Days at the Scanner

Earlier this week, I shared a Huffington Post article on my Facebook page.  The story carried some sad tidings–after 244 years, the Encyclopædia Brittanica will no longer appear in hard copy after the edition published this year.  I shared the article by email with several friends, many of them bibliophiles and curators of useless odds and ends of information.

As sorry as I am to see the Encyclopædia Brittanica fold, it also makes me wonder about the integrity of computerized and scanned records that students and researchers will see in the future.  In an earlier post, I posted a picture of John Hurt portraying Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s novel 1984, as he goes about rewriting historical records and periodicals to conform with the current party line.

My workload has been light this week, so I have been working in scanning, a job made bearable–and even fun–as long as I have audiobooks to listen to as I work.  (Yesterday, I finished The Stand, and today I began Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History.)  The job is fairly simple.  It involves stacking documents and forms into a scanner, clicking the mouse, and then making sure they scanned properly before submitting them.  Eventually, the original paper records are destroyed.

Logistically, this is the right thing to do.  Eventually, the stored hard copies would be impossible to maintain, and probably the State of Ohio (as well as other agencies–government and private sector) would constantly be scrambling for a place to store records.  Yet, computerized images and records can easily be manipulated or altered by either side in a legal battle, and there would not be a hard copy available for a comparison.

In no way am I suggesting that we eliminate microfilming or scanning paper records.  Soon after my dad died in 2000, I thought it would be fun to obtain a copy of his service record.  He served as a Remington raider (Army slang for a clerk typist) stateside from 1952 to 1954.  (He said that he occasionally considered writing to get his medals, but he never did.)  It seems likely, however, that his records were among the 80% of Army records destroyed in the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire in the St. Louis suburb of Overland.

When I’m looking up old articles online, I often try to see if I can look at a microfilm copy of the original page at the library as soon as possible, if not that very day.  As a young teenager, I was quite fascinated when I visited Dawes Memorial Library, the Marietta College library, and saw bound editions of Time and Newsweek going back to the 1920s, and learned how to thread spools of microfilm into the reader to look at The New York Times and The Marietta Times (I would sneak a peak at the comics page in the latter).  The library kept weeks of newspapers from all over Ohio, and some of the national dailies, but soon they would either put them on microfilm or throw them away.

I must admit the demise of the printed Brittanica hits me on a personal note.  During a 1987 discard sale at Ohio University’s library, Alden Library, I happily plunked down $10 for a 1947 edition.  The library was even kind enough to lend me a shelving cart to get the books down to my New South Green dormitory, and declined my offer to pay a deposit on the cart.  In addition to lying in bed reading random entries (yes, folks, I read reference books for fun), the books made excellent lap desks in a very popular class I took the next quarter.

It would also seem that supermarkets never offer encyclopedia sets for sale anymore.  When I lived in Cincinnati, Kroger offered the Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia for sale, and I, like many would-be buyers, ended up being an expert on everything from A to Argentina.  I bought Volume I for about $.12, and never kept up with buying the subsequent volumes.

One friend pointed out on Facebook that we will always need records that can withstand a power surge or a change in software.  (Whenever I’m tempted to say ’tis time to part when it comes to typewriters, I remind myself that I have yet to strike a wrong key and delete an hour’s (or month’s) worth of work, never to be seen again.  When writing his memoir Keeping Faith, Jimmy Carter deleted an entire chapter while using “my trusty word processor.”

Winston Smith writing in his diary, a scene in 1984.

I guess this is also the reason why I’ll probably never abandon keeping a handwritten diary, and why I’ll add to the stack of composition books, journals, calendars, and spiral notebooks that accumulate in my study.  I know that there is always a chance that LiveJournal’s or Blogger’s Website may one day irreparably crash, and this blog and all the hundreds of thousands of other blogs stored there, may one day disappear like a soap bubble. 

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Memories of a Retired Hitchhiker

Susie and I are at Kafé Kerouac, a coffee house/bar named for the patron saint of hitchhiking, Jack Kerouac, at the moment.  (Kerouac’s 90th birthday would have been on the 12th of this month, but, unfortunately, he drank himself to death in 1969, aged 47.)  She and I are in the front room, and pages from the first several chapters of Kerouac’s opus, On the Road, adorn the north wall.

The north wall at Kafé Kerouac, decorated with pages from On the Road.

Something that brought the long-moribund subject of hitchhiking to my mind was seeing that one of my Facebook friends was listening to Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride” on Spotify.  I’ve been in an advanced and rapidly progressing state of ennui lately, which is one of the reasons for the paucity of blog entries.  (I deleted two previous entries after only writing a sentence or two, so I’m hoping to get myself back on track by writing in here tonight.)

I should preface what follows by saying that my hitchhiking days are far behind me.  I haven’t done it since the summer of 1989, and I am sure that it’s more dangerous now than when I was a teenager and a young adult.  (It’s never been 100% safe.  When my thumb was my primary mode of transportation, it horrified some of my high school friends.  I still remember one of my classmates looking at me, slack-jawed, and saying, “Paul!  You’re going to get your head blown off!” when I casually mentioned I would be thumbing to Athens–a distance of about 48 miles.)

The first time I hitchhiked, it was not my idea, and I was far from enthusiastic about doing it.  It was in August 1979, and it was a relatively short trip.  I was 16 years ago, and I was traveling to OPIK ’79, a regional Liberal Religious Youth conference.  (OPIK–rhymes with topic–was an acronym for Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Kentucky.  In 1979, it took place in Michigan, for reasons too complex to explain here.)  I had been on the bus from Columbus since noon on Saturday, August 18 (the conference began the next day) with a young woman from Columbus named Suzanne, who was also headed to OPIK.  We arrived in Kalamazoo around midnight, and no one at the conference site was answering.  (OPIK ’79 took place at Circle Pines Center in Delton, which was about 25 miles away in Barry County.)  So, since we were marooned at the closed Greyhound station for the night, we sat on our suitcases most of the night, talked, ate date bars, and I read, wrote in my diary, and tried in vain to sleep, using my windbreaker as a blanket and my typewriter case as a pillow.

Morning came, and we splurged on a big breakfast in the Time Table Inn, the bus station’s restaurant, tried Circle Pines Center again, and finally Suzanne heaved a sigh and said, “Well, let’s hitch.”  This was long before the days of Google Earth and GPS systems, so we roamed around a bit before we found M-89 West, the road that led from Kalamazoo to Delton.  Once we found that, a friendly guy in his 20s named Stephen gave us a ride straight to Circle Pines’ parking lot.  I was happy to add a new experience to my résumé–hitchhiking–but my first order of business was to find a cot.  When I found one, I immediately collapsed fully clothed, shoes and all.

This experience emboldened me, and when I got back to Marietta, I talked the ears off anyone who asked me how I spent my summer.  I managed to resist the temptation to embellish the trip beyond the 25 miles from Kalamazoo to Delton, yet the account caused many to further question my sanity.

For the remaining three years I lived in Marietta, I overcompensated for my earlier reluctance to hitchhike. It was analogous to someone overcoming a lifelong fear of water and the next day deciding to swim the English Channel.  (The concept of the golden mean remains totally foreign to me to this day.)  The following summer, I stuck my thumb out on State Route 550, destination Athens.  I had not thought to let my dad know where I was going when I left the house that Saturday morning.

I did not make it to Athens, but the reason for aborting the mission were truly in character.  On the way up 550, I encountered Carpenter’s Books, one of the most unusual bookstores I have encountered.  It was in a man’s garage, and the place was wall to wall, floor to ceiling loaded with books.  Carpenter also raised chickens and sold eggs–quite a juxtaposition.  I spent maybe $2 to $3, and came home with a large box full of paperbacks and hardcovers.  As usual, my choices ran the gamut from Gold Medal originals by writers like Peter Rabe and Richard S. Prather to odd volumes of Harvard Classics and Black’s Readers Service classics (The Works of Tolstoi and The Works of Doyle).

After some test runs to Athens, I made my first “big” trip in May of 1981, a month before I graduated from high school.  I was en route to Washington, D.C. for the biggest protest since the Vietnam era, protesting the military presence in El Salvador and the military buildup overall.  I took the bus as far as Cambridge, Ohio, and then set out on I-70.  I was dressed in jeans, a work shirt, and hiking boots, and I carried a small backpack–only enough room for a change of clothes, my diary, and a book or two.

I was buoyed by my success.  I made it to D.C. in three rides.  The longest was a driver who picked me up around Quaker City and took me as far as Hagerstown.  A second ride (by a contractor who was at Catholic U. the same time my dad was) got me to Gaithersburg, and a third ride dropped me off on M St. in Georgetown.  I had turned 18 earlier that week, which meant I was finally legal to drink beer.  And I marked the event in style.  I had my first legal beer at Clyde’s of Georgetown, which was the prototype for the gathering place in St. Elmo’s Fire.  Its lunchtime menu inspired Starland Vocal Band’s “Afternoon Delight.”  (Since I had just read William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, I had searched in vain to find The Tombs, the bar where whiskey priest Damien Karras cries into his suds to a fellow priest about his lack of faith.)  I remember the polyglot conversations at the tables around me, and the pay phones in the rest room.  I spent the remainder of the night wandering around Washington, and buying The Washington Post as soon as it rolled off the presses.

Getting home was no fun.  I had a ride to the infamous Breezewood, Pa. from Silver Spring.  Breezewood is the “Town of Motels” just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, eloquently described by Business Week in 1991 as “a polyp on the nation’s interstate highway system.”  I was stuck there for hours, so much so that if Breezewood is the first thing I see when I die, I will know beyond a doubt where I’ve gone.

I won’t list every journey I made by thumb, but the memorable one came in the spring of 1982, when my LRY friend John (whom I met at the aforementioned OPIK ’79) came to visit me in Marietta.  Going to all of Marietta’s points of interest does not take long, even with a trip across the river to the Fenton Art Glass plant in Williamstown.  Bored, John and I were doing the “What do you wanna do?”  “I dunno–what do you wanna do?” thing, when I said, in jest, “Let’s hitch to D.C.”  The next several hours consisted my burning up the phone lines to find friends of friends (multiplied ad infinitum in the D.C. area where we could sleep.  The calls started at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Washington office, and became quite hydra-headed.)  Both of us owned Paul Dimaggio’s The Hitchhiker’s Field Manual, and we had both read our copies to tatters, since it had become a weird kind of Bible for both of us.  During the journey, whenever we argued over where to stand on the road, Dimaggio’s word was law.

Our name for the trip was the “Nobody Said It Was Easy” tour.  Nobody said hitchhiking was easy, this is true, but the song “Nobody Said It Was Easy (Lookin’ for the Lights)”, by the Louisiana band Le Roux, seemed to be on the radio or tape deck of every car picking us up.  In Bethesda, we hopped a Metro bus that put us in Dupont Circle.  John and I were both tired and cross from the long journey and inadequate nutrition, and John was skeptical of my claims that we had made it.  I was vindicated when the escalator in the Dupont Circle Metro station brought us to street level.  I nudged John.  “What?” he said testily.  Without a word, I pointed at the lighted dome of the Capitol.

My final hitchhike was from Cincinnati to Columbus in 1989, illegally, since I used Interstate 71 the entire way.  Not a memorable trip.  In my journal, I wrote about it in two sentences, and devoted pages more to the subsequent visit with Adam Bradley.