Recalling the ephemeral age

By Chuck Sigars | May 29, 2019

I have a confession to make. I skim the news a lot more than I used to.

I didn’t have to confess that to you specifically. I just felt like I should tell someone.

Because keeping up with current events is part of being a good citizen, or so I always assumed. My parents read a newspaper and watched the evening news on television, as did my grandparents. It seemed like a thing adults should do, so I did it.

I still do. It’s just that lately it’s been taking less time, and I realize that’s because I skim. I follow what’s happening and usually I’m not surprised, but I know fewer details.

I was skimming over Memorial Day weekend, and I began to read a story by Diane Bernard in The Washington Post about the 50th anniversary of a Vietnam-era protest. Three young men had vandalized a Selective Service office in Silver Spring, Maryland. It wasn’t an unfamiliar story to me.

I was a kid, in elementary school. I knew about the war, and the protests, and the politics. I wondered a little if I’d end up in Southeast Asia one day, destined for the draft, but mostly I was just aware.

My eyes were drawn to this article by Ms. Bernard because of the anniversary thing. I’m always interested in stories about looking back on events through contemporary eyes.

But I was only going to skim. I was barely curious, and about to click over to the next article when I read something fascinating.

The protesters in 1969 were following a practice called Hit and Stay, a technique that involved committing an act of civil disobedience, then waiting for the police to arrive. The upside here was that this brought a lot more publicity; the downside, of course, was that the perpetrators usually went to jail.

This is where the story would normally lose me.

Two young men went into a government building, destroyed files, poured fake and real blood all over the place, etc. They were both sent to prison, one serving four years before being released, the other eventually escaping and exiling himself to Sweden, where he still lives.

Both are in their early 70s. Neither seems to regret anything.

From my perspective, this looks like a lot of other protests from this era. It looks like political theater, all flash and little substance. I couldn’t imagine that minds were changed, much less policy. Two young lives were interrupted and permanently altered for minimal return, as far as I could tell.

But one of the men interviewed for the article made an interesting point. There was no central database of potential draftees, he said. Information was kept on index cards, and there was no backup. Steal or destroy those cards, and you might actually spare some young lives from fighting in the jungle.

The virtue in this, or lack of it, is irrelevant to me at this point, half a century later. It’s the impermanence that gets my attention.

This seems intuitive, given that I was alive at the time and so I’m aware of the state of technology, but it never occurred to me before. We’ve become so dependent on the nothing-ever-goes-away aspect of the modern digital life, I think it’s easy to forget that even fairly recently, documentation used to be tenuous, dependent on 3x5 cards and fire safety classes.

I thought about this as I stared at my birth certificate. I had an appointment at the passport office, so I was double-checking forms against my original vital statistics. I wondered about a big fire destroying all evidence of my birth. Suddenly it felt like a real thing, losing crucial records.

It made me think of “Cinderella Liberty,” the 1973 novel by Darryl Ponicsan, which he adapted into a screenplay for the film starring James Caan and Marsha Mason, released that same year.

It’s the story of a sailor whose records get lost, and thus he can’t be transferred or discharged, stuck in a hospital where he went for a minor procedure. He’s given a pass every day, everyone being sympathetic, although he has to be back by midnight (thus the title).

This concept is intriguing to me, the way at one point it would have been fairly simple to drop off the grid and become an unperson (or a Unabomber, I guess).

These days, not so simple.

My daughter mentioned recently that she has absolutely no expectation of privacy in this world, and neither do her peers. This surprised me a little, but also made a lot of sense.

This is the world they grew up in, a world of sharing details online, and then the rising of the surveillance state. Younger people may be resigned, and just opt in for the positive aspects (GPS directions, ordering everything online, etc.) and are probably sophisticated enough by their age and experience to decline the more obvious traps.

For the olds? Not such good news.

Those Nigerian millions aren’t going to just give themselves away.

But at least our records are secure. If a draft board wants to find me, they know where I am. According to my birth certificate, I’m about to turn 61, so I’m not sure what kind of soldier I would make. I’m not really concerned, although now that I think about it maybe I should stop skimming so much and pay more attention to the news.

Just in case.

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