In a continued attempt to make myself write more, I decided to participate in this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge. I chose the following prompt for this time travel experiment:
- Be an invisible observer in a major event from the past. Or an active participant — whichever you prefer.
And here’s my addle-brained contribution!
Her first impression is shock. She expects the colors to be muted like they are in old pictures or even in the way they are in the movies. Sure, she knows that’s all part of the filming technique, but she’s been programmed by Hollywood, so seeing Times Square in hues blasting in vibrancy and missing those sepia undertones leaves her unsettled.
She tucks her chin down, pulling the hat down over her curls. She only has 8 hours here, which is very little time to be wasting even one minute worrying about the fact that the present doesn’t look like it’s always been portrayed in films.
Glancing behind her, she steals one more glance at the building she’s just come from. When she entered it a little more than an hour ago, it was a research center with a gleaming metal façade. Now, it’s just nondescript brick and is advertising itself as having rooms for rent. A stab of worry punches her as she wonders how she’s going to get back inside and down to the basement at the appointed time. She only escaped unnoticed this time because it’s such a late hour and, even for Manhattan, people seem to be mainly tucked up in their homes and are paying no attention to a small brunette wearing a dress that, up until a week ago, was hanging in an antique store.
Her wooden heels click along the sidewalk as she heads toward 46th and Broadway. She’s been given no real direction from the professor for what’s she’s supposed to do once she arrives. She’s merely supposed to observe, interact in ways that won’t cause a ripple, and return at the appointed time. The problem, she soon realizes, is that she has no idea what to do. It’s only just after midnight and the news isn’t going to start rolling in for a couple of hours. As a student of history, she’s listened to the radio broadcasts more times than she can count. In some places, she can even quote them verbatim. She knows when they’re supposed to start and what’s going to be said – in fact, she knows the outcome of that night and all those that come after it. Her challenge, she knows, is going to be keeping her mouth shut.
The honking of a horn forces her to pull herself into the present – well, also the past – and she lifts her head to watch a yellow taxi zoom by. It’s a massive vehicle, and she recognizes it as 1941 Ford. The lights of the city seem to glitter off its surface as it swings around the corner where she’s standing. As she watches it pass, a smile splits her face. She can’t believe she’s really here. Sure, she believed in the mission and had total faith in the professor, but still, how is it that she’s here?
She knows she should feel nervous. She is, after all, a single woman alone on a Manhattan street late at night, but she feels no fear. Her body vibrates with excitement when she crosses the street and stares at what is ahead of her. It’s incredible. Flashing lights, art deco signs, strains of Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra coming from car radios – it’s like being on the set of some grand J.J. Abrams film. A giggle escapes her lips before she can stop it, and she’s eyed suspiciously by gangly man in a Navy uniform who passes her by.
Sticking her hand into the pocket of the dress that feels unfamiliar against her skin, she pulls out the address to remind her where she’s headed. She’s coming up on 44th Street now, and when she turns the corner, she’s surprised at the crowd she sees farther down the street. She’d read that this place was hopping during this time period, but seeing the throng of people milling around outside brings those historical facts to life.
As she nears the crowd, she hears a wolf whistle. She tries to locate where it’s coming from, but when she’s greeted with the grins from at least a dozen servicemen, all she can do is blush and smile. She’s relieved that they don’t seem to notice that she’s out of place and she has to remind herself that she looks the part.
“Move away! Dame coming through!”
The deep voice makes her want to turn around and find the source of the voice, but she makes herself push forward through the crowd and enter the door. Down the wide steps she goes, moving at the meandering pace of the crowd. When she reaches the bottom, the room is cavernous. Directly ahead of her, a large band is on the stage. The dance floor is crowded with bodies. All the men are in the various uniforms of the armed forces. Some of them seem to be so young and fresh-faced, their undeveloped bodies belying the fact that they’re still very much boys in a man’s world. One of the older ones she sees, a man in an Army uniform that seems to cling to strong biceps and narrow hips, nods at her. She grins back, her heart thudding in her chest at the way their eyes lock. She toys with the idea of breaking the rules of the project and getting decidedly intimate with a handsome soldier who looks more than a little happy to see her, but she realizes that the ramifications could be devastating. She was told by the professor no less than twelve times before she transported that she could engage in nothing but inane conversations. Anything more could cause an irreparable continuum tear. She knows from reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (which is more non-fiction than anyone in her time realizes) how very devastating that can be and she pulls her gaze away. Her lips have to stay zipped and her legs better stay closed.
“Welcome to the Stage Door Canteen!” A shrill voice behind her makes her turn, where she meets the gaze of an older woman whose hair is pulled into a tight bun. The woman rattles off where to find the drinks and where to pick up a dance card, then pats her on the shoulder and tells her to show the boys a good time before she waddles away to greet another lost looking young woman.
She grabs a dance card that she has no intention of using and slides it into her purse. It’s a keepsake more than anything. She’s not going to dance. She’s here to observe the time and the mood before the news breaks.
An hour later, her dance card is full and she’s making her way out into the June Manhattan night. A thin sheen of sweat covers her skin, a smile on her lips. She danced with that handsome Army soldier from earlier, four times in fact. His name is Jacob Fallon and he’s an Army Lieutenant. Despite the attraction that palpitated between them, she has managed to shy away from his bold advances. Part of her is frustrated because she can’t give in to what she knows is natural, even if it’s just a few kisses (or decidedly more. She is a grown woman, after all.) The rest of her knows how dire those actions could be. She makes a note to look Jacob up when she gets back home. She wonders what happened to him and if he will end up going overseas before the war ends next year.
Dwelling on the fact that she’s starting to feel so comfortable here, she heads up two blocks at a swift clip. She only has a few minutes to be in place for the next phase of her study.
Seeing the flashing sign of a diner tucked into a corner of a high rise, she pushes through the door and lets herself inside. The acrid smell of smoke sucks the air from her lungs, making her thankful that she lives in a time where smoking is banned in most places.
She slides onto a bar stool and eyes the radio on the back counter. She recognizes it as a large, 1939 Philco model. It’s giving off a warm glow, but she doesn’t recognize the station that’s playing.
“Can you turn on NBC?” she asks.
“Huh?” The man behind the bar, his busy eyebrows bunching together, stares at her.
“NBC,” she repeats. “Would you mind changing over to NBC?”
He looks around the diner, making her wonder if he’s going to ignore her. There are only two other people in the joint at this time of morning, nearly 3am. “You fellas mind if I turn on NBC? The little gal wants to listen to that network instead.”
There is a grumble of approval from the two men at the other end of the counter, and then radio knob is turned, static and humming filling the small space until he lands on the right frequency and orchestra music starts coming through the speakers.
Relieved, she leans back and gives him a smile of thanks.
“What’ll ya have?”
It occurs to her that, in all of her planning, she forgets to research what types of drinks and food she would be most likely to encounter, so she goes with something safe. “A Coca-Cola, please?”
The man raps his knuckles on the counter. “Sure thing.”
As he fills her glass with the foaming drink, she steals a glance at the others around her. They’re paying no attention to her at all. Once is reading the newspaper and the other is diving into his greasy burger and fries with gusto. She’s relieved that no one seems to notice that she’s out of place – decades out of place – and she lets herself relax.
When the waiter drops the glass in front of her and she takes a drink of a soda that is both familiar in its taste yet richer than anything she’s encountered back home, she marvels. She can’t believe she’s really here.
The clock above the window to the kitchen ticks closer and closer to 3am. Her nerves feel jangled. She knows what’s about to happen. She’s already heard the radio broadcasts that she’s about to hear again, having listened to them so many times during her studies that there are parts she can repeat verbatim. Yet everything feels new. She feels like a stranger in a foreign land instead of what she is, a volunteer time traveler who believes in the cause of preserving history by directly experiencing it. The reality of where she is rocks her to her core at the exact moment that the orchestra music is interrupted.
She sucks in a breath and leans in to listen.
“We interrupt our program to bring you a special broadcast. The German news agency, Trans-Ocean, said today in a broadcast that the Allied invasion had begun. I repeat, the German news agency, Trans-Ocean, said today in a broadcast that the Allied invasion had begun. There was no Allied confirmation…”
“Holy shit!” The man eating the cheeseburger exclaims, his sandwich plopping to the plate, forgotten. “The invasion! It’s started!”
The man behind the counter frowns and holds up one hand while he uses the other to turn up the volume. The reporter is still talking, explaining how, most likely, this news is probably not even real.
Oh, it’s very real, she thinks.
The broadcast ends and the music begins again. This time, it’s slow piano music. The diner door opens as someone comes in.
“I just heard on the radio on the taxi,” the man says as he tugs off his hat. “The invasion has started?”
“That’s what they’re saying,” the other diner patron who has, until now, stayed quiet, adds. “But you know how them Germans are. I’ll believe it when Eisenhower himself says it!”
The bell over the door tings again and a couple comes in. The man is in a Navy uniform, looking concerned. The woman on his arm worries her lower lip between her teeth and eyes the radio. “We just heard,” she says. “Do you mind if we listen?”
The waiter waves toward the open space at the countertop as the piano music cuts off and the broadcaster begins talking about reports regarding the Nazis and the Japanese. The room goes silent as everyone strains to listen to the scratchy, tinny voice speaking with a tone demonstrative of the seriousness of the news.
She wants to take her notebook out of her handbag and jot down a few observations, like the way the woman’s hair is perfectly coifed into victory rolls. Or the way her hand is curling around the sailor’s forearm. She wonders if they’re a couple or if they’re simply together for the evening. Maybe they met at the Stage Door Canteen, too. She knows from her studies that relationships were fast and easy during this period because of the fervor of war, but these two seem exude an intimacy that she believes has to come from more than just a brief knowledge of one another.
“La Havre? Where the hell is La Havre?” the waiter asks, facing the radio. No one answers his question and she wonders if anyone even knows.
The music begins playing again, the news bulletins done for a few more minutes. The small crowd swells with conversation, and soon the bell to the diner is ringing repeatedly as people seem to come out of nowhere. Word is spreading fast.
Satisfied that her first observation is complete, she slides a few coins across the counter to pay for her drink and slips out into the night.
Out on the street, she notices more lights are on in windows than had been an hour ago. Two taxis are parked against the curb, about a block down from the diner, and both of them have their doors open. They’re simultaneously broadcasting a different channel, which she recognizes as Bob Trout’s report from CBS from the same night. She slows down to listen (because frankly, she always prefers Bob Trout), and smiles at the stranger who grips her hand and says, “It’s finally happening! We’re going to win this war!”
She wants to take the stranger aside and explain it all because she knows she could alleviate so much worry if she could only share what she knows, but she knows better. Smiling, she nods at the man and stands back, watching as people cross the street to crowd around the open taxi doors. The city, which was asleep just a few hours ago, is rapidly blinking to life. While she stands there, she sees lights in apartments up and down the streets coming on, the sound of phones ringing and radios whirring to life drifting through open windows and floating down into the streets below.
A large man jostles her out of the way as he tries to get closer to the taxi. “My son is over there,” he tells anyone who will listen. “He was in England and I know he’s over there in the middle of that right now.” The man wrings his hands, his eyes weary.
She gives him a comforting smile and asks, “What’s your son’s name?”
He rattles off a name and she commits it to memory. She will find out his fate, too, once she gets home.
The crowd continues to grow. Soon, there are so many people that she can no longer hear the broadcasts, so she moves along.
As she wanders over the next few hours, she encounters the same types of scenes over and over again. Diners full of people, all facing a small radio. People standing around open car doors, listening intently and silently. She even finds a radio shop with lights blazing and the door propped open. From the booming sound coming out, she realizes that every radio inside must be on, all tuned to the invasion news.
She chats with a few strangers, keeping the conversation to nothing more than joyous platitudes. The crowds that were earlier verbose seem to quiet down as more details begin to slip out. She knows that, even after the invasion is confirmed by the Allied forces and as they begin broadcasting the stories of reporters who were there, that the news is being sanitized for American consumption. Casualties were anything but light. Thousands of men were stuck down, cut and sliced by German bullets. She thinks of the worried faces she sees and recognizes a wife, a mother, a friend. Even though she’s never been much of a prayerful person, she sends up a prayer for those boys, momentarily forgetting that everything is already done and that fates have long since been decided.
As the sun comes up over the city, she is weaving her way down toward the south tip of the city. She stops for a moment to get her bearings and realizes that she’s standing near what will someday become the World Trade Center. She thinks about September 11th and how, someday, someone just like her will be coming back to experience those moments firsthand. She wants to tell whoever ends up getting to come back to saves themselves the trip – it’s too painful to experience, even as a scientific observer.
Shaking off the sadness from that horrific from her own time, she enters the grandiose St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The doors are flung wide open and there are already people inside. Most are on their knees, their hands folded in prayer. Others are standing in front of tiny flickering candles with their heads bowed.
She heads towards a front corner of the church and sits down in a wooden pew. Her body is weary from the dancing and the walking and the fact that she’s 70 years in the past. She only has an hour left before she has to grab a cab and return to the transportation point. She wishes she could stay longer, but the science isn’t there yet to make it happen. They’ve been doing these short excursions for the last year, although this is her first trip. She hopes, once she gets back, that she can convince the professor to send her out again. Maybe back to the exact point she left because she hasn’t spent nearly enough time here yet.
The quiet of the church and the smell of incense that seems to permeate everything despite the fact that there is none burning lulls her into a relaxed state. Telling herself that she can rest for a few minutes, she closes her eyes.
When she slides into wakefulness, she instantly goes from groggy to panicked. She pushes herself out of the church pew, weaving between the people that are pouring into the church in a near constant stream. As she steps into the vestibule, she eyes the clock hanging on the wall. 8:18.
Her heart constricts. She’s missed her window by 22 minutes.
She’s missed her window.