WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME
When it comes to ideas for novels, I’m a packrat. My office shelves are crammed with file folders dating back several decades. Scribbled summaries of radio reports and TV interviews are bundled with yellowing pages ripped from magazines and newspapers. Stacks of them. Anytime something grabs my interest, a part of my imagination wonders why. The theory is that, if a topic catches my attention, maybe it will catch the attention of my readers. Over the years, I put together so many files that I never had time to organize them into categories, let alone develop their contents into stories.
On occasion, curiosity makes me explore them. With great expectation, I put some on the floor, blow away dust, and read them. But nearly always, the brittle pages in my hands refer to issues and events that seemed important at the time but now are lifeless. The narrative themes and situations they suggest no longer speak to my imagination. Musty artifacts of the mind, they show me the gap of years between the person who put those fragments into file folders and the changed person who now reads them.
In rare instances, however, a topic clings to my imagination so insistently that I keep returning to it, trying to find a way to dramatize the nagging emotions it arouses in me. For example, my previous novel, Creepers, was inspired by a Los Angeles Times article about urban explorers: history and architecture enthusiasts who infiltrate old buildings that have been sealed and abandoned for decades. The page sat under accumulating file folders, but it kept rising to the top of my imagination, and I couldn’t help wondering why it insisted. The breakthrough came when I suddenly remembered an abandoned apartment building I explored when I was a child. I used it as an escape from unrelenting arguments between my mother and step-father that left me afraid to remain at home. The memory of my fear and the need to retreat into the past made me want to write a novel in which the reverse occurs: urban explorers obsessed with the past discover that it no longer soothes but instead terrifies them.
A similar article that kept nagging at my subconscious led me to write Scavenger. In fact, it sat under accumulating file folders for eight years, silently shouting, until I finally surrendered. This time, the newspaper was the New York Times. The date was April 8, 1998, the place West New York, New Jersey. I love the off-balancing idea that a town called West New York is so far west that it’s in the neighboring state of New Jersey. But for me, the contents of the article were far more unbalancing. “From Time Capsule to Buried Treasure,” the title announced. “Somewhere in West New York may be a slice of town life in 1948.”
I learned that, as West New York planned celebrations for its hundredth anniversary, someone suggested burying a time capsule. “Great idea,” everyone agreed. Then a retiree remembered that the same thing had been done for the town’s fiftieth anniversary. Whatever happened to it? they wondered. Where the heck was it buried? Searchers spread through the town. They pored through cobwebbed community ledgers and tracked down people old enough to have witnessed the 1948 semi-centennial. At last, they found a possible answer in the town’s library, where an out-of-print volume by a local historian referred to “a copper box containing documents and souvenirs.”
That box supposedly was deposited under a bronze fire bell outside the town hall, but there the search ended in frustration, for the bell honored community firefighters who died while protecting West New York, and no one would sanction tampering with it. Moreover, the bell was attached to several tons of granite. Moving it would be costly and difficult, and what if, after desecrating the monument, the time capsule wasn’t under it? In the end, nothing was done.
But as the New York Times reporter indicated, the town had a powerful need to be inspired by a message from the glory days of fifty years earlier. Back in 1948, the area was prosperous, largely because of the New York Central Railroad and the products it transported from the local embroidery factories. But by 1998, the railroad and the factories were gone, and the streets looked bleak. In the context of a misplaced past, I couldn’t help noting that the reporter didn’t receive a by-line.
Moved in ways that I didn’t understand, I added this article to my chaotic collection. I forgot it, remembered it, and forgot it again, but never for long. Finally, after eight years, I dug through a stack of files, took yet another look, and made a commitment to try to understand the article’s hold on me by writing a novel that involves a time capsule. That the time capsule would be a hundred-years-old and that the hunt for the past would involve modern instruments such as global positioning satellite receivers, BlackBerry internet capability, and holographic rifle sights hadn’t yet occurred to me. I needed to do my customary research and learn everything I could about the subject.
My first step was to go to the World Wide Web. When researching my previous novel, Creepers, I typed “urban explorers” into Google and was amazed to find over 300,000 hits. Now I did the same with “time capsules.” Imagine, my astonishment when I got over 18 million hits. Clearly, this was a topic that obsessed a lot of other people, and with each discovery, my fascination intensified. I learned (as Professor Murdock explains in Scavenger) that, although what we call time capsules are as old as history, the actual expression didn’t exist until 1939 when the Westinghouse Corporation created a torpedo-shaped container and filled it with contemporary objects that its designers believed would be fascinating to the future. As gongs were struck, the capsule was buried in Flushing Meadows, New York, where a World’s Fair was taking place. Intended to be opened five thousand years in the future, the capsule is still fifty feet underground but largely forgotten. If you have a GPS receiver like those used in Scavenger, you can insert the capsule’s map coordinates and let a red needle guide you to the capsule’s marker. But to learn those map coordinates, you need to find a copy of The Book of the Record of the Time Capsule. In 1939, copies were sent to every major library in the world, including that of the Dalai Llama. These days, however, locating that book almost requires a scavenger hunt of its own.
I learned that the Westinghouse time capsule was inspired by the eerily titled Crypt of Civilization, begun in1936 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. Disturbed by the increasing Nazi domination of Europe, Oglethorpe’s president believed that civilization was on the verge of collapse. To preserve what he could, he drained an in-door swimming pool and filled it with objects that he believed were essential to an understanding of 1930s culture. Among these is a copy of Gone with the Wind, an apt title inasmuch as the Crypt, which isn’t scheduled to be opened for almost seven thousand years, was nearly as forgotten as the Westinghouse capsule. If not for a student who explored the basement of a campus building in 1970, the Crypt would have faded from memory. After his flashlight reflected off a stainless-steel door, the student asked questions that eventually led to the basement being turned into a public area, where a book store was established and people could pass the Crypt’s door every day. Eventually, that student became Oglethorpe’s registrar and the president of the International Time Capsule Society.
I found this lore so fascinating that I couldn’t stop telling friends about it. Usually, about this point, they said, “The Crypt of Civilization? The International Time Capsule Society? You’re making this up!” But I’m not. The Doomsday Vault in the Arctic Circle is real also, as is the Hall of Records under Mt. Rushmore and the millions of copies of the ill-fated E.T. video game buried under concrete in the New Mexico desert. The weirdness wouldn’t end. I learned about the town that buried 17 time capsules and forgot all of them . . . and the college students who buried a capsule and then suffered a group memory blackout, never able to recall where they put it . . . and the town committee that buried a time capsule in honor of the community’s centennial, only to die before any of them thought to make a record of where they put the capsule.
Who would have thought that there was a list of the most-famous, lost time capsules or that thousands of capsules have been misplaced, many more than have ever been found? Even if located, they often create a further mystery, for the containers frequently fail to keep out moisture and insects, with the result that these messages to the future that we open in the present to learn about the past are nothing but indecipherable scraps.
As I tried to understand my fascination with time capsules, I couldn’t help thinking of the pride that motivates people to create them, the assumption that a particular moment is important enough to be frozen in time for the eyes of the future. Against the background of the Doomsday Vault in which millions of agricultural seeds are supposedly protected from a global catastrophe, the optimism of time capsules astonishes me. But it’s not just pride or optimism. As a character in Scavenger says, the obsessive thoroughness with which some capsules are prepared implies that the designers have a poignant fear they’ll be forgotten.
“World Enough And Time.” That’s the title of the time-capsule lecture Professor Murdock delivers in Scavenger. It’s a quotation from Andrew Marvell’s seventeenth-century poem, “To His Coy Mistress.” The poem expresses the emotions of a young man who feels time speeding by and wants to persuade a lady friend to help him embrace life fully while they can. If we cut some lines and juxtapose others, the poem applies to one motivation for preserving time capsules.
Excerpted from SCAVENGER © Copyright 2011 by David Morrell. Reprinted with permission by Vanguard Press. All rights reserved.