PermaLink 35 years later09/04/2008 05:41 PM
This is a story about how the internet lets people disappear into the winds of the past.

If you're looking for technical content, this post has absolutely none.

I don't know why, but this afternoon I suddenly remembered something I saw the first day I got off the bus to go to my first day of 7th grade, in September, 1974.

In the town I grew up in, the grade school and high school (there was no middle school then) were all in one interconnected complex of ancient buildings. The high school was built in 1909, the grade school nearby, in 1926, and interconnecting buildings added in 1950 and 1967. If you were in kindergarten, you got off in a loop behind the grade school and walked to the "new school," the part built in 1967. I actually started kindergarten in the "old school" and within weeks we picked up all the toys and supplies and books and marched down in a line to the new room in the "new school," the only time I've ever gotten to move into any kind of brand new structure (well, except one other time, but I won't talk about that). Kindergarten and first grade classes were there, and in second grade, you got off at the side door of the "old school" and stayed there till after sixth grade.

In 7th grade, though, you got to go to the high school around the corner. Even though the buildings connected, with a cafeteria and offices in between, we grade-schoolers never went to the high school for anything, ever. High schoolers were enormous, loud, dangerous-looking creatures with books that could crush you flat if they dropped even one of them on your head by accident. Their feet were the size of trash can lids, their voices boomed like dinosaurs. We avoided them.

But in that fall on 1974, I had a new home in that high school, and I got off the bus and walked over the sidewalk toward the side entrance near the bandroom and the auditorium. Something on the ground caught my eye.

It was a bronze plaque set into the ground near a small but solid tree. It was about ten inches on a side, square, burnished by years of exposure to the sun and weather, unadorned, except for


That was it.

I looked at it for a few seconds, got kind of spooked, and moved on.

Maybe they were buried there!

Apparently Bob Costas had the same reaction when he first saw the memorials beyond the outfield in the old Yankee Stadium. And he cried.

I just went inside and tried to find homeroom.

It has been 34 years to the day since I first saw that plaque, and I remember wondering about the names a couple of times when I was in school, but do not know why I am thinking about it right now. Perhaps it's brought on by the fact that I looked up my father in the Social Security Death Index a while ago, and he's in there already. He died a little over a year ago. Oddly, my mother, who died forty years ago this December, is not.

But here I am, thinking again... who were they? Why is that memorial there? Is it still there? Who were they? What happened to them? I know one time, I had this idea that they somehow died in a terrible car accident or something, like some old Fifties star-crossed-lovers song. Maybe they just both happened to die that year. The plaque says nothing, not even "given by the Class of 1966" or something.

I did a search, and all I could find was that Roger Didget was the relative, possibly the nephew of a longtime village resident who died a couple of years ago in the old home town and who is now buried in his family's plot not far from my mother and father.

Susan Widmer has no trace. Who was she? There were never any Widmers in town when I lived there, maybe they moved there, lost their only daughter, and moved away without leaving any sign they'd ever been there except a daughter buried in the village.

Just... nothing.

I got thinking about that, about how if you're not "famous" in the conventional sense, if you died before the era of the internet, you have essentially disappeared except for some decaying old books in some county hall somewhere. If you died before you were old enough to do anything in your life -- have children, work at a job, graduate college, become a criminal -- you vanished like smoke. There is no trace of you, no way for anyone now, in a practical sense, to realize you had ever lived.

And beyond that, when the only memory of you exists in electronic records, the memory of your entire existence could some day vanish in the time it takes to overwrite a backup tape.

We are all in danger of becoming electronic unpersons, without so much as a brass plaque in the ground for some stranger to wonder over, 400 miles away on a warm afternoon 40 or 50 years later.

I am spooked all over again.

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Blabber :v

1. Corey Davis09/04/2008 06:34:15 PM

Last year on a trip to Boston I was walking the Freedom Trail and had a similar experience. If you have never done it before then let me tell you that there are a helluva lot of old (and I mean friggin' ancient) cemeteries in Boston. Many of the tombstones have been broken or weathered down to mere stubs which got me thinking about how here lay this person with their little memorial in stone which now fails to proclaim for whom it was erected. At what point did friends, family, whomever stop caring enough to repair the tombstones? Who were these people? What was their story? They must have one since they were around during a very tumultuous time in our history. Yet, there they lay no longer identified with a story lost to time.

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