A Million Time Machines

In Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, three boys are running through the streets.

“A Time Machine!” panted Charlie Woodman, pacing [Douglas]. “Mother’s, scout’s, Injun’s honor!”

“Travels in the past and future?” John Huff asked, easily circling them.

“Only in the past, but you can’t have everything. Here we are.”

Charlie Woodman pulled up at the hedge.

Douglas peered in at the old house. “Heck, that’s Colonel Freeleigh’s place. Can’t be no Time Machine in there. He’s no inventor, and if he was, we’d known about an important thing like a Time Machine years ago.”

Going inside, they find the old man, Colonel Freeleigh. With a little prompting from Charlie, the colonel proceeds to tell them about Ching Ling Soo, the great magician who died onstage in Boston in 1905, of Pawnee Bill and the buffalo charging across the prairie in 1875, of the Civil War and how he no longer remembers which side he fought on.

The old man’s voice faded.

The boys sat for a long while without moving. Then Charlie turned and looked at Douglas and said, “Well, is he or isn’t he?”

Douglas breathed twice and said, “He sure is.

The colonel opened his eyes.

“I sure am what?” he asked.

“A Time Machine,” murmured Douglas. “A Time Machine.”

***

As a biographer, I get the privilege of talking to “time machines” every day. It’s funny—humanity has long had a fascination of sorts with time travel. I can count at least four current TV shows off the top of my head that are about time travel (and as it turned out, when I looked it up, there are even more). Yet, a trip back in time, is one question away.

I’ve been thinking about this more often than usual lately as I’ve been interviewing grandparents from one side of the family and am getting ready to interview the other side too. Hearing them describe their childhood homes, the things they did for fun, the schools they attended—in some ways, it reminds me of the historical novels I devoured growing up. But these stories are so much sweeter, simpler, and more real.

In time travel TV shows, characters almost always wind up messing up the past and are horrified when they return to the present and realize what they’ve done. I’m grateful not to have to deal with that in my own “time travels.” I don’t have to worry about accidentally changing the past—but I do get the opportunity to shape the future.

Hearing the stories of the past has this incredible way of shaping the present, of shaping me. I count myself blessed to get to sit at the feet of so many wise people, soaking in like a thirsty sponge the lessons they’ve learned and the values they’ve formed.

Here’s my challenge for today: sometime soon (maybe not today, but this week, this month), find someone older than you who you admire and ask them a question about their life. The question might be simple, or it might be profound, but ask them. If you’re not sure where to get started, here are a few of my favorites!

  1. What was an important lesson you learned as a kid from a parent or teacher?
  2. Where is your favorite place in the world? Why?
  3. How did you know the person you married was right for you?
  4. What’s a challenge that you overcame? How did you make it through?
  5. How do you hear from God?

In today’s world of shifting loyalties and values, we are desperately in need of some wisdom. Thankfully, we all live in cities full of time machines who, while they may not know everything, are a step farther down the path and know a sight more than we give them credit for.

“Thus says the Lord:
“Stand by the roads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.”
–Jeremiah 6:16

If you decide to take me up on the challenge, I’d love to hear about it! You can share your story in the comments below, or send me a message at ruthie@ruthanneburrell.com.

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