A Box of Family Pictures: The Flux Capacitor in Your Attic


Time travel is amazing!

By Kurt Rump

Time travel has always been a popular topic for science fiction.

You find it in books, like The Time Machine (a true classic) by H. G. Wells. Or A Wrinkle in Time, the first in a series authored by Madeleine L’Engle, that I read aloud to my kids at bedtime – a chapter a night – while sitting in the hallway outside their rooms. Boy, does THAT seem like forever ago.

And then you have movies, my personal favorite of which is the Back to the Future trilogy. I mean, what’s not to like about the idea of retrofitting a DeLorean with a flux capacitor to initiate time travel?

Easily my favorite of the Back to the Future series was the first installment. And I’m pretty sure I know why.

You see, one of the important challenges that a writer faces in a story involving time travel is to transport you to a place that seems real. It doesn’t matter whether the author is writing a novel or writing a screenplay, he or she wants you to land someplace believable.

If the writer takes you back in history, you can bet that there’s been a substantial effort to research the era. Likewise, if you’re being transported into the future, the author may well have employed “science fiction editors” in an attempt to balance the plausibility of the science with an imagined, fictional future.

So, where did the first Back to the Future movie take you? November of 1955.

I was born in 1953. My first life experiences… and memories… are of the mid-1950s. And from where I sat, the research that was done for the era was spot on!

For me, the scenes were totally relatable.

I could relate to the town square. I could relate to the soda shop. I could relate to the clothes being worn. For me, it WAS time travel.

When a car pulled into the Texaco station, it drove over an air hose that triggered a bell inside the station – ‘ding-ding’ – and three guys, all sporting a crisp, clean Texaco uniform, came trotting… yes, trotting… out to service the car.

When I was a kid, my dad gassed up at a Texaco station. I have HEARD that bell. I can put NAMES to the guys who worked there. And they really DID trot out to our car.

One pumped gas, another popped the hood to check the oil, and the third washed the windows. That’s why we called them ‘service’ stations… they were more than gas stations.

The point is, when that DeLorean time machine flash-banged its way from 1985 to 1955, it might as well have landed in my hometown. It was all so familiar… so real.

And the cars. Ohh, the cars. There are some classics from the 1950s. And I don’t need a movie about time travel to remind me about those.

All I need to do is look at some old family pictures.

Let me share a story about a 1955 Chevy convertible that belonged to my grandma.

We were browsing through some photos of a rodeo parade, circa 1958 or ‘59.

You see, my hometown hosts an annual rodeo in early September, the week after Labor Day. Been doing that for decades. Among the attractions that celebrate the rodeo, during the week leading up to the competition, is the rodeo parade.

It’s a tradition. Floats are decorated. Area high school bands march. Saddle clubs clip-clop down the street on horseback, decked out in their finest western wear and leather chaps. Onlookers crowd both sides of the street. Local dignitaries toss fistfuls of candy toward the curb, causing youngsters to sprint to the spot where the payload is scattering along the pavement, all scrambling to nab a sweet treat.

I was one of those youngsters.

Anyway, we’re browsing through these photos and come upon a picture of my uncle behind the wheel of a gorgeous ’55 Chevy convertible. He’s wearing a big grin and handsome black cowboy hat, and his convertible is pulling a float.

So, we asked him about the car… and he began to reminisce.

Turns out that it was the family car, which surprised the heck out of me. I did not recall that grandma ever owned a convertible. She didn’t seem to me like the ‘convertible type,’ if you know what I mean.

My uncle went on to explain that he and his brother sort of… uh… twisted her arm.

Well, let me just say that my uncle IS the ‘convertible type,’ so this made complete sense to me.

Then he told us about a certain Christmas Eve. The weather was unseasonably warm. Warm enough that he had the car out for a joy ride with the top down. A rare treat for that time of year.

The next morning, when it was time to go to Mass, my uncle bundled up to go outside. Overnight, the temperature had plummeted. Winter was back… with a vengeance. It was a cold, raw, Christmas morning. He opened the garage to start the car and realized that, when he had finished his joy ride the previous afternoon, he had put the car away with the top down. When he went to put it back up, it wouldn’t budge. It was frozen!

He confessed this transgression to his mother, thinking that would be the end of it. They would just have to skip church.

Nope! She would do nothing of the sort! It was Christmas, by golly, and they were going to church.

So, go to church they did. They climbed into that ’55 Chevy convertible, and away they went… top down… on a frigid December morning… absorbing some dumbfounded stares as they pulled into the church parking lot.

But hey… it was Christmas! An unforgettable Christmas!

That’s the magic of old family pictures. With one picture, we time-traveled to the late 1950s, spent some time at a rodeo parade, then took a hop to a memorable Christmas. And we learned a little something about the strength of my grandma’s faith along the way.

All that’s required for time travel is something to activate it.

  • H.G. Wells’ time machine was an elaborate ivory, crystal, and brass contraption.
  • Characters in A Wrinkle in Time traverse time and space by ‘tessering.’
  • And, of course, the ‘flux capacitor’ (and a little plutonium) is what makes time travel possible in Back to the Future.

For you and me, time travel is as simple as a box of old family pictures.

Open the box. Browse through the pictures. Share them with family and friends. See where it takes you. And enjoy the journey.

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