The Time Machine

american-elm-treeWhen in 1970 my family first moved into our house on the dead end street named Paradise Drive, elm trees bordered our front lawn—silent, broad-shouldered sentinels standing watch over the gravel roads they lined. This was in Little Chute, Wisconsin, a village about twenty-five miles southwest of Green Bay with approximately 5,500 people who had names like Hieptas, Jansen, Hammen, and Van Something-or-the-Other. Actually, my family lived in the township of Vandenbroek, which abutted Little Chute in the middle of Washington Street and by the end of Paradise Drive became a cow pasture, as close to a suburb of Little Chute as one was going to find. Unfortunately, a few years after moving into our house, Dutch elm disease struck, and, one by one, the elms succumbed to it, leaving only two standing by the summer before I entered seventh grade, the summer I learned how to travel in time.

I was at a dreamy age and would spend afternoons lying on a blanket in our front yard, reading, the shade from the two remaining elms and a box elder tree tempering the heat and glare of summer. On sunny days, there was a stillness under those trees, the dappled light shimmering gently, the silence of early afternoon like a wild animal staring at you with tense anticipation, ready to bolt at any minute. It was an atmosphere in which one could easily immerse oneself in a book. The first book I recall losing myself in was H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, transporting me back to the late Victorian era, all brass, ivory, and crystal, with clockwork technology, establishing the alluring fetishes of steampunk a hundred years before there was such a thing. And once firmly entrenched in the nineteenth century, I found myself hurtled to a distant future populated by the childlike Eloi and the monstrous Morlocks.

rod_taylor_time_machineAbsorbed in the book, thoroughly engaged with the scientific method of its narration—the Time Traveller piecing together from his observations sometimes fragile theories of the far-flung world where he found himself—three hours would pass in no time. One minute, I had just finished eating lunch, the next my step-dad was due home from work, which meant no more reading since he always had chores for us to do. However, in spite of how quickly time had passed, reading wasn’t like leaping into the future in a time machine.  I experienced too much in just a few hours for it to resemble the Time Traveller’s descriptions of days and centuries wheeling past him as he sat in his machine. Rather, I moved on a different time line, one perpendicular to the one I usually traveled along, suspending usual time until I jumped out of alternate time, when usual time finally would come crashing in on me.

Thanks to Wells, I learned to tunnel under the implacable current of time and with it the transitory nature of everything, so evocatively rendered in a late chapter of Wells’ novel, when the Time Traveller finds himself in an epoch when humanity is long gone, the sun swollen and red, immense crabs crawling the surface of the earth, the current that would sweep up, first, the remaining elms, then my parents, then the box elder tree, and finally our house, razed to make room for a parking lot. Regardless of all that has vanished to time, I find I can still slip into a book and travel in time. Not back or forth, but side to side, as in some immense, dreaming dance.

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