No Slice In Time

by Kent Ballard

It’s maddening when you get an idea that won’t quite jell in your mind. What’s worse are the ideas that jell very nicely but are so abstract you cannot find words to express them.

I was thinking something that has probably occurred to other people before, but a thing that was new to me. I don’t know where this thought came from. I don’t know where the term “metrosexual” came from either. It doesn’t matter. It seems to fit a certain part of the population and we will just accept it and move on.

I’d been thinking about all those JFK assassination conspiracy theories. Not the theories themselves actually, but the sheer amount of information researchers have uncovered over all these years for those three seconds in Dallas. It’s as if that time and place were locked into another reality, a museum somewhere, where the curious could go forevermore and look at it not only from all angles but multiple slices of times and fractions of those seconds. It’s been frozen in perfect three dimensional and temporal space. Things might be a little foggy before Zapruder filmed Kennedy’s reaction to the first shot and they might get alarmingly foggy after the last one, but those three seconds are more real to us today than they were to the people present at the time. From that place and time came thousands of books, television reports, eyewitness interviews, articles, movies, news stories, and memorials and they’re still being written today. I won’t bring up all the arguments. You’ve heard many yourself and you will hear more in the future. Nor will I delve into the two full-blown federal investigations that drew opposing conclusions. They’ve generated their own tonnage of written, visual, and audio commentary.

No, I wasn’t pondering the Kennedy assassination and it really wasn’t about the theories. My idea concerned the freezing in time of an event. My idea was that you could take any event, freeze it in time, go over it repeatedly with a fine-tooth comb, and find many strange and contradictory things about it. You could eventually find anything you wanted to about it. You could make the case that the event never even happened. You could wade into the seemingly endless amount of information gleaned by additional points of view and time lines and the introduction of unlikely characters magnified out of proportion and come to any conclusion you wanted. At some point you would believe this was an event of unprecedented magnitude simply because of all that had been learned about it.

I think if you were to freeze any point in time and look at it from every possible angle, you’d have so much information you could make a strong case for anything. People would come to believe it true. A few more years of research and debate, sprinkled with new findings and new technology to re-comb all the old evidence, and you’d have a public uproar. The people would clamor for Congress to do something! People would have fistfights about the last time you touched your mailbox.

Because I’m going to freeze that moment in time. Freeze the last time you touched your mailbox. We will keep that forever now.

Allow me to dance through time a bit here. It lends itself to my point.

Let’s say the kid at the end of the block briefly caught you in the corner of his cell phone camera while he was filming his friend ride a bike over a little homemade ski jump in his yard. Okay. We have a clear video recording of the event now. You can briefly be seen at the last moment you touched your mailbox. That will become known in the legend I’m about to construct as the “McQueen Film,” which countless writers will explain as a wobbly reference to Steve McQueen’s famous motorcycle jump in “The Great Escape.” It will be considered the gold standard of that frozen moment in time. All other evidence will be measured against those two seconds you appeared on that screen. Relentless investigation will eventually turn up three photographs, two known and one highly disputed, of the same instant too. There will be another much-argued film.

One photo was taken through a second story window across the street by a mother who snapped her sleeping newborn baby. In the lower left quarter of the photo, through that room’s window, down, and across the street you can see part of another house and a person standing at the mailbox. That is you. That’s been verified now, but it took the better part of a decade, much arguing, and fifteen years of technological advances to prove it.

It’ll take two and a quarter million dollars and six years of the best photographic analysis available, but another one of those still pictures shows both you (they proved it was you after the enhancements, color reversals, and shadow comparisons) and a man much farther away in a heavy red plaid winter jacket. But the day was warm. And they’ve proved it through weather records of your city. He’s now known as “the Red Jacket Man” or simply “Red Jacket.” There will a book and two movies about him, none of which agree.

People who were there that day testified a traffic helicopter was going overhead at the time. Some eyewitnesses passed lie detector tests, some didn’t. They made one hell of an effort digging for that film, I’m here to tell you. But they found a fragment on an old DVD. While the copter was banking around to cover a car wreck three quarters of a mile away, someone was taping a rerun of “Laverne and Shirley.” A much-investigated and never-resolved mistake was made at the TV station at that instant. Some argue it was only that. Some argue it was done purposely. But a switch was thrown for six seconds that did not direct the broadcast to a taped commercial, but to a live feed from the chopper on that fateful afternoon. They will look for over a decade for the engineer who threw that switch. They will never find him. But all agree whoever he was, he had his hand on that switch while you had yours on your mailbox. The timing is just too uncanny to be otherwise. Because the Red Jacket Man can be seen from above in it as well, and forensic anthropologists have said he was seen taking the same step as was captured in the now-famous photo including you.

(They also investigated the car wreck being filmed and the chopper pilot flying that day. Most of those theories have been dismissed but die-hard believers in conspiracies were able to draw a great deal of attention to the idea the car had been rocketed by a military attack helicopter flying in the colors of your local TV station. This was linked to conspiracy theories involving PRISM, domestic terrorism, UFOs, and renegade nuclear secrets. Two books were written about the found DVD alone.“Why Did Time Stop?” and “The Fool’s Show-The Morrison DVD” were at total odds with each other.)

The “ghost cat” remains a mystery to everyone. He can clearly be seen in one photo, but nowhere to be found in the second, and is unverifiable in the third and still-disputed picture. All agree the cat could never have been seen from the helicopter, which is the only thing certain about him.

Thirty years from your time PBS and the BBC will co-underwrite a two hour television special about all this. Every photo and film will be taken apart pixel by pixel. There will be a re-airing of scores of old eyewitness testimonies and many new ones will be included. They will film computer reenactments, perform a carefully executed flyby with the same type of helicopter over the exact same neighborhood, have both professional and amateur photographers debate differing types of visual images over the years, and do everything within man’s technological power to recreate that exact moment in time. But…

Do you see what I mean?

Do you see the potential for such a thing getting out of hand? You can’t save history. You can save an accounting of it but you will never save that instant, because if you try you will destroy that thing you’re trying to save. You cannot save a slice in time. It will spoil and go moldy and when it turns black it will never resemble the thing it once was. You cannot save time, nor can you save any point in it.

We will never truly know the past. All we can hope for is a good accounting, someone’s story of what really happened. We hope they told it correctly. We create slices of history with every breath, with every move, and it doesn’t matter if there are witnesses or not. We are justifiably proud of our greater moments and we skulk around the weaker ones, all of us, but in the end there is only one truth and it will never be told.

I had a terrible time getting my head around this idea and how to go about telling it. When I figure it all out I’ll let you know. But if there are kids playing down the block and a helicopter anywhere within earshot the next time you reach for your mail, you might think about this. And if you do you will change the course of history forever.

It’s then not only a question of what histories we don’t know, but what histories never came to be. No language lends itself to this. There cannot be words for thoughts that never were. No wonder I could not describe what I was thinking, because it never came to be.

Tread lightly for your mail next time.

8 thoughts on “No Slice In Time

  1. You’re gonna sprain your brain! It’s said that history is written by the victors and amounts to an amalgam of agreed upon lies. That means there is a universe of myopic records, but each contains the data needed to use logic and perspective to form a more complete picture. If you start pulling on the loose strands and picking at the jagged edges, everything can unravel.

    Time slices contain 360° of perspective. The written record is just a sliver of the whole. If you simply acknowledge that history is incomplete, you begin to see the practicality of settled matters in human interactions. Else, there’s no understanding. No solid ground.

    • The fact that history is written by the victors is troubling enough. What if King Leonidas was the jerk and Xerxes was an okay guy? There are probably many cases in history of that kind of thing we’ll never know.

      The point here was that you can examine a thing so minutely that the real meaning of it gets lost. Bermuda triangle freaks make a big deal about one of the last radio transmissions from Flight 19, “I can’t see the sky.”

      If you’re flying in a cloud, bud, you’ll ever see it. And if you don’t watch your instruments you’ll fly nose-first into the ocean. People forget that was a TRAINING flight. Thinking about an intensive thirty-year examination of an innocent moment and all that could be learned and misinterpreted about it is actually kind of mind-bogging. If I’d wanted to write a novella about it all I would have needed to do was add cell phone calls made at the time and all the emails that day in and out of the neighborhood. Give us two hours of those on any given day and we could all write huge mysteries and conspiracies with them.

    • Chaos theory, more like it. I just did a Google search for “grassy knoll” and got 1,150,00 results in 0.28 seconds. “Three tramps” gave me 3,260,000 results in 0.34 seconds. When I entered “magic bullet” I got 1,460,000 entries in 0.24 seconds. If anything in my above example, I merely scratched the surface of how far such a thing can go.

      When we try to save a moment in time we discover that once we slice it things get out of hand. One cut with the scalpel becomes a hundred thousand cuts and will draw the attention of generations who will, in turn, take their own scalpels to each slice. It will never end. We set in motion a thing that will never cease. But very shortly into this it becomes a fistfight with a tar baby. We become immersed in arguments about Red Jacket’s intentions that day or if E. Howard Hunt was actually one of the three tramps and we lose sight of the fact that all you wanted to do was get your mail and–oh, by the way–a President was shot a few blocks over that day.

      Can there be too much information? Can we sift through all the slices those days have been chopped into and keep track of what we were looking for? Common sense would seem to say yes, but look at what the Kennedy assassination became, or Amelia Earhart, or the Hindenburg disaster, or the attack on the Twin Towers or…

      And what if we spent the same resources–not only our own, but generations yet unborn–slicing a bit of time that had no historical value at all? Would we not find something noteworthy, something creepy or unexplainable or majestic where no such thing existed before?

      At some point our magnifying glass becomes a mirror. I think we can find anything we want with enough investigation. Even if it didn’t exist in the original event we can make it exist and eventually prove it to others. And that’s the spooky thing about it.

  2. Thank you for lending your brain out so creatively and willingly, Kent. It is your passion and always a gift to my brain.
    I witnessed an accident two years ago last July. Only a few feet from my body an old grungy dark red van slammed into a large shiny white pick-up truck and flung that pick-up high up into the air where it spun five revolutions, like an egg beater, before it dropped to the ground on its top, wheels spinning in the air. I’d had to step out into that street to make my way around traffic cones because the city had torn the sidewalk apart for reconstruction at a 4-way stop. I’d looked before I stepped out and saw nothing coming my way. The collision happened as I stepped back up onto the sidewalk only feet away. Otherwise, I’d been part of the van’s grill-work.
    I did not see the impact so I was not a viable witness and the cop snapped shut his little spiral notebook and dismissed me. I cried for the rest of my walk. The thought that drilled my brain while the truck spun up in the sky was, “People are dying. I can’t save them!” Nobody got hurt.
    An hour later as I stepped up onto the curb in front of my house the voice in my head said, “That was smooth!” I stopped in my tracks. What was that, I wondered. It dawned on me. That was the very last thought I’d had before the impact of the vehicles. My brain saw a vehicle approaching, determined I had time to round the corner and get back up on the sidewalk before it came to the stop sign. But because no brakes were applied at the stop sign, my brain recognized that those brakes were very quiet and the stop, which it anticipated, was ‘smooth’!
    The brain is an amazing organ… there was no way that story would hold up in court. That van driver was drunk as a skunk. The kids in the pick-up were young and probably did fine. They seemed fine afterwards.
    I cried for two weeks, got back into therapy, was given art therapy to move the trauma in my brain (which is an amazing tool). The me who walked away from my home that evening never returned home. I guess she’s still out there somewhere roaming around telling her version of her life. The me who came home deals with a constant ringing in my brain and PTSD. But the good news is, I write poetry pretty much every day. I did write the Christmas card you write but don’t send, only I sent it… the X-mas after the accident. Folks will forgive me. I’m more apt to tell people where to go and how to get there now. Stuff happens. The brain is amazing. Thank you for sharing yours here. Thanks Zach, for sharing Kent with us.

    • Some of the worst stresses any of us will ever face are ones that don’t leave a mark on us. And while all that energy contained in the speeding van missed you, you saw what it did to other innocents. Watching–even only for a second–something the size and weight of an occupied pickup truck spinning in mid-air, something that was launched there without warning by a force that just missed you, is going to get and keep the attention of your brain for some period of time. It happened so fast it even cut off the brain’s internal dialogue.

      I suppose that’s why–once you were home and safe–your brain blurted out its unfinished thought, “That was smooth!”

      People have recalled, in remarkable detail, things that happened in the wink of any eye–and they HAVE been allowed to testify to this in court a few times. We apparently have the capacity to take in great detail far more rapidly than most folks ever believed. Our brains can freeze a few seconds without flaw when under great stress.

      And it may be a blessing we don’t retain this amount of information all the time. What would our minds be like if we remembered everything in excruciating detail? Every time we turned a doorknob, every meal we ate, every sock we put on? When would our own memories begin to drive us mad and make us blind to new and more important things in our lives?

      I suppose some research has been done in this field but I’m not aware of any. I think it’s good that we forget the ordinary and mundane, although we gripe about forgetting anything. I think mankind would find peace and forgiveness almost impossible if we weren’t able to let some things slip past us.

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