The Fantastical (Real-Life) Time Machine

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I had the pleasure of being invited to perform for Living History Day at SUNY Fredonia a couple of weeks ago. The all-day event features dozens of “acts.” It’s offered to hundreds of 7th graders from throughout the Greater Western New York region. They’re bussed in early in the morning and attend live demonstrations of everything from Seneca Indian dances to artillery cannon fire.

These 12-year-olds watch as regiments from the Revolutionary War (both sides), the War of 1812 and the Civil War (both sides) conduct their drills. They see real-life colonial cooking, frontier gaming, and homespun crafts. The learn from medicine women, Suffragettes, and military historians. They discover 18th century artifacts, 19th century women’s fashions, and 20th century genealogical grave hunting.

All this is done in period dress. Not just generic period dress, but actors dress as actual historical characters. I walked in with Harriet Tubman. Later I saw her talking to Abraham Lincoln. I could have sworn I saw a British general drinking coffee with Susan B. Anthony.

And they were all in costume. Even the civilians wore clothing of the era they represented. You can see from the pictures from the event. Everyone donned the fashion of the time from which they spoke and lived.

All except me.

There’s a picture (above) of the whole crew taken before the start of the day. Save for the two student volunteers, everyone wore their regalia. Everyone looked the part.

Everyone except me.

I wore a nice sports shirt, casual slacks, and my trusty navy-blue blazer. Was I out of place? Put it this way. Had this been Rankin/Bass’ 1964 stop-motion animation Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, I would have been assigned to the Island of Misfit Toys.

Now, these were 7th graders. 7th graders don’t miss a trick. If everyone else was in costume and I wasn’t, what did that tell you about my performance? Pretty lame, right?

Here I was, taking them through a role-playing game deciding the fate of Western New York immediately after the Revolutionary War, and I was dressed liked…

Exactly. What was I dressed like?

The first huge group of (about 60) kids came in and I had to think fast. First impressions are lasting impressions. If I didn’t win them over in those initial 60 seconds, I would have lost them. And, if I lost them, I lost everyone coming after them. Word travels fast among 7th graders. I would have been a goner and it would have been a long boring day.

So I put the question to them. “Do you see everyone here in costume?” I asked. They nodded, their faces telling me it was obvious. Without a pause, and addressing what they were by now no doubt thinking, I asked, “What am I dressed as?”

There was a moment of silence as they looked at each other as if it were a trick question. Clearly, I was not in any costume whatsoever, yet I was asking them to guess what my costume was.

Slowly, timidly, the answers meekly came in. “A businessman.” “A lawyer.” “A professor.” All apparent and mundane replies.

I jumped at them, as if capturing them in a trap.

“No,” I said confidently and with unmistaken bravado, “I am a…” (pause and repeat for emphasis) “I am a TIME TRAVELER.”

Without missing a beat, I continued, “And so are all of you. We are all going to travel back in time and I’m going to ask you to make a decision. Your decision may change the future of Western New York,”

At this point I broke the fourth wall and interrupted myself. I looked deliberately at them and said. “I’ve done this before. I travel through time quite regularly. It’s really not that difficult, but I can understand if it frightens any of you. Let me ask, raise your hands if you have ever traveled in time.” I purposely take a breath here as if expecting a few hands to be raised.

Sure enough, a few hands popped up. They were expecting another trick and didn’t want to be caught again. I looked at them and smiled, “Great!” I began. “If any of the rest of you have any questions, ask someone next to you who raised their hand. They’ll tell you what time travel is like.”

And then I went on with my fun little role-playing game.

But, you know, all this talk of time travel got me thinking. I really have traveled back in time. All the research I’ve done – whether it was for the Hamburger Dreams book, the 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York book, or even the book I’m working on now (research upon which I based this Living History presentation) – all this research had me go back in time.

By reading original newspaper articles, source documents, and contemporary books, I’ve traveled back in time to a place where I’ve become one with my subjects. I’ve breathed their air, smelt their surroundings, and felt their feelings.

If this sounds like something out of a page of Konstantin Stanislavski’s books that form the basis of Method acting, you’re right. In the process, I leave the present chronology to travel back to a place before I was born, indeed, before my parents and grandparents were born. I am not merely there, I am there as an interpreter, a translator to modern times.

And then I thought of something more profound. What if I didn’t travel that far back? What if I traveled to a time after I was born? And met a younger me. A me who doesn’t yet know what I know. What would that reveal? What would that tell me about who I am today? More important, what would that tell me about WHY I am what I am today?

I think I’ve figured out a way to do that.

I’ll tell you what I find out when I get back.

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