The Nostalgia Gene
By ROY HUTCHINS
Illustrated by COUGHLIN
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction November 1954.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
If you cannot get the "good old days" out of your mind,
there is only one person to blame—Edgar's grandmother!
Folks who knew Edgar Evans said he was a strange young man. Certainly he was the darling of the old ladies and the despair of the young. The sternest fathers positively beamed when Edgar called for their daughters, but fellows his own age declared in the authoritative tones of youth that Edgar was a square.
Handsome enough he was. The real reason for all the fuss was Edgar's manners. The trouble was that he had them.
For Edgar had been orphaned at four by an Oklahoma tornado and raised by his Hoosier grandmother, a dear old lady whose hand had once been kissed by a passing Barrymore. The result was Edgar's manners. He realized, of course, that one didn't kiss a lady's hand these days, but such was Edgar's gracious way that women always got the impression he was about to.
One parent, in something of a trance after encountering Edgar, summed up the reaction.
"That kid," he told his wife dazedly, "akshully called me 'sir.' Them other punks come aroun' afta Milly, they call me 'Mac.' Too bad that there Edgar was born fifty years too late."
Before very long, Edgar came to the same conclusion.
He knew a good many young men, but none he could call friend. The bop talk which fascinated them seemed to him a repulsive travesty upon English, just as their favorite music sounded like the braying of asses in agony.
Many girls were willing enough when Edgar asked for a first date, but an amazing number of them developed ill health when he suggested a second evening of classical records or good conversation.
The girls themselves could not be blamed if they mistook his courtly approach for a new dreamy line. Alas, the very hearts which fluttered at his old-world chivalry grew icy when no pass was made. A girl wants to know her charms are appreciated.
So Edgar sank more deeply into himself. He recalled his grandmother's stories about life and living back near the end of the century, when folks knew how to be pleasant and kind.
Even at his job—he was a technician in an electronic lab—Edgar couldn't stop longing for that era when existence had been more gentle, simple and leisurely. His social life virtually ceased.
"Man, you ain't livin'," said one of the technicians he worked with. "We're gonna buzz a few dives tonight. Why not drag it along with us?"
Edgar blanched. "Thank you just the same, but I—I have some work to do."
After a while, naturally, they stopped asking.
He continued to dream hopelessly, miserably, but one day he was yanked out of it by—of all people—a military man. The brass were on inspection tour and the lab's Chief Engineer was apologizing for a faulty run of synchros which had occurred some time ago, when the Brigadier snorted.
"What's past is finished. I'm interested in five years from now!"
Edgar found himself staring fixedly at a top secret gadget still in the breadboard stage.
"Great heaven!" he thought. "I have a fixation. This isn't doing me any good."
But what would? Suppose, instead of dreaming, he spent time actually working toward what he wanted most?
Here in the lab, he helped to build amazing machines, things which daily did the impossible. He no longer marveled at what could be done with electronics and, more important, he knew the methods and the details.
That was when Edgar decided to build a time machine.
It was two months before he touched a transformer or a capacitor and during that period he did nothing but try to answer the question, What is time? How could he overcome it or change its flow or whatever had to be done?
He read everything he could find on the subject from Dr. Cagliostro to Dr. Einstein without gaining much insight. Many a midnight, when his neck muscles ached from trying to hold up his throbbing head, he caught himself dreaming of grandmother's wonderful stories. And every time he forced himself furiously back to the books, but he couldn't stop the nostalgia entirely. It was in him.
Eventually, Edgar came to think of time as an infinite series through which the Universe was constantly expanding. Something like a set of stop-motion photos taken microseconds apart, each complete, the changes becoming apparent only when they are viewed in sequence. He was wrong, of course, but that was unimportant.
Time must therefore be a function of human motion and consciousness, Edgar reasoned, and that was important.
"That's it!" he exclaimed, and then apologized gracefully to the elderly gentleman glaring across the library table.
Now that he knew what his time machine must do, he could begin building, adapting circuits, experimenting. Obviously, consciousness could move forward through the series only; hence, consciousness must be completely suspended, as in death, to move back in time.
It required some heartbreaking months for Edgar to learn that brain waves couldn't be stopped, but that the simple trick of introducing random electrical noise suspended all the brain functions.
"Fudge!" cursed Edgar, thinking of the wasted time.
Only a man filled with the longing which obsessed Edgar could have found the aching perseverance and brain-wrenching ingenuity the job needed. Only a man driven by a terrible master that rode in his glands.
But four months later, he stood with his hand on a switch, sweating with nervous excitement as he eyed the spot from which a live rabbit had just disappeared. The rabbit was on the table, but he was there an hour ago and Edgar was here now, so the table appeared empty.
He pressed another switch and there was the bunny, wriggling its soft nose in perplexity, but perfectly healthy. Edgar's own trip, of course, would be strictly one way since the machine stayed in the present. He could be brought back only if he stepped into its field on a date for which the machine was set and he had absolutely no intention of venturing near this vicinity again, once his aim was accomplished.
He thought about arranging a small explosive charge to blow the equipment to what he thought of as The Hot Place. It seemed to him, however, that there was some kind of law against that sort of thing. Besides, even if the machine should come to the attention of the authorities, who would know what it was? He could devise a mechanical scrambler to change all the control settings once he was gone, and it was unlikely that anyone could operate it again.
Most likely the landlady would simply sell it for junk, especially if he left owing her a week's rent. The idea hurt his conscience.
"I know!" he exclaimed to himself. "I'll buy a bank check and arrange to have the bank mail it to her a month after I've left!"
He felt much better about that.
Three weeks later, Edgar Evans was the newest boarder at Mrs. Peterson's, on Elm Avenue in Greencastle, Indiana. He had arrived on April 3, 1893, the day after Easter, and already he was being referred to as "that nice young man staying at Emma's."
Edgar snuggled into the life of the '90s like a showgirl into mink. He went to work as a clerk in Cloud's Emporium and was soon regarded as logical choice for the next manager. Anxious mamas filled his evenings with dinner invitations and "at homes" and he had a dazzling choice of partners for the numerous socials.
Edgar waltzed his partners with zest and propriety, contributed a determined tenor at parlor sings, and sampled dozens of cakes and pies baked by maidens bent on winning his heart via the traditional route. And always he had a gracious compliment, an appropriate phrase for every situation.
Within a month, the entire feminine population of Greencastle was his for the asking, though he'd never have recognized nor admitted the fact. The men sought his company, too, and even asked his advice on how to win their girls back from him. Edgar, almost sick with happiness, told them, of course.
On the eleventh of November, he was sick with something else. He went to bed with a fever right after getting home from the Emporium, Mrs. Peterson hovering helplessly with offers of hot broth or tea. But Edgar felt hot and dry and his side hurt when he breathed.
"I don't want anything ... thank you," he gasped politely.
By the next noon, when the alarmed Emma Peterson had Dr. Ward in, Edgar was barely conscious. Dr. Ward frowned, ordered hot water bottles and gave Edgar a huge dose of hot whiskey with lemon.
"Penicillin, please," whispered Edgar painfully. "Or sulfa. It's pneumonia, isn't it?"
"Poor fellow's delirious," said the doctor to Mrs. Peterson.
Edgar realized dimly that he had made a blunder, but that no one would know. Then the fever took over and he blanked out.
Dr. Ward claimed ever afterward that clean living was what pulled Edgar through—the fact that he wasn't conditioned to liquor gave the medicinal whiskey virgin ground to work in.
All Edgar knew was that he came to and found himself so weak that he could scarcely speak. Mrs. Peterson and her daughter, Marta, bustled in and out to care for him. He hadn't paid particular attention to Marta before, but in the days of lying helpless and being literally spoon-fed, he began to know her very well.
Marta was a plain girl, he had thought, but he had never seen her private smile before. Marta was rather dumpy, he had thought, but he had never watched her bend to pick something up or twist to reach for a medicine bottle. Her dresses, he discovered, were deliberately all wrong for her—Mrs. Peterson had no intention of disturbing her boarders unnecessarily.
In the shocking intimacy of his bedroom, Edgar was increasingly disturbed. Marta was unfailingly cheerful, eager to wait on him. Every half-hour, he heard her step in the hall.
"Hello!" Marta would say, sweeping lightly to his bedside. "How's our patient now? Feeling better? Oh, dear, do let me just straighten that sheet. It's all wrinkled. Would you like some milk or some fruit?"
"Not right now, thank you—perhaps a little later," Edgar would reply, fixing his gaze determinedly on the window or the ceiling while she bent over his bed, disturbingly rounded and disastrously close.
And as Edgar's recovery progressed, Mrs. Peterson dropped more and more into the background. On the day Dr. Ward said he might try sitting up for a while, it was Marta who stood by for the experiment.
Edgar started nobly, made about a foot of arc by himself and faltered. Instantly, it seemed, Marta's arm was around his shoulders and a firm, warm projection cushioned his cheek.
He very nearly collapsed, but she sat him up.
Three days later, he held her hand for a moment and, though she blushed, she didn't draw it away in a hurry.
After a proper interval, their engagement was announced. Half the maidens in Greencastle wept in the privacy of their pillows that night.
Edgar had had a serious problem and solved it. He had found the right girl and married her. This should be the end of his story and it would be, except for two things—Edgar's gene and the date of his birth.
Edgar's gene came from his grandmother via his father. The stories that gentle old lady told her orphaned grandson were the only outlet she had for her own powerful urge to turn back the times. And there had always been someone in the family who bemoaned the passing of the good old days, so strongly and constantly as to bore others to the verge of violence.
Back even a few decades, no carrier of the nostalgia gene had any outlet but conversation and dreams. Edgar, though, was born to an age where science provided the knowledge and the equipment for him to find the practical solution.
If Edgar's gene had carried any other trait, red hair, placidity or hemophilia, for instance, or if it had been recessive instead of dominant, this might have been a very different world. But the result was inevitable from the moment of Edgar's birth and the chain of events that proved it was as flawless as the steps of Gauss's theorem.
He prospered after he and Marta were married. In three short years, he was made manager of Cloud's Emporium and just before that, Marta had surprised him with a daughter—surprised him because he was certain of a son. He wasn't inclined to be stubborn about it, however, and when the child put a pudgy little hand up to his cheek in a gesture that was probably caused by reflex or gas pains, he was completely won.
When little Emma reached three, she was incurably addicted to bedtime stories, though only those concerning knights in armor and their ladies fair. Edgar grew to hate the names of Arthur and Galahad, but if he tried to tell a different story, his daughter had her own way of stopping him. Rearing back in his arms, she merely shrieked, "Ting Arfur, Ting Arfur!" until she turned blue, at which point Edgar always gave in.
There was no doubt that little Emma had inherited the gene.
In 1906, old Cloud made Edgar a full partner in the Emporium and just eleven years later, little Emma wrote home from New York City with the shocking news that she was engaged to a doughboy from Brooklyn.
Edgar and Marta rushed East to unmask the scoundrel, praying they would be in time to save Emma's honor.
The scoundrel, when unmasked, was a mechanic with weak eyes and a passion for poetry, who was completely miserable in the infantry. His manners were acceptable and he had enough intelligence to let Edgar beat him thoroughly at cribbage, whereupon Edgar offered to finance the opening of a garage in Greencastle if the young folks would move back there when Jim's hitch in the Army was finished.
"Emma is all we have," said Edgar in his classic style. "It's quite lonesome back home for Mother and me since she's been in the city. We—well, we should like to know that you and, later on, our grandchildren will be settling in a home near us."
Emma blushed and Jim tried to dig the toe of his boot into a crack between the floorboards.
"Besides," added Edgar, becoming aware of Marta's look, "Greencastle is a fine town and right up with the times. I think a garage will do a fine business there."
Jim was inclined to be reluctant, but Emma gave him a side-wise kick and said of course they'd come home and settle. She gave Edgar a big hug and a kiss and he beamed on everybody for the rest of the evening.
A few months later, Jim's weak eyes caused him to pass a colonel without saluting and, within days, he had a medical discharge. Emma and the garage were waiting in Greencastle, so Jim took the first train.
In '19 and in '21, Emma produced grandsons, delighting everyone and especially Edgar. Emma herself was thoroughly puzzled when the boys reached the age for bedtime stories; she discovered that they were not particularly interested in tales of bold knights and fair ladies. She would have been happy to recite the legends of Arthur every night, but the boys, it seemed, preferred even poor poetry to a good, stirring joust.
Edgar privately decided that Jim's poetry gene had proved more dominant than his own, which was perhaps just as well.
Though not interested in making a fortune, Edgar nevertheless did well financially, using his knowledge of the '20s as an investment guide. Jim's garage prospered and he opened another, while his father-in-law multiplied his spare cash in the stock market. In July of 1929, Edgar suddenly retrenched for both of them, went bearish and arranged to sell short a number of important shares. The entire family protested that he was losing his mind, but Edgar was firm. By November first, they were amazed, horrified and rich.
The following year, Emma gave Jim the daughter he had wanted. And, within three years, it was apparent to Edgar that tiny Susan carried the gene. From the first time Grandpa experimentally told her a story of the '90s, she wanted no others. Her mother found this also rather difficult to understand, but at least the '90s were in the past, which was better than poetry.
On a day in 1935, Edgar found himself pondering with a fierce intentness he had not used since 1959, when he built the time machine. Today, August fifth, was his 66th birthday—but it was also the day he was born.
It was impossible not to wonder. Forty-two years ago (or twenty-four from now), he had not bothered to think about possible consequences, so strong and simple had been his urge to go back. But today—would he, the father of one and grandfather of three, be wiped out the instant Edgar Evans was born? Or would no baby of that name be born in the tiny Oklahoma town?
He had been born in the morning and when this particular morning passed like any other, Edgar felt considerably better. Cogito, ergo sum, he thought. "I think, therefore I am—a comforting philosophy. But what about the baby?"
So Edgar, nervous but understandably curious, sent a discreetly worded wire and learned before long that he had indeed been born on schedule. The more he thought about it, the less reason he could see why it should be otherwise. A baby born in another part of the country had been given the same name as his. There was certainly no traceable relationship. And nearly everyone has a namesake somewhere.
Not wishing to be institutionalized, Edgar had never hinted to anyone, not even Marta, the secret of his past. He had invented a convenient and plausible history, but used it only when necessary, and then sparingly. But now he was thinking of his granddaughter, Susan.
Susan carried the gene. At five, she insisted on dressing her dolls in the costumes of forty years ago. She would be 29 and thoroughly unhappy by the time the young Edgar perfected and used his time machine.
So Edgar wrote a letter, sealed it and gave it to his lawyers with instructions that it was to be given to Susan on a certain date in 1959, provided she was still unmarried.
Edgar passed away three years later with a well-bred smile on his face, befitting the first man who ever cheated time. His last statement, phrased as considerately as ever, was the hope that he wasn't causing trouble by dying.
Susan, his granddaughter, grew into a pleasingly plump young woman in an age where the ideal seemed to be total emaciation. She was not only single but disillusioned and despairing when the lawyers looked her up and gave her Edgar's letter.
A good part of what Edgar had written sounded like confused mysticism, warnings about upsetting the future and the like, but his instructions were specific enough and she read them as if they were the lost book of Revelations.
By the next day, she had flown from San Francisco to New York and gained entry to young Edgar Evans' room by telling his landlady she was a distant relative. She disconnected the scrambler from the time machine and reset the controls to put herself back in 1891. In her haste, she forgot some of Edgar's instructions, with the result that she landed not fittingly costumed, but bare as a bacchante, in the room of a handsome young man from Louisiana.
The young man, whose name was Hare, was too startled to be anything but a Southern gentleman at the time. In less than a month, however, he took her back to Baton Rouge for inspection by his family and, that ordeal successfully weathered, Susan found herself with a husband.
There is no need to follow all of Susan's life, which was happy, sad, unique and filled with minor tragedies and triumphs, like any other life. But Susan had four sons and gave the gene to each of them, and their children received it in turn. Before she had thought it necessary to pass the secret of the machine to Edgar's great-great-grandchildren, Susan died, so the machine was not available to them.
Not that it mattered—knowledge was available, for young Andover Hare had studied electronics at M. I. T. In 1962, he built his own time machine, which was a considerable improvement over Edgar's, since it could select place as well as time. Andover contacted his brothers, sisters and cousins, helped them make their arrangements and passed them through to the times they selected. Being a considerate man, he allowed several relatives by marriage to go along on this mass temporal migration.
They did not restrict themselves to the '90s. Some went back to the 1700s, two to the Italian Renaissance, and one adventurous cousin clear to the Second Crusade. Andover himself decided he would like to know Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. He was the last one through the machine and he left a small, efficient detonator connected to it. Andover had Edgar's gene, but not his compunctions.
Yes, we owe a lot to Edgar Evans. When Edgar was a grave and unchubby one-year-old, pulling himself up on the furniture, Gone With the Wind hit the populace right in the middle of their worries, vague fears and faintly stirring desires to get out of their increasingly complex world. The year was 1936, a year that also saw a period piece movie that was one of the first in the inevitable deluge—The Great Ziegfeld drew, as customers, many of the bearers of Edgar's gene, enough to make a profit-conscious Hollywood see mint-green.
The year neighbors searched the wreckage of Edgar's home to pull him from under the body of his mother, hunched in a last protective gesture, was the year that saw American history searched frantically for movie material. It was '39 and Dodge City and Union Pacific helped thousands of Edgar's descendants forget momentarily the distant rumble of war. Historical novels were also helping to glamorize the past.
By the time Edgar had graduated from school, been rejected by the Army and worked for a time, the cold war was well advanced. Three generations were mind-sick with tensions and fears and doubts—heart-sick with the impossible wish to roll back the years to times of peaceful, neighborly, unfrenzied human living.
And the next time, in 1959, Susan went back. For most of us, 1959 came only once, the year of the crisis when the missiles had already been launched from both sides before the astonishing "thieves' agreement" was reached and the missiles were aimed into the sea.
There could be nothing but relief for a few months after that, but then the play on nerves began again, the tensions began their unbearable rise.
In 1962, Susan's grandchildren were funneled like sacks of coal through Andover Hare's machine. There were eighteen of them and a group of their descendants built another machine later the same year. The following March, another group disappeared—a much larger one this time. They spread the gene so widely that most of us bear it today.
It was inevitable that we carry the seed of that desperate desire to escape our own troubled times. And the urge makes living under this doubly grinding pressure more anguished every day.
How many times this week have you read or heard a piece of news and wondered how much longer before the final, fatal mushrooms flare? How many times has a video show, a movie, or even just a snapshot brought the swift wish that you could be back there? How many times have the "good old days" crept into your conversation, your thoughts?
As this account began with Edgar Evans, so it shall end with Benjamin Reeves. Not yet, but soon—it must be soon now.
Like all truly wise men, Benjamin Reeves is a modest man. He's tall, stooped a little, and his limbs are attached in that special loose way that makes a man amble rather than walk, sprawl rather than sit. At 50-odd, he looks much more like a friendly janitor than a respected research engineer.
And the gene is particularly dominant in Benjamin.
For eighteen years, he labored in the military vineyard, like so many other scientists, designing computers and control systems for the engineering section of a huge company, and finally heading up a study group in the Dream Department. He liked that job. The dream boys were the ones who sat around and thought about entirely new ways of doing things. Compared to designing, it was like the difference between the creative excitement of composing music and the drudgery of arranging it.
But even while working on deadly machines for the future, Benjamin couldn't stop dreaming about the past, any more than Edgar Evans had.
Then, after eighteen years, Benjamin was fired. The military had asked for a new study on the question of how many enemy missiles might get through the early warning and intercept rings and reach the cities. "What, specifically, can we do to protect our people?"
When the study was finished, a huge brassbound conference was staged at the lab and everybody was expectant.
"We have a single recommendation," said Benjamin calmly, and they were quiet, for Benjamin and his group were the big brains. "At the earliest warning, tell everybody to run like hell!"
So the lab fired him, though the public statement read that he was "resigning to pursue independent research."
Benjamin was shocked at first, and hurt, but dinner and party invitations came as often as ever from his old associates, and their wives went right on with that ancient game of trying to find the "right" girl for the bachelor friend. He would never mention it, of course, but the girls nowadays seemed too direct and aggressive for him. They lacked that womanly modesty or engaging demureness that girls reportedly had once possessed. He wished—
Offers came in from other companies, but Benjamin had money enough for a while and he began experimenting with some ideas. When his lawyer and banker discovered he'd given away two new color TV circuits, however, there was a blow-up and Benjamin found himself incorporated.
It made no difference. He could still experiment as he pleased. He had his many friends and constantly made more. If enough money rolled in to make him moderately wealthy, let the lawyer worry about it. After he came up with the Ben Reeves capacitor in 1961, his wealth was more than moderate. That thumb-sized gadget delivered the power of a hundred storage batteries and was the answer to a thousand engineering problems.
All down the bad years, Benjamin had read the papers and wondered and suffered through the tensions of the nerve war like the rest of us. Perhaps it was a little worse for him, because he knew the classified secrets, knew to the decimal point the percentage of missiles that would get through our defenses. Steadily the urge grew stronger to get out of this world gone suicidally awry.
He had the money and he had the time. An efficient business manager took care of the new plant that produced the Ben Reeves capacitor.
He built his first machine in 1962, a month before Andover Hare took his own near relatives back into time with him. But that wasn't enough for Benjamin. He was a scientist where Andover was a student and Edgar Evans an amateur experimenter. Benjamin couldn't forget the millions who yearned with him.
For Benjamin, the mere machine wasn't an answer. He went back through the years himself, several times, but always he returned and worked harder. And there came the day, a year ago, when his work shifted suddenly to maps and population indices.
If you live within 40 miles of the most populous cities, you should know that somewhere in that city is a very plain suitcase which is at once an answer to your prayers and to those strange nostalgic desires you've felt. It may be in a rented room or a storage warehouse, or in the attic of one of the many friends Benjamin Reeves has made.
Wherever it is, you're under its influence, thanks to Benjamin's work. And every other day now, in a closed-off room at the Ben Reeves plant, technicians finish assembling another group of strange circuits which goes into another plain suitcase to be sent to yet another city, chosen on the basis of population vs. importance as a target.
The technicians are learning speed. Be thankful for that, if you love your fellow-man as Benjamin does. At first they turned out only one machine a week; soon it will be one a day, then two, four.
Benjamin doesn't go out any more. He's always within hearing of the receiver tuned to the warning networks, within reach of the red button that will someday send out a coded signal.
Did you read about the situation in this morning's papers? It looks like another crisis in the making and maybe this time neither side will back down.
Pray for a year's time, if you're the praying kind.
But whenever the missiles come, Benjamin will press the red button at the first warning. The temporal field lasts only a millisecond and the missiles won't be stopped, of course—but every city with a suitcase will be empty when they strike.
If the crisis holds off for a year, Benjamin figures we'll all go back together, each city and town to a different time, but all before 1900. It's hard to wait even a year when you have the gene gnawing and nagging inside you....
Edgar Evans, who started it, couldn't wait. Andover Hare refused to go back alone. Benjamin Reeves, with the same gene, was unable to forget what he told the military—run like hell!—and all the folks like us who couldn't.
So Benjamin found us the ultimate way to run, and to satisfy our dream in the running. Not yet, but soon now.
See you back there!