Sounds Like Old Times


I can hear this baby now. Can you?


My lifelong interest in the past, all things old, and the musky smell of old newspapers in some out of the way library somewhere, sooner or later, had to lead me through all the ways we experience life through our senses. One doesn’t merely read or think about the past, whether it’s the Civil War, local history, family matters, or the journey of American baseball from the pasture lands to the city. To grasp the past as closely as we are able, and without a physical time machine, we must be open to ways that enable us to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it, and, yes, hear it too.

And, if you have a sixth sense, plug that one in as well. That sixth sense may even be the key to learning how to tune in your five physical senses to the same daunting challenge. In fact, and here’s what I have found, the more free you are to play with the five senses in your mind, the easier it is to make room for a total sense of what some moment in the past may actually have been like.

Let’s take a simple example that surrounds many of us daily to explore how this works, especially in the attics of older homes.

Most attics are not visited too often. In that sense, attics are like little time capsule pictures of what things were like on the last day anyone went there to place, remove, or rearrange things. In Houston, we probably have some unceremonious attic arrangements in places like River Oaks and the Heights that have not been reconfigured since the 1930s – or even the 1920s.

So what?

So, assuming the owner’s permission, or being the owner yourself, go to such an attic storage place. Turn on the light, or bare open the usually paint and dust caked attic window, if there even is one. See what you can see. Try to imagine how each item got there. Who left the empty coke bottle on that two by four ledge over a half century ago? Smell the musk of age and air confinement. Sense the heat. Depending on the time of year, the attic temperature may not be especially conducive to long visitations. There also will be things in sight that you certainly would be afraid to taste – or even touch.

But what do you hear? If sound from the outside yard and street is available to you in 2011, what was out there in 1937? Would you recognize the sound of manual lawnmower blades, if your heard them? Would you be surprised by the louder, more guttural  sound of car engines from the 1930’s as they passed by? How about the music of Benny Goodman or Guy Lombardo playing over a radio somewhere and now wafting its way to the attic?

And who was the child that once played with that little mechanical version of Donald Duck that you’ve just found and wound and sent quacking across the attic floor? Do you now think that same kid may have also had a daddy who once owned and then stored a copy of the famous 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card somewhere up here in this same attic?

Are you catching a second wind on that thought and thinking you may want to stay here and visit the past a while longer? Or is that just the lust for buried treasure taking over?

No matter what, when you finally do come down from the ancient attic, did the use or idea of using all your senses help you do a little simulated time traveling? If so, you are probably now better prepared than ever to do some kind of historical research. Once we learn to turn all our senses on to the time period we are investigating, I think we learn faster and, in some cases, we see connections we might otherwise miss altogether.

Just my wide open mental meanderings on a sort of rainy morning in March 2011.

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