Sometimes history can get kinda moldy
(Yeah, this is a rerun. If 60 Minutes and Saturday Night Live can do it, why can't I?)
Sometimes when you're emptying out a little-used drawer and throwing away old worthless stuff to make room for new worthless stuff, you find a useful item. Sometimes, you find a festering pile of something a mouse left in 1991 after getting into the oatmeal cookie stash in your desk. Just goes to show you, life is a crap shoot, sometimes literally.
By now you've likely realized that I was cleaning out a drawer recently and found something of interest, otherwise, why would I have brought it up? As much as I hate it when you're right, this time you are, but I'll bet you a hundred bucks you can't guess what is it. A 1623 Spanish gold doubloon? Yeah, right, dumb guess. A vintage bottle of aged bourbon? I wish. You give up? Good. That gag was getting old like really fast.
What I found in the file cabinet drawer underneath some empty cell phone boxes, a worn dictionary and some junked camera gear was peculiar, really, a single item that was displaced from its original set and left to grow old in a dark corner of this office. As for who put it there, I suppose I could go all CSI on you and dust it for fingerprints, but I'm sort of liking the mystery of it all. Builds suspense, know what I mean?
So anyway, what I came across in the dank drawer was Volume 15 of the 1963 Edition of Grolier's Encyclopedia International, the one covering the region of the alphabet from Prague (the capitol of Czechoslovakia) to Rowley (William, a 17th century English actor and dramatist). The rest of the set is nowhere to be seen, just this one lonely, 584-page part was taking up space in the drawer. Not an archaeological find equal to, say, uncovering 20,000-year-old human bones in a Tanzanian chert quarry, no, but I'll take it. You do understand how dull my life is, right?
A boring discovery or not, this encyclopedia volume has its charm. First off, it has the same musty scent of the balls of shredded fabric my great aunt Frances used to store in an abandoned house until she weaved them into rugs, and the hue of its once-alabaster pages have turned to the sickly, pale, muddy flesh tones of my face in January (or July, I really don't tan all that well). The inside jacket of the volume tells me it was first published in 1963 and annually each year until 1969, and that 'all phases of life and knowledge' are contained in its pages. Really? And here I thought Rush Limbaugh was the only one who knew all that?
A swift scroll through the pages of Volume 15 of my surprise find quickly reveals to me how much the world has changed in the 42 years since it was last updated and set to paper. On the entry for President of the United States, for instance, the list of office holders to date ends with Richard Nixon, the 1968 Republican nominee who edged Democrat Hubert Humphrey by only 350,000 votes, of more than 71 million cast (I tried to vote for independent candidate George Wallace that year, but the crabby lady with the curlers in her hair at the poll table said I had to at least finish kindergarten first). The fact that U.S. history at that specific place in time had culminated in the election of Tricky Dick to the White House is fascinating in itself, and little did an unsuspecting nation know when it read Grolier's Encyclopedia International when it was fresh off the presses what trouble Nixon was going to make for himself. Of lesser import, probably, is that 1968 was really the last shot for anyone named Hubert to ascend to the presidency, but that's just reading between the lines of history.
Further on in Volume 15, on the section on Rockets, I read about advances in technology that can propel devices up to two miles per second. Such a machine 'will ... become a transcontinental or transoceanic passenger carrier that will land with wings on a runway like an airplane,' the book predicts.
As it turned out, we now have skateboards that approach two miles per second, and interplanetary trips only envisioned in the late 1960s have already been out of vogue for 35 years because, as it turns out, when men landed on the moon, there really wasn't all that much for them to do. I said at the time they should have taken their golf clubs, but nobody would listen. It still gives me chills to think how far one could smack a 3-iron in zero-gravity.
Other items in the old encyclopedia are, of course, factually dated, such as the entry on page 430 telling me that the population of Rhode Island is 859,488. More quickly than I can page through Volume 15 to find the Little Rhody entry, I jump on the Internet to find that the 2010 number for the state was 1,052,567. Really, that's not that much of an increase for a 42-year span in which the U.S. population tripled, but then again, we're talking about a state the size of some Wisconsin dairy farms. (Aren't you glad the color commentary is free?) Speaking of the Internet, the fact that it was not even a conception when this encyclopedia was written is as symbolic of the mind-boggling changes that have occurred since 1969 as cars that run on electricity, iPads and Fruity Cheerios (who'd have thunk it?) Likewise, there are many people and things that exist today that now belong in a Prague-Rowley section of any authoritative book of knowledge. Prosac comes immediately to mind (and not just because I forgot to take my morning dose), as does Karl Rove, random access memory, prenuptial agreements, Julia Roberts (this is my encyclopedia and I decide who gets in), real estate bubbles, Patriot missiles, paranormal investigators and Pee Wee Herman. Yeah, well, you've gotta' take the insane with the good.
I'm going to have to close this old book now, because the mold fumes are starting to make me nauseous. It's been an interesting read, though, to see old information on topics like nuclear energy and radio technology that have been so radically modernized in such a short span of years.
Likewise, the more things change, the more they stay the same, as the old saying goes. Here in my old volume, the sections on Reptiles and Republicans are right next to one another. Turns out they're both still cold-blooded and shoot venom through their fangs.