A little history lesson

diaries of a young man

The Smithsonian has expressed no interest.

You put things off and then one morning you wake up and say: Today I will clean out the garage. (Apologies to Charles Portis.) So I spent most of Friday ineffectually moving stuff around in an attempt to organize it. The garage did look tidier for a time, mostly because most of the crap (below right) was sitting out on the driveway.

But the day wasn’t a total waste. Way in the back, sitting on a dampish concrete floor, I found a mouldering box labeled “Notebooks.”

The documents section is in the back.

The documents section is in the back.

After four humid years in Florida, some moisture had crept into the bottom. Several disgusting silverfish abandoned ship when I opened the box. I was about to empty it directly into the trash when I spied a black leatherette cover that looked to be of some significance. It turned out to be my pilot’s logbook from the days I was learning how to fly, nearly 40 years ago.

I’d long wondered what happened to it. I dug deeper and found a college diploma, a number of horrible poems, some typewritten efforts at fiction that varied widely in quality. Finally, near the bottom, were half-a-dozen diaries. No doubt these were the primary residence of the silverfish. But I shook each one out leaf by leaf and set them out to be cleansed by the sun. Then I shook them out again. Though wrinkled and stained a bit, they didn’t seem that much the worse for the bugs and humidity.

The oldest of them chronicles the year 1973. I was 22 at the time, and already had a wife and two kids. I was attending community college in Kalispell, Mont., with vague but grandiose dreams of someday being important. On the inside flap I had inscribed a portentous prologue, which, while nominally self-deprecating, also admits the possibility that future scholars might wish to have a look.

Embarrassing, yeah. But I kept reading, in the detached way of someone who knows exactly where the story is going. After awhile I became less detached, and more just sort of sad. And frequently annoyed.

It’s interesting to look at the person you used to be, the one long since vanished from the mirror. You forget how clueless you were. I kept wanting to reach down through the decades to that younger self and administer a punch in the face — he was so self-absorbed, so melodramatic, so lazy, so fretful about mundane obstacles.

There’s nothing a callow young man can teach an old one. But after all these years, that self did have a few surprises for me: He drank a lot more beer than I remembered. He and his young wife quarreled much more than I’d have thought, though he never specified what the quarrels were about. He consumed prodigious amounts of popcorn. He was religious, in a flexible sort of way. He seemed to think his kids would remain toddlers forever. He worried about his weight, even though he was at least 20 pounds lighter than his 2014 counterpart. (Uh, maybe if you took it easy on the beer and popcorn … and here’s another punch in the face.)

But I kind of miss that guy, for all his faults. One thing he had that I don’t: He thought he was smarter than most people, and if he fretted about the small things, he seemed to think the big ones would turn out fine. For a born pessimist, he comes across as kind of optimistic. Another surprise. Also, his handwriting is much better than mine. But then he had more practice.

I haven’t gone through the other diaries. I imagine they’re pretty much in the same vein: long on navel-gazing and short on insight. If nothing else, I wish I’d recorded more specifics: more of what we did, and what it cost, and what we said, and what it meant. What I’m saying is, I wish I’d paid more attention. Maybe that young guy has taught me something after all.


  1. stocml says

    We could have kept a “book of days,” like some acquaintances into our middle age. Or, not. Had I done so there would have been plenty of bad material for some sucky novels.

    Nice sentiments, though, David

    • says

      I envy that acquaintance his Book of Days, and his discipline to keep it current. I have maybe 30 diaries in various drawers, but each year contains only 15 or 20 entries. I always think my life will be interesting enough to write about, and it always turns out not to be the case.