Firing up the Wayback Machine

I always have been amazed by how much of my day-in, day-out life is lost over time in the clutter of my memory. Yet, a gentle reminder can trigger such a flood of recollection it’s almost as if the events and memories are suddenly fresh in my mind. And, more so, how said memories, viewed in this context, help me understand where I have been, how far I have come, and exactly how I came to be the person I am today.

A couple years back I was one-half of the dynamic(?) duo that operated a Milwaukee Brewers-themed blog, first on the Janesville Gazette’s website and later on its own domain, entitled “Peace & Glove.” One of our running story lines involved our use of Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to travel back in time to re-visit various historical figures and events. We shut down the blog last spring and as such, Mr. Peabody’s creation has sat unused and gathering dust in a dark corner of the basement.

I mention this only because I recently found myself aboard a trip back in time, not in a time machine but via an 18-year-old newspaper. My brother recently cleaned out his childhood bedroom and among his findings was a pristine copy of the Jan. 1, 1996 edition of the Des Moines Register, which he was nice enough to leave under the Christmas tree for me.

We couldn’t be together for Christmas this year so I have not had the chance to ask him what he recalls about that day and why he might have bought (and saved) that paper, as there was no “real” news of note. He would have been just shy of 16 years old that day, so perhaps he was just looking for something to do in the car while my parents drove home from dropping me off in Des Moines to work and stay with friends during the holiday break.

No matter my brother’s memories, I know where I was that day, and browsing the pages of this long-lost newspaper caused my brain to travel back to what I was then: An 18-year-old college freshman who thought he had everything figured out and was determined to prove it to my parents, peers and the world.

We spent Christmas 1995 at my grandparent’s house in southern Minnesota. Always being one to see things three steps ahead of time, I suggested that rather than drive me back to Des Moines from my hometown in southern Wisconsin, they should instead take I-35 south to Des Moines, drop me off, and travel home from there. I do not recall if this took a great deal of arm-twisting, but it was agreed upon.

We set out for Des Moines in a light fog on the morning of Dec. 31. The roads were clear and traffic was light, so I was in a good mood because I would be in town by noon or so, perhaps pick up a shift at work and still have plenty of time to go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve. This good mood turned sour about 45 minutes after hitting the road, as my parents’ minivan died on the side of the freeway, somewhere in the rolling hills that make up the Iowa-Minnesota border. In other words, not exactly the most populous part of our nation and just far enough into both states to fall into that zone into which either state’s law enforcement rarely ventured.

Luckily, my Dad carried the finest in early 90s technology: the bag phone. As it was for “emergencies only,” I had never seen it in use. I’m not sure my Dad ever had used it before that day, but it sure came in handy. Somehow we found a signal out in no-man’s land and summoned a tow truck to carry us to the nearest town, 15 miles in the “wrong” direction.

I don’t recall what exactly was wrong with the van, but it wasn’t serious enough to force the five of us to stay the night crammed into a budget hotel room in Albert Lea, MN — which would have been my worst nightmare. The mechanic had us back on the road within a couple of hours and we eventually made it to Des Moines by late afternoon. My Mom wanted to stop at their hotel, as it was just off the interstate and on the way to where I was to be dropped off. I am fairly certain that I pitched an epic fit to cause them to change course and get rid of me.

It wasn’t that I didn’t love them or that I didn’t want to be around them; instead, I knew that I was in “my” town and, by separating myself from my family as soon as I was able, it was clear that I was “on my own.” I never really thought about it in those terms at the time — what 18-year-old does? — but looking back, that’s exactly what it was. While I didn’t recognize this at the time, my life changed the minute I stepped out of their van. I spent the next five years working to establish myself as an independent person, all the while doing my best to avoid family obligations and trips home to Wisconsin.

To be honest, I’m glad that I was that way. I’m sure my parents weren’t always pleased, especially when it came to having to drive 650 miles round-trip every time they wanted to see me, but this approach allowed me to grow immensely as a person, to have my own triumphs, to make (and rectify) my own mistakes, and to learn how to love and lose … and love … and lose.

During this time I struggled at time academically, but still managed to pull together a very respectable college career and graduate in four years, all the while working 20-30 hours a week to support myself (read: pay the electric bill, put gas in the car, buy beer and concert tickets). I also learned a very poignant and expensive lesson in proper credit-card use and student-loan repayment, a process that played out over the subsequent decade but is an experience of which I am most proud.

Most of all, during these years I learned lesson after lesson in personal relationships, both with friends and “significant others.” These oftentimes were the hardest experiences to bear, especially without a nearby shoulder on which to cry. That said, I cannot imagine my life today had I not endured some of the things I went through. I am not one to delve deep into personal specifics in such a public forum, but suffice it to say there were some dark days when it seemed my world was crashing down around me.

Looking back, of course, most of those moments seem downright trivial compared to some of the curveballs life has thrown me as an adult. But without the personal growth caused by these ups and downs, would I be as well equipped today to deal with life? Would I have bounced back as well and as quickly from a life-altering fall and the resulting critical injuries? Would I know how to take a deep breath or two before making any rash comments or decisions? Without ever having been truly “broke” would I have the perspective to handle some of the financial bumps in the road that life brings?

I answer all of the above with a simple phrase: “Probably not.”

As I began by saying, sometimes all it takes is a simple reminder of where I have been and what I have seen to spur such thoughts and questions. Without the friends (and enemies, too!) I’ve made and the countless nights spent talking, scheming and dreaming about how we were to conquer the world, I would lack so much of their perspectives, the takeaways from others that have also helped mold me into who I am today.

The Wayback Machine is great for visiting times and places you’ve never seen. But as the past few days have taught me (again), traveling back to examine your former self is absolutely a better and far more enriching experience.

Happy New Year!