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The time machine

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The Observer and the rest of the editorial staff of the Arkansas Times spent the last couple of weeks flipping through the bound archives of the stick-it-to-the-man underground rag-turned-magazine-turned-weekly newspaper we work for, finding stories and tidbits of yesteryear to put on display for the Times' big 40th anniversary extravaganzo, which you're either holding in your hands right now in paper-and-ink form, or consuming via computer, tablet, smartphone and/or your Dick Tracy-style video watchommunicator. The Observer swears that the future is coming at us so gatdang fast these days that Wednesday arrived before Tuesday last week, and had to spend all day out on the stoop, tapping her foot and peeling leaves in half while waiting her turn to give us hell. Given the rocket ride to Tomorrowland we all seem to be strapped into these days, it's been good to escape back into the past via the archives.

Of all the things Yours Truly does for this job, digging through old newspapers has always been our favorite. Our profession's tendency to award bronzed plaques attesting to past greatness notwithstanding, newspaperfolk usually have no illusions about the transience of what it is that we do. This morning's brilliance is this afternoon's dog-doo-shoe-wiper, and that is as it should be. The great human carnival trundles on, the moving spectacle, full of tragedy and comedy. Your roving reporter is there to document it, and the next day the fruits of her labor go out with the trash.

But, as we've been heard to say many, many times over the years: Thank God for the libraries. That's the one place where the daily sparkles of the gem of mankind live on forever. Down at the main branch of the Central Arkansas Library System, for instance, they've got a bunch of the old daily newspapers on microfiche. For flat nothing per hour, a person can walk in there, select a reel or two, slide into the driver's seat of one of the wonderfully analog time machines and pop back to Jan. 30, 1947, or Dec. 6, 2004, or July 20, 1893. For a thin dime, you can even print out a story that catches your eye so you can hold it in your hand, just like Granddad.

Yes, that sounds boring as hell, but it ain't. In the movies, whenever a character has to look through old newspapers on microfiche, it inevitably leads to the shot of them pushing up their glasses, squinting, and pinching the bridge of the nose, the universal movie gesture for "I've bored myself into an Excedrin 3 headache." The Observer, however, finds it intoxicating. All that forgotten past spread out before you, glowing like fire! We give it our highest recommendation.

Some days when we've got some time, we'll slip off to the library and spend a lunch hour just browsing, picking reels at random, gawking at the old car ads and the high fashion and the stories about the troubles and triumphs of folks dead and gone. Try it sometime. You'll find all kinds of stuff, as we have: The time an Air Force bomber broke up high over Little Rock, the time a buffalo escaped from the Little Rock Zoo only to be found calmly munching someone's rosebush in Hillcrest, the time a man who'd been reported KIA in World War II showed back up in his hometown, said hello to a bunch of folks, then disappeared again. A thousand-thousand more things, made mysterious by the steady shuffle of time.

The daily flotsam of these lives of ours can seem so disposable. Seen as a whole, however, it becomes something awe-inspiring and precious: The knowledge that The Good Ol' Days were neither as kind nor a cruel as we variously imagine them to be. They were just days, lived by people who wanted fundamentally the same things we Futuristas do: life, love, liberty, happiness, a decent salad, the occasional cheeseburger and a good-fitting pair of shoes.

Speaking of the past, take a minute to browse through this week's issue. The Observer is kinda proud of it, not least because our own voice shares column inches with several of our journalistic heroes. It's the work of 40 years, celebrating all the people who birthed the Arkansas Times (born as The Union Station Times) and nurtured it, not without hardship and sacrifice, into something to be proud of. Happy birthday, old girl, and thanks for the memories.

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