in the window of one of the many neighborhood galleries. Two particular paintings had captured his attention the day before; so he returned to take a closer look. Each one was a street scene in the rain. People carrying umbrellas wound their way among horse-drawn carriages under street lamps lit early in the afternoon because of the drizzly darkness. Another painting featured a similar rain-soaked street, only the traffic consisted of turn-of-the-century automobiles. He was struck by how well the impressionist had rendered the effect of the rain on everything in the scene using oil on canvas. He found himself trying to imagine what it would have been like to walk that street at the turn of the twentieth century. A few moments later he found himself inside looking at a room full of similar images by the same artist. As a man approached him from a room in the back, Liam caught his eye and asked, “I’d love to know how he does that?”
 
“Sir?”
 
“The rain. How does he do it? I feel like I’m walking on that street and the rain is all around me. I can hear it sloshing in the street. I can almost feel the water.”
 
“You are very kind. I have been trying to master ‘water’ for years. I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. Paris around the turn of the twentieth century is my favorite time and place and she seems to look her best in the rain, don’t you think?”
 
“Oh, MY. YOU are the artist? An honor to meet you.” He offers his hand. “My name is Liam.”
 
“The pleasure is mine. My name is Edouard Cortes. [Shakes his hand.] And, yes, these are my work. If I’m not mistaken, you were in here yesterday. I appreciate your comments. And your question about the water — it turns out you can’t really paint water. Either you try to imitate how it distorts things you see through it or you try to capture things reflected in it. Otherwise, water is pretty much invisible.”
 
“Oh, now that you mention it, I can see that. I hadn’t really appreciated that before. I guess I hadn’t noticed. I promise not to tell anyone your secret.”
 
“Oh, it’s not much of a secret; but I appreciate a person willing to keep some things to themselves. You’d be amazed the kinds of things people babble about when they come in here.”
 
“Well, I am in a business that tries to keep some of its ideas private, ideas of a proprietary nature, if you will, so it’s not new for me.”
 
With a grin, “And your business is …?”
 
A similar grin, “Uh … private.”
 
And a wider grin, “Of course.”
 
“Mr. Cortes, I don’t want to intrude on your time; but I’d love to know what has attracted you to Paris at the dawn of the twentieth century. What is special about that time and place?”
 
“I don’t mind at all. It is one of my favorite topics.”
 
La Belle Epoque
“La Belle Epoque, in English, “The Beautiful Era,” is recognized in Western history as the period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. It was a period identified by its optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, the apex of social order, and technological, scientific, and cultural innovation throughout Europe and America. At its peak during the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the arts flourished, especially in Paris, where many masterpieces of literature, music, theater, and visual art gained recognition. I am quick to point out, however, that “La Belle Epoque” was named in retrospect, when held in sharp contrast to the forces that led to the horrors of World War I. Nobody thought of it that way during that golden age. For a pair of generations, it was merely ‘the way we are’ and it was unconsciously expected to continue indefinitely.”
 
Edouard pointed at two of his paintings, Café de la Paix and le Théatre — “I hope you can see those features in the faces of the people in my paintings and feel it as the rain washes the face and streets of Paris.”
 
[Click to view paintings by Edouard Cortes, esp. Café de la Paix, le Teatré, Saint Denis. https://www.google.com/search?q=paintings+by+edouard+cortes&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiIssSRlZXdAhVE54MKHXPDC7IQsAR6BAgDEAE&biw=1281&bih=919]
 
With some effort, Liam resisted the impulse to express his distaste for the current “epoque” here in the twenty-first century and compare it to the artist’s description of La Belle Epoque, not wanting to spoil the mood. Instead, “Sir, here I can see the feelings you have described in the faces of ladies walking across the intersection in their fashionable clothes, in the posture of people going about their business, and the dignified gentlemen walking toward us here. They are clearly living in a time and place that is quite unlike my own. My own visits to Paris did not do her justice, and I believe I am seeing Paris, here, in a way I have not seen her before.”
 
The artist did not look away from the painting as he went on, “Twilight has always seemed to me to be the best time for Paris to show her ‘Belle Visage’ during this time in her history, whether during the Winter snows of La Madeleine or the Spring rain on Des Champs Elysées.” The orange glow from the cafés and the moving splashes of sheen in the puddles of rain on the street are not fabrications, sir; and I hope you can see them.”
 
Liam examines them a while. “I cannot help but wonder, Mister Cortes, how an artist like yourself, living here and now, can capture Paris of La Belle Epoque, more than one hundred years ago, with such confidence. I must add it to the list of things I don’t understand. I guess I just have to accept it as a wonder.”
 
The artist paused a long moment to notice the emotion in the face of his guest and, tilting his head to one side as if to get a clearer view, seemed to make a decision about him. Finally, “Sir, I have been working on another, larger piece in my private studio,” pointing to a door at the back of the gallery. “I wonder if you might be interested in taking a look. Since it has some rather unusual features, of a proprietary nature, as you say, perhaps I could show it to you.”
 
A Work in Progress — More Than Meets the Eye
Cortes escorted Liam to the back wall of the gallery. With a jangle of keys, he unlocked a door nearly hidden behind some shelves, gestured for him to enter, and closed the door behind them. The dark room came to life when the artist flipped a wall switch that lit a pair of spotlights embedded in the ceiling. The two beams illuminated a single painting that dominated the room. It was about six feet high, half again as wide, supported by a solid wood frame propped against the wall. The artist struck a pose with a grand sweeping gesture presenting a street scene in the rain. “It’s not quite finished, but I think you can get the idea — La Belle Epoque: Paris in 1900 in the rain. I haven’t settled on a name for it, but it depicts Porte Saint Denis.
 
Liam couldn’t quite see what was ‘unfinished’ about it, and it gave him the distinct feeling that the water on the street in the foreground was likely to splash onto the studio floor.
 
The imagery reminded him of the impressionism he was so fond of from the early twentieth century, not at all typical of the contemporary works he had seen elsewhere in other galleries on this street from his own decade. The street was littered with papers, and shiny blobs of water reflected the puddles the rain had deposited on the uneven streets. Horses pulled wagons — from tiny one-person carts to larger one-horse coaches to heavy four-horse cargo wagons. Crossing the intersection in front of him was a varied collection of Parisians — wealthy ladies dressed in the latest fashions, a baker carrying a box of baguettes to his customers, and businessmen looking important in the substantial coats and prominent hats of the day. A woman was walking toward us escorting a child across the street passing a man huddling inside a thin cloth coat against a cold, wet day. The sidewalk was quite crowded, nearly everyone wore hats — some briskly hurrying to get out of the rain, others taking their time, perhaps enjoying this important Parisian neighborhood at the height of its prosperity and peace.
 
Liam felt privileged to be in the company of the artist and wanted very much to say something ‘well-informed’ and appropriately appreciative. “The light! I’d love to know how you are able to show me the light shining off all of these different surfaces.” Before the artist could interject with his artistic technicalities, he continued, “but, to tell the truth, your technique is not really something I can appreciate, and I wouldn’t ask you to reveal your secrets. I am more interested in the feelings I believe I see in the faces of these people. Are they aware that they are living in this great city at such a peaceful, prosperous time? Oh, and the glow from the cafés — I’m thinking of the lives that are happening inside behind those glowing windows.”
 
The artist seemed pleased with Liam’s assessment. “Well, sir, you’ve hit on an important idea. These people, rich and poor like, are living at a sweet time. The poor had reason to be optimistic about their future and the rich had good reason to feel self-satisfied and secure in their privileges. Most of them had no idea of the turmoil and upheaval that was going to surround them in just a few short years that would change their lives dramatically.”
 
“Wouldn’t it have been sweet to stand there among them, walk those streets, hear the sound of those horses, join them in those lively cafés? I’d have some questions — how does it feel to be there on the streets of Paris during that time of such calm and stability? Do they have any sense of what is to come in just a short time? Oh, my, the light you provide in this painting makes me feel like I could be there with them.”
 
A Secret
Once again, the artist paused a long moment to examine the face of his guest and he seemed to confirm a judgement he had made about him. “Well, sir, I would like to invite you to do just that. There are “secrets” of a proprietary nature, as you say, that you must promise to keep to yourself. May I trust you to do that?”
 
“Well, yes, sir, you have my word — but I don’t know what I could possibly …”
 
“Here, you will need to carry this,” and the artist handed him an umbrella, picked one up for himself, put his sketchbook in a plastic bag, and gestured toward the painting. “You must step over the wood frame; and be careful, the street may be slippery. You’ll have to trust me on this. Here …” gesturing for Liam to follow him, the artist climbed over the wood frame and stepped onto the wet intersection in the foreground of the painting. Liam followed his lead and found himself standing in the crosswalk of Saint Denis. He could hear the clop of the horses strutting beside him and froze in his amazement. The artist took his arm and coaxed him across the street, over the curb, to the safety of the sidewalk. Before Liam could express his astonishment, Edouard asked him, “Do you speak any French?”
 
“Well, … uh … a little. I recall some from a year of college French, but …”
“That should be sufficient, we won’t be here long. The most important thing is to observe the faces and body language of the people around you. I think you will see the answers there to some of your questions.”
 
It was all so much to take in. Liam noticed the flowers on the corner, the woman he remembered from the painting crossing the street, the baker with his box of baguettes, and a waiter staring at the passersby from inside the café on the corner. The sign in the window said “Ouvrir.” Edouard opened the door and they walked into a warm, orange-lit café with tables set for lunch. The waiter who had been watching from the window ushered them to a table looking out on the sidewalk. He greeted them, “Bienvenue, Messieurs,” and handed them menus.
 
“We should order something.” Liam opened his mouth to answer, but closed it again, not quite knowing what to say. The artist spoke to the waiter, “Soup a l’oignon, un sauvignon de Bourgogne, pour deux, s’il vous plait.” And to Liam, “a little French onion soup and a white burgundy, OK?”
 
“Sure. Uh … “
 
“I know, it’s a bit much all at once. Just watch the faces and tell me what you see.”
 
Trying not to stare, Liam noticed two couples at the table beside them, as the waiter brought the wine and the soup. On the other side, a table with four well-dressed gentlemen who looked to be earnestly discussing business. Hats, scarves, and coats hanging on a rack beside each table. Liam and Edouard spent some time with their soup, before Edouard said, “Take your time. You wanted to know about these people. Study them. When you’ve finished your wine, we can talk about what you see.”
 
So, they ate their soup, drank the wine. Liam watched, thinking it over — another glass of Bourgogne. The couples came and went, replaced by two elderly ladies who had patisseries and tea. The businessmen lingered over cognac and seemed to have abandoned their business discussion and drifted to lighter topics.
 
Liam and Edouard spent a long afternoon watching, thinking it over, trying to take it all in. As the afternoon turned to twilight. Edouard took out his sketchbook and drew the lamppost outside the window. The rain had stopped. Finally, he paid the bill — “It’s time for us to go.”— and they walked out into the gathering dusk. “We need to find our way back and step back into our own time. But first, what did you learn?”
 
What Is There to Learn?
“Well, from what I could make out of their conversations, here was no politics, no economics, no troubled commentary. Faces were serious at times but nothing made them frown. Nobody seemed surprised at what they saw around them. I saw faces of people enjoying each other, not a care in the world.”
 
“And the ‘proper’ gentlemen?”
 
“Confident. Sure of themselves. On top of their game.”
 
“That’s a lot to derive from four hours of eavesdropping.”
 
“That’s true; but I’m comparing it to what I’ve experienced of four hours of my own time. What I hear consistently is disappointment, shock that things could have drifted so far wrong, surprise at what passes for ‘normal’; violence in the news every day, worry about an uncertain future — and the tense expressions on faces who have grown accustomed to all of that. I didn’t hear that here, didn’t see that.”
 
“Is it possible that you were looking for that result? Did you simply fulfill an expectation?”
 
“Sure. That’s possible. What do you think?”
 
The artist thought about it a while. “Well, it’s certain that most did not expect the hard times that were approaching. What you’ve described is surely a list of the differences between their time and yours. That much is well documented. I had hoped that my paintings would convey those conditions.”
 
Liam: “Can we bring some of it back with us?”
 
Edouard: After some thought … “Certainly not by merely stepping back out of my painting. You are the only one in this scene who could make such a difference — when you return.”
 
Returning to the rainy intersection, they stepped out of the painting, back into the studio. After standing silently for a moment, they exchanged pleasantries and thanks. Liam walked out of the gallery, giving the paintings a last glance and said “I hope to return.” He turned back to the corner of Dolores Avenue and was gone.
 
Returning on Friday
Friday at 2:00 pm, his week-long conference finally concluded — and with … well … moderate success — Liam hurried back down Ocean Avenue, turned at Dolores, and entered the gallery hoping to see Edouard Cortes once more before returning home. Today, however, as he walked past the paintings of Café de la Paix and Le Théatre just as they were on Wednesday, a younger, taller gentleman greeted Liam warmly. “Welcome. You are our first visitor since our remodeling project. It took longer to reopen than I had hoped; but we’re back now. Thanks for your patience.” He had a nametag reading “Alain Miller, Gallery Manager.”
 
“Sir, it is pleasure to be back again. I had the pleasure earlier in the week to meet Mr. Cortes,” pointing at his painting. “I have to return home today and I had hoped to say goodbye and wish him well. Is he here?”
 
“Well, Sir, we are indeed privileged to have two of Edouard Cortes’ originals here in our gallery. There are not many on the West Coast. I think I understand your feelings — spending time with his masterwork must surely give one the feeling of meeting him in person.”
 
“No, Mister Miler, I spoke to him here in your gallery and back there in his … uh …” Gesturing at the back wall, Liam was shocked to notice that the door in back wall of the room was not there where he remembered it.
 
The manager, with a grin — “Well, sir, I share your interest, surely; but Mr. Cortes has never been here in the U.S. He passed away in 1969 in Lagny-sur-Marne, in France, where he spent his entire life.”
 
For Liam, there were no words.
 

A Ride to Nana’s House

 

 

 

Dedicated to my timeless sister.

 

 

 

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76-ConVivio_1931_Packard

Danville, California — A rainy Sunday afternoon was made to order for a trip to a museum; and just a few miles up the road in Danville, we’ve got the famous Behring Auto Museum.  Since we had never seen it, Gretta and I decided to spend the day strolling through one of the finest collections of classic sports cars on the West Coast.

The modern building has polished stone floors, elegant lighting, and two stories of magnificent cars — some of them one-of-a-kind, many specially built for royals or movie stars. After just a few minutes surrounded by the likes of a 1933 Alpha Romeo, the only existing 1911 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, and Howard Hughes’ black 1929 Duesenberg, I felt transported to another time.

 

 

Trying to visualize a street where cars like these were actually driven took some serious imagining.  But when I literally (ooops!) bumped into the magnificent 1931 red-orange convertible Packard 840 Deluxe Eight, my imagination was fully engaged.  I pictured myself face to face with Jay Gatsby in his circular West Egg driveway, one foot on the running board, adjusting the mirror strapped to the spare tire, polishing it with the handkerchief from the breast pocket of his white linen suit.  The uniformed security guard didn’t much like the fact that I had accidentally touched the classic, “Please be careful, sir.  We much prefer that you not touch … ”

Yes, I’m sorry, it sorta snuck up on me.”
I grinned but he was not amused. So I offered
what I thought wound be an additional apology:
“This one is just stunning, don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir. The Packard does bring a person
back to a more … interesting … time.”  His
expression suggested that he had some
experience with that time — and he seemed
to prefer it to now.

“I bet you know these cars better than anyone, Mister  … uh …?”
“Yes, sir. Carraway, sir.”

“Do you ever get to drive these cars, Mister Carraway?  I mean, after hours maybe, when no one’s around?”

I WOULDN’T THINK OF IT, SIR!! He raised his voice a bit and looked me in the eye for the first time, as if I had accused him of something serious.  I grinned back at him as if to share a guilty secret.  He looked away thoughtfully, back to the Packard.  “Owners take some of them out from time to time, keeps them alive, so to speak.  But this one …  ”

“This one is different?”

“Yes, sir.  Different.  Special.  Has a life of its own and a tragic story.  Timeless, you could say.  Really should be driven regularly; it’s pretty smooth for an eighty-five-year-old.”  The first hint of a smile appeared and was quickly withdrawn.

“Now you’ve got me intrigued, Mister … uh … Carraway, you said.   Sounds like you’ve gotten to know this one.”    No reaction.     “I read in your brochure that they made only a few of these.  The sticker price was pretty steep — $3,200 was some real money in 1931, eh?  I wonder how many people could consider buying one of these in the depth of the Depression?”

“Only one that I knew at the time.”

“At the time  … ?”

The straight-faced guard looks at his watch, “Sir, you know it’s getting to be time to close.  You’ll forgive me if I begin.”

“Of course, I’ve taken too much of your time already.”

“Not at all,” he said, turning to leave.

Alright, I couldn’t resist —  “Mister Carraway, one more thing, if I may. If a respectful gentleman were to …  uh  …  linger here at closing time one day, if he were willing to wait a while, quietly  …  I wonder if it would be possible — not to drive it, of course, but when you  … perhaps  … uh …”

“Forgive me, sir, I really must close.”

“Of course, perhaps we’ll talk another time.”

He nodded but said only, “Good afternoon, sir.”   It was clear that I had been dismissed.


Over the next week I just couldn’t get that ’31 Packard out of my mind.  I imagined Mister Carraway locking the museum doors at closing time, setting the alarms on the public entrances, and slipping back to the shop area to retrieve the keys to the Packard.  In my melodramatic imagination, he would turn off the closed-circuit surveillance cameras, push the red-orange beauty through the back door into the shop, start it up, and drive it out into the back lot.  I wondered if he had the nerve to take it out into the public parking lot or even — NO WAY — out into the nearby residential neighborhood.  Of course, the fact that this magnificent vehicle would be completely out of place in this neighborhood and  … well  …  in this time, made it a ridiculous idea.  It isn’t something he could pull off unnoticed.

As the days passed, I became increasingly convinced that Mister Carraway did exactly that — and I indulged my outrageous fantasy that I could somehow join him on one of his rides.  But how?  Maybe if I did some research and showed up spouting a wealth of knowledge about the ‘31 Packard and not a little admiration, maybe he would be impressed by my love of the machine and its history and give me a ride.  It wasn’t a great idea, but it was the best I had; so, I turned to the Internet.

The results of my search were quite interesting.  It seems that Packard made a strategic decision to try to beat the effects of the market crash of ’29 by building a vehicle even more luxurious and more expensive than ever before.  They figured that those who still had that kind of money would want the most opulent model they could find and would abandon the mass-produced “luxury” cars like Cadillac, which they judged, would soon be going out of business. It sounded like a half-baked strategy to me; and it turns out that they badly misjudged the very small number who would survive the crash with that kind of money and ended up building and selling precious few of them.


So, ten days later, after doing my homework, I showed up on a weekday afternoon when I hoped there would be fewer visitors.  I found Mr. Carraway leaning against one of the “Please do not touch” signs, looking bored.  At the risk of being a pest, I greeted him: “Ah, Mister Carraway, nice to see you again.  Last week I fell I love with your ’31 Packard over there and I’ve done some reading.  It has a bit of a history.”

“Yes, sir, I remember your interest.  It does have quite a history.”  He followed me as I walked over to the red-and-orange beauty.

“I learned that the few who owned one of these included some big names — some Hollywood folks, some politicians, ‘captains of industry.’  I’d love to know who owned this one.”  I touched the hood gently with what I thought was proper respect.

“Sir, PLEASE.”  With a deep frown, Mr. Carraway took out a handkerchief and wiped my fingerprints off the hood and made a visible effort to quell his annoyance that I had been so presumptuous to have touched the Packard on purpose.

“I’m terribly sorry … I’ve done it again.  Please forgive my carelessness.  I know it’s no excuse but I do feel such a connection to this vehicle.  Makes me feel that somehow, we can connect to the world it comes from — something I’d love to do.”  With a thoughtful nod, he seemed to approve of my feeling of connection. So, I plunged into my strategy: “I read some stories on the Internet  — and I remembered that you mentioned a “tragic story.” I read about Jean Harlow and how she had a Packard like this one.   I was hoping to learn more.  I keep thinking about all the stories these cars could tell about the people who came before us. What do YOU think?”

He hesitated, then looked me in the eye;  it was 4:30 and the place was almost empty.  Before he could tell me it was time to leave, I continued, “I was hoping we could talk more about the tragic story you mentioned last week.”  To my surprise, he suggested that I wait here while he closed up shop.  “I’ll be a few minutes,” he said.

When he returned after securing the public entrances, he told me that none other than movie executive Paul Bern had bought this Packard for actress Jean Harlow on her 21st birthday in 1932 to celebrate the movie contract with MGM he had negotiated.  They were married that year but two months later he committed suicide.  And when she died suddenly only five years later, the car became he property of the MGM studio.”

“Oh, my.  I read that story — I was captivated.  So, THIS is the one!  What a privilege to see it!”

“The very one, sir.  The heirs donated it to the museum when it opened in 1988.”  He hesitated, seeming to make a decision about what to say next.   Finally, “It has some ‘remarkable features.’”

“So, it still runs.  Wow!  Remarkable features, you say?  Let’s see, I read that its larger valves, a special fuel pump, and a preheated fuel mixture increased its power and it was one of the first cars to exceed a top speed of 100 miles per hour.  Pretty remarkable for the 1930s.”

“Well, OK, you have done your homework.  Those are certainly some of its mechanical features,” — with a chuckle —  “but there is much more to this Packard than meets the eye.”

“Mister Carraway, I fear I’m being rude, but …  do you suppose …  I would like to get to know this wonderful heirloom, if I may … and you seem to know it well.”

Before I could find words to ask my outrageous question … he raised his hand and interrupted, “Sir …” and he stopped, looked around with a pained expression, apparently considering carefully what to say next.  With nobody within earshot, he bit his lip and looked me up and down carefully and then focused on my eyes.  “Sir, …  I will need your absolute assurance that what I’m about to show you will be our secret.”  After I agreed, he said quietly, “Please wait here …  and, Sir, PLEASE don’t touch anything” and he was off to fetch the keys.


The Packard started up with a metallic roar and he steered it off the exhibit floor, out the door to the maintenance bay and, to my surprise, drove us straight to the back of the parking lot and onto Blackhawk Plaza Circle.  After the familiar bend to the left, instead of the freeway on-ramp I expected to see, he turned right into a two-way country road I didn’t recognize.  He noticed my surprise, and said, “Where would you like to go?”

I answered with my best grin, “You’re in charge.  Where are we allowed to go?”

“Well, our travels are governed by two conditions.  One: we can drive anywhere there is a suitable paved road and you’ll notice ready that we are on a road that is unfamiliar to you.  That brings us to our second condition, which is not so much about “where” but “when.”

“Excuse me?”

“You will remember I told you this Packard has special features — this will be hard to believe, but I hope you will be quickly convinced.  I can’t explain why or how, but once this vehicle leaves the confines of the museum, it “lives” in the 1930s.  Back then, this town was primarily a farming community of about 2,000 people.  This rural road was replaced in the 1950s and 60s by a system of freeways; but in 1932, it wandered north and east through farmlands that you know today as Walnut Creek, Concord, Pittsburg, and Antioch.  As you read on the website, this car was owned by the actress Jean Harlow from her 21st birthday in March of 1932 until her death in June of 1937.  Outside of the museum, this car travels any time between those dates.”

I stared out the window at the green hills for a long minute, then turned back to him, opened my mouth to speak, then closed it and turned back to the window.  Finally, I took a deep breath and said, “Let me get this straight, you are telling me that you are a time traveler, is that right?”

“Yes, and by the end of the day that, today, here in Jean Harlow’s Packard, you will be a time traveler as well.  Now, how this all came about is a longer story for another time.  But for now, again, where and when do you want to go?  Does anything in the 1930s interest you?”

Once again, I stared out the window, trying to process this startling information.  (I thought, ‘what have I got to lose?  What the heck?)  “OK, so let’s say I believe you.  We seem to be heading toward where my sister and I grew up a long time ago,” I said.  “She was born in Pittsburg in 1932, a few miles from here.  Since I wasn’t there at the time — I was born much later —  can we go there … uh … then and have a look?”
“Sure  Have you got an address and a date?”

Where and When

My sister and I grew up in two very different households, although with the same parents.  Born in the middle of the Depression, hers was a depression-era blue-collar family.  Her father, Albert (known as “Al” or “AJ”) hadn’t finished the 8th grade and worked in the local steel mill.  Money was tight and Al and his wife Mae lived in a back bedroom in Mae’s parents’ house (‘Nana’s house’) on 12th Street in Pittsburg and they didn’t own a car.  By the time I came along in 1950, Dad was making serious money as an insurance agent and they lived on Manville Avenue on the other side of town.  My sister, Anita Mae, was born in Nana’s bed in the house on 12th Street.  It was a big house and it was full of family.  Her five-year-old Uncle Tony, the youngest of nine children, called her ‘Honey Bunny’; and the name stuck — shortened to “Bunny” — all her life.

“Mister Carraway,” I said, “How about 12th Street in Pittsburg, October 12th, 1932, at 11:20 pm.  It’s a corner house with wide plank steps up to a front porch.”

“That’s pretty specific.  What’s happening?”

“I was told that my sister was born in the front bedroom of that house on that day, at that time.”

We pulled up to the house on 12th Street at 11:20 pm and the only light shone through the window on the front porch to the right of the front door. And there’s the porch swing I remembered.  I could hear voices from through the door.  “Wow! That’s the front bedroom.  I remember it from when I was a kid.”  Looking at my watch, “It’s time.  My sister is being born right now in that room.  …  So, now what?

“Well, there’s not much to see from here.  Probably shouldn’t get out of the car.  Remember, you’d just be an intruder this time of night.  It would be very dangerous to interfere.”

“Right.  Nobody in there would know me.  I don’t join the family for another 17 years.  This is pretty weird, Mr. Carraway.  Pretty weird.”   To my surprise, he agreed.

He drove around the corner and pulled over to the curb, the big V8 engine idling.  I’m thinking, ‘what can I do with this opportunity?’  This house is where my sister and my parents lived for another three years or so before they could afford to rent rooms from the Grabstein family on East 7th Street.  They lived there until about 1937, the year Bunny skipped from kindergarten to the second grade — she had already learned to read — when they moved and rented an upstairs flat with an outside entrance from the Permesso family on 4th near York Street and Dad bought his first car.  It wasn’t until about 1940 or so that they moved to the house on Manville — where they lived when I was born.  So, I took a shot in the dark …

“I know I’ve taken a lot of your time already; but can we try one more thing?”

“Sure,” he smiled,”I’ve got time.  We’ll be able to pick the time we want to return to the museum.  Name it.”

Back around the corner, same house, a year or so later?  Maybe a Saturday afternoon?  Maybe we’ll see someone.”

 

 

So, we drove around the block, to daylight on the same corner, and … THERE THEY WERE!  A little girl — my sister about a year or so later — appearing to be taking her first wobbly steps and her mother — my mother long before I knew her — taking pictures with a big clunky camera.

 

 

 

 

Mr. Carraway’s big grin betrayed that he was
as thrilled with this time-travel stuff as I was.  “Let’s try one more.  Pick another one.”

I remembered an old family photo with a Mother’s Day story — “OK.  another shot in the dark. Let’s try May 12, 1935, a Sunday afternoon.”

Around the block we went again and there  was my sister in the front yard, a serious three-year-old all dressed up for Mother’ Day.

Of course, I had an almost overpowering urge to get out of the car, walk up to my mother and sister and introduce myself — wouldn’t that be something!  But I recalled Mister Carraway’s caution when we first arrived: “… it would be very dangerous to interfere.”  As I looked at this scene from long ago, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I did ‘interfere.’  How much trouble would I cause?  I imagined the obvious:, that I would risk changing the past.  If that happened, I supposed it would change the future — that is, the “present” that I intended to return to back at the museum?  The possibilities were immediately frightening and I forcefully put it out of my mind.

Mister Carraway interrupted my pondering — “OK, I think we got what we came for.  This fancy car’s going to attract some attention.  Doesn’t quite fit in with the neighborhood, if you know what I mean.  We should head back.”

“Right.  Mister Carraway, this has been incredible, so much more than I imagined possible.”


The ride back to Danville on that country road was pretty quiet.  I had trouble finding words for the experience of visiting the 1930s.  Looking at the house I loved as a kid, Nana’s house, long before I knew it, was simultaneously familiar and completely foreign.  I had wanted to stop and talk to my young mother and “little” sister, walk up the steps where I used to pretend to speak to a cheering crowd (like I saw in the movies).  I wanted to sit on the porch swing just as I had done as a kid in the 1950s; but, as Mister Carraway said, I would have been a stranger, an intruder.

On the ride back to ‘the present,’ I remembered with great irony, that my nephews and I used to sit in that porch swing in the late 1950s and exercise our lively imaginations.  Visiting Nana’s house when I was nine and my two oldest nephews were seven and five, we pretended that the swing was a magic bus.  We used to dial up where we wanted to go.  We would sing a little jingle from a TV toothpaste commercial and it would take us wherever we wanted to go — just like this magnificent 1931 Packard had done “today.”

 

If only we had known.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baby Danny (me) and my sister Bunny     Bunny, her husband Joe, and one of their sons,

in that front yard, 1950.                          Stephen, on one of several “Magic Buses” from that era.

 

 

 

 

   

Bunny, more recently