Time Travel

Karen Treanor

© Copyright 2003 by Karen Treanor

Cover of the May, 1949, National Geographic Magazine.

I went to a swap meet over the weekend, hoping to find some flowering plants to replace what the neighbourhood kangaroo had devoured in my garden.

Swap meets, garage sales, jumble sales, trash and treasure: whatever you call them, they're always a revelation, a sort of cross-section of society

On one rather sad card table, presided over by a man whose wife had clearly sent him on a mission--"Clear out that garage, John, it's a fire trap"-- amidst the litter of broken tools, mismatched condiments sets and several incomplete jigsaw puzzles, I found three old National Geographics. Plants forgotten, and barely bothering to dicker over the price, I snatched up the magazines and went home. I grabbed the coffee-pot and some toast, and settled on the back patio with my prize.

The issues were those of May 1949, April 1950, and September 1951. It was like entering Dr. Who's Tardis to open the covers of the slightly foxed magazines. The smell of mildew swept me back with an almost physical jolt to "those thrilling days of yesteryear" as the old Lone Ranger show used to put it. I was again eight years old, lying on the Loden-green carpet of the big front room in Boxford, Massachusetts.

I can see me now, slipping the bright-yellow-bordered magazine from its heavy brown paper sleeve. First there would be a furtive riffle to see if any of the stories dealt with half-naked African dancers. The contrast between the easy nudity of the 'native' women who peopled the pages of the Geographic and the laced-up propriety of mid-century New England could not have been more pronounced. It was a source of confusion and puzzlement to more than one child.

Fast forward to 2003: I shook a silverfish out of the spine of the first magazine and began reading. Here was the Berlin Airlift, an event of surpassing importance, which at the time I had only dimly realised was something momentous. It was the first major face-off between the superpowers. I recall my parents following the events day by day on the big console radio. When the crisis ended, America stood a little taller and the grown-ups all seemed to heave a sigh of relief.

"California, Horn of Plenty" was the leading story in one of the magazines, full of colour photos of busy people picking oranges, holding flower festivals, and boiling borax. In 1949, the state was only beginning the boom times that lead to its surpassing many independent nations in size and riches. The Hispanic community, now a political force to be reckoned with, was in those days visible only as a group of colourful but humble "extras" on the big bright screen of Californian life. The fifth article was "A Woman Paints the Tibetans" and dealt with the unthinkably adventurous Frenchwoman who went to Tibet and painted everything from temples to saffron robed lamas.*  She was remarkable not so much for her art as for her bravery, independence and sheer effrontery. Schoolgirls of the day were still considered pretty bold if they wanted to be doctors, never mind artist-adventurers.

In the April 1950 Geographic I was transported to Franco's Spain (but with no mention of the dictator in the entire story) where all the Spaniards seemed to be wearing quaint costumes and smiling as if in the pay of a toothpaste company. Everybody was happy, the sun always shone, and at least half the population owned a donkey. Less charming was the custom of most apartment houses in Madrid to lock the outer doors at 11 pm, requiring one to call the watchman to be let in or out after that time. Imagine any modern Spaniard putting up with that!

The next article was "Arizona Sheep Trek", in which the author accompanied two Spanish-American sheep-herders and their flock to the summer grazing grounds. Amazingly, in the entire story there was no mention of any Native Americans: not a Hopi, Zuni, Navajo or Apache. I'm sure there must have been such people in Arizona in 1951, but in this story they were invisible.

The Frog story was one I remembered from when I first read--make that "sounded my way through"--this edition of the magazine. The picture of the tiny spring peeper perched on a pencil eraser, which had remained in the attic of my memory for over 50 years, rushed forth and merged with the tattered magazine on the table, rather like those old stereopticon pictures. Déjà vu all over again, as the fellow said.

I turned at last to the September 1951 magazine. Sad to say the National Geographic Society's "New Map" was no longer with the issue that advertised it: not doubt it hung dusty and tattered in someone's attic or playroom.

Even without the map, it was a worthwhile read. "How Fruit Came to America" was colorfully illustrated in that hazy, never-a-blemish style that was common half a century ago. Behind each imported fruit was a miniature geography lesson: a camel, a pagoda, a thatched hut. It was stories like these that helped many a fourth-grader to produce a gold-star-winning term project for either geography or social studies (or both if you went to a big school with different teachers for each subject!).

The next story, "A Stroll to Venice" told how the author trekked over the Dolomites to Venice; "Venezia," as he called it in brackets, which enabled the would-be-sophisticate schoolgirl to add a dash of the exotic to her next class presentation. It was the National Geographic that taught me that other people used other words for their towns and cities and even countries. How very odd, I thought, puzzling out the word "Firenze" and deciding I rather liked it. I never did sort out how "Suomi" became Finland.

In all three of my trouveé Geographics were advertisements galore, reflecting a vanished way of life and bringing up waves of nostalgia. Here was Ophelia, the St. Mary's Blanket lamb, who starred in a whole series of ads over the years. There was the Canadian Pacific full-page add, advertising the Domeliner, which I was fortunate enough to ride coast to coast in 1963, just before the age of trains went into decline. The leading ad in the September 1951 issue was a full page color ad for International Business Machines, just making trail of their IBM logo and not seeming to dare to make it very prominent. IBM was advertising the "electronic tube", and showed a man standing beside its compact new machine, still called an Electronic Calculator, which was the size of a small car. The computer that presently sits on my desk has twice or thrice the memory that bulky machine had, and cost a tiny fraction of what the early IBM machine cost. The idea that one day ordinary people would own a machine like that, and use it for sending jokes from Alaska to New Zealand, was so far outside the realm of possibilities as to not even feature in Science Fiction magazines.

In the back of the magazines came all the little display classified ads, always featuring the Staunton Military Academy, which used the same wooden-faced cadet in the ads for decades; I think he was a contemporary of Stonewall Jackson. Linguaphone, The Calvert School, Zenith Hearing Aids--where are they now? Most of them are gone, but the Geographic goes on.

I reached the end of the last magazine and discovered my coffee and toast had gone cold. At my feet a bandicoot whuffled hopefully. I gave him the cold raisin toast and went to find a stamp to send off the renewal of the Geographic subscription for my grandchildren. Having gotten so much pleasure from the Geographic over the years, I mustn't forget to ensure the next generation gets the same chance. The magazines my grandchildren receive today will eventually wash up on a trash-and-treasure table, bringing to a new generation a glimpse into that other country that is the past. 

"The one L lama he's a priest
    The two L llama, he's a beast
    But I will bet a silk pyjama
    There's no such thing as a three L lama"

Ogden Nash, who later added a footnote that a vigilant reader had said that a three L lama was a serious fire.

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