Thursday, February 23, 2012

Resurrecting The Past: January 21, 1983 (Part 2: The Present)

See part one here: THE PAST

Well, it's taken a whole month, but I'm finally going to write about my experience trying to resurrect an entire day from my past. Okay, it would be impossible to recreate an entire day, but for this experiment I was concerned with just one past of the day January 21, 1983 from my viewpoint.

January 21, 1983 fell on a Friday. For a thirteen year old boy that in itself was something to get excited about (the beginning of a weekend and two straight days with no school). To add to the revelry, my parents were leaving me home alone for one of the first times (if not the very first time). Up until then there was always at least a sibling or two at home when they went out. Not only that, but Boston's WLVI channel 56 was showing the 1962 Steve McQueen World War II movie "Hell is for Heroes" that night.

And finally, we had recently gotten our first microwave oven in our house. A microwave is a pretty standard and bland sort of kitchen appliance these days, but back in 1983 it was still a relatively new and exciting technology to add to the stove and oven.

Our first microwave--the actual one used on January 21, 1983!

On this night I planned on microwaving (all by myself mind you) my very first bag of microwave popcorn! Before we had the microwave if we had popcorn in our house it meant my father would be popping it on the stove with one of those old-fashioned popcorn poppers.

All the elements were in place for a very satisfying night. Still, it probably wouldn't have stuck in my mind as such a memorable event if it weren't for a couple of factors that went horribly wrong. First, I read the directions on the bag of popcorn and saw that it said to set the cooking time for five minutes. Not realizing that you're supposed to watch the bag because it can take a lot less than the full five minutes to fully pop the bag (it was my first time after all), I set the time, turned on the microwave and went into the living room to watch the movie. With thoughts of sitting in front of the TV with a bag of popcorn popped by ME running through my head I was alarmed to suddenly smell something burning. I opened the smoky microwave and was confronted with a charred, smoldering bag of burnt popcorn. Yes, not only had the popcorn stayed in there long enough to burn, but the paper bag itself was even burning! In a panic I grabbed the bag and ran downstairs to our back porch to throw the charred bag into the snow and then under the porch, hoping it would not be found by my parents. Then I returned upstairs to open some windows and attempt to get rid of the smell of burning popcorn and paper. That's when the second unfortunate event happened...

While I was trying to get rid of the odor I saw my parents returning home--much earlier than I had expected. I was sure I would be killed. I was sure that they would rethink the idea of ever leaving me home alone ("We go out for a couple of hours and you start a fire and practically ruin our new microwave?"). But, miraculously they didn't seem to notice anything! An uneasy relief settled over me as I realized that I was most likely going to survive to pop another bag of microwave popcorn.

The memory of that night stuck with me all these years. The funny thing is that I always saw it through my 13-year-old eyes and it never occurred to me that burning a bag of microwave popcorn isn't really all that big of a deal. I could have simply said to my parents "Whoops, I tried to make my own bag of popcorn and left it in too long. Sorry." But instead it had remained a terrible little secret in the back of my mind through the ensuing decades. In fact, for all that time I never told anyone else about this story. Then, while visiting my parents last year I decided to finally "confess" to my ancient transgression. My father was battling cancer and I was trying to spend more time with them while I could. We talked a lot and shared a lot of stories--including a few of mine that I never thought I would tell them about. As it turned out, all of my "confession" stories were just as minor as the popcorn incident. We all got a good laugh out of the ridiculousness of my keeping them secret for so long. ...And, of course now I'm relating this story on the internet, where anyone can read it!

So why try to recreate this somewhat scary (from my youthful perspective) event from my past? First off, I never knew exactly when this event had occurred. I recently recovered a large number of my old cassette tapes that I had recorded when I was a kid (from when I bought my first tape recorder in March 1981 until roughly the middle of 1985 or so). Most of these tapes still work and it's been a blast listening to old pieces of my past. One of these tapes had some audio from "Hell is for Heroes" on it.

The actual tape in question

There were no dates or notations written on the tape (of course), but I was able to cull enough clues from it to determine exactly when most of the stuff on it was recorded. This was done by looking up America's Top 10 lists from the early 1980s online and then going through some of my old TV Guides that I've been collecting recently once I knew approximately when the stuff was taped. Not only was I able to determine when the "Hell is for Heroes" audio came from, but I was also able to determine that it was the very same night that I burned the popcorn! A number of factors led to that confirmation:
  • I knew that I didn't see the movie more than two or three times as a kid, and channel 56 wouldn't air it very often in its movie rotation--to keep the movie selection fresh.
  • This airing would have been right around the time when I had no siblings living in my house and when my parents probably would have figured I was old enough to leave home alone.
  • I knew that the event had to occur in the winter because I remember throwing the burning popcorn bag in the snow. Not only was this airing in January, but I also knew that there had to be snow on the ground because I had taped audio from "Young Frankenstein" on the previous Sunday night (January 16) as well as no-school announcements after it on the 11:00 news because of a big snowstorm that was hitting the area.
  • Early 1983 would have been around the time we got our first microwave oven. If it had been an earlier airing of "Hell is for Heroes" we wouldn't have had it yet. If it had been a later airing I would have known how to properly pop a bag of popcorn in the machine.
Cover of the January 15-21, 1983 TV Guide

Prime Time programming grid for January 21, 1983

The page with the listing for "Hell is for Heroes"

Close-up of the movie's listing
Armed with this information and the fact that January 21, 2012 was rapidly approaching, I decided it was time to resurrect that fateful night. What better time than on the 29th anniversary of the very night it had happened? I suppose the 30th anniversary would have been even better, but certainly didn't want to wait whole year to try out the experiment. So how would I go about recreating that night? Up until now all my Resurrecting The Past experiences have dealt with concrete objects like a speaker from a drive-in theater, a rotary dial telephoneflying saucer candy and even a Whoopee-Cushion. How would I go about resurrecting such a specific event in time? The answer lied in the pages of a book.

Anyone who has read Jack Finney's book "Time and Again" knows that Mr. Finney utilized a novel method for time travel in his novel. Rather than using an actual time machine--as has been done in countless science-fiction stories and films--the time travelers in "Time and Again" used the power of the mind. Only a small number of people who had a very specific set of physical and mental attributes were able to undertake a journey back in time. The method used was to place these people in an environment that precisely duplicated the environment of the targeted time period. The main character in the book is recruited and trained for an extended time and then placed in a room in the Dakota building in New York City that had a view of Central Park which looked exactly the same as it would have in the 1880s. When he awoke in the morning in these surroundings he found himself actually in New York City in the 1880s. While this method might not be very scientifically sound (though I don't imagine it's any more fanciful than the idea of a mechanical time machine), it certainly made for an interesting and pretty convincing story. A very similar method of time travel was used in the 1980 Christopher Reeve movie "Somewhere in Time".

I decided to employ a similar technique in my resurrection attempt. While I certainly wouldn't be precisely recreating every detail of the night of January 21, 1983, I figured I could at least approximate enough of them to hopefully make for a successful experiment. The results were mixed, but overall I'd have to say it was a success.

January 21, 2012 fell on a Saturday. While it wasn't a Friday like it had been in 1983, at least it was still the weekend. It was a snowy day. The Wife and I had gone into Boston for the day and when we returned home to relieve the babysitter there were a few inches of snow on the ground. While I shoveled, The Wife took our Little Monsters to a nearby park to do some sledding. Much like my parents had done 29 years earlier, everyone in the house went out and left me alone for a while. In light of figuring out the date of my popcorn incident on that old audio cassette I had recently purchased a used DVD of "Hell is for Heroes" on eBay.

I hadn't seen the movie in a while and it was no longer available through Netflix (which was how I saw it the last time I watched it a few years back).  I also had a bag of microwave popcorn that had gone a bit past its "Best if used by" date. Though I felt bad about wasting a bag of popcorn, at least that made me feel a little better about it.

"Hell is for Heroes" had started at 8:00 PM on January 21, 1983. Because I had to take advantage of my home alone time in 2012 I started the DVD a couple hours earlier than that. The simple act of putting a DVD into the player and starting the movie up is a major change from tuning in to see it on TV--but obviously the chances of one of the few channels we get through our antenna (we don't have cable) showing the movie on that exact day were astronomical. It was another concession to convenience that I had no choice but to make.

With the house empty and the movie on in the background it was time to fire up (figuratively and literally) the microwave. I put the bag of popcorn in the machine and set the timer for five minutes at full power.

With a press of the Start button the bag started cooking. Within a minute the first popping sounds were heard. At about 1:45 into the cycle the popping reached its peak and started to slow down. A little after two minutes the popping slowed and finally stopped. The microwave continued to do its thing for what seemed an eternity until I noticed smoke starting to come out of the edges of the door. At some point the steam that one would expect to emanate from the bag was replaced with smoke.  I resisted the impulse to pull the bag out (I should have been sitting in front of the TV, but simply had to watch the carnage myself) and waited as long as I dared.

Wait for it...
At about forty seconds left I could wait no longer. The smell of burning popcorn was already wafting throughout the house. When I opened the door smoke poured out and the smell got a lot worse. The bag was indeed starting to get charred. It wasn't quite as burnt as I remember the 1983 bag being, but it was effective enough. Upon opening the bag I found some very burnt popcorn. This was a mess that simply had to be considered a success.

WARNING: The following section contains graphic images which may not be appropriate for all viewers!

THE HORROR! (with a side of Throwback Pepsi)
Then, an unexpected event made the scene even more authentic--The Wife returned home just after I pulled the bag out of the microwave. Knowing that she would most likely not see the scientific value in severely burning a bag of microwave popcorn, I tried to do whatever I could do to lessen the smell (opening windows, lighting candles and taking the charred bag outside and throwing it on the snow).

Other than the lighting of candles, this was pretty much exactly how I tried to deal with my parents' unexpected early return in 1983. If I had been completely alone for the duration of the experiment that extra element of surprise and panic wouldn't have been there. And, just in case you might happen to be wondering, no, The Wife didn't quite understand the importance of my experiment.

This unanticipated emotional aspect of the recreation was pretty important, and a big reason why I consider it a success overall. It certainly wasn't an exact repeat of January 21, 1983, but then I didn't really think I would actually find myself back in that night like the main character of "Time and Again". I still have to consider it a success though because, in addition to the emotional aspect above, all five of my senses were employed in some way pretty effectively:
  • Sight: Seeing "Hell is for Heroes" on the TV screen. Seeing the bag of burning popcorn. Seeing The Wife's car pulling into the driveway. Seeing the popcorn bag sitting in the snow outside.
  • Hearing: Listening to the sounds of the movie. Hearing the popcorn pop and then continue to cook without popping.
  • Touch: Placing the bag in the microwave and operating the controls of the oven. Feeling the hot and burning bag as it was removed from the microwave. Feeling the cold of going outside without a coat on to get rid of the bag on a January evening in New England.
  • Taste: While there wasn't any eating involved in the experiment, the acrid smell of the smoke and burnt popcorn did indeed leave an unpleasant taste in my mouth.
  • Smell: Probably the most important and most visceral element of the experiment came when the smell of the burning popcorn and paper bag hit my nose. It was something I haven't experienced to that extent since January 21, 1983 and it was the element that was the most evocative of that earlier experience.
In conclusion, I was happy with the results of this resurrection, but wonder what might have happened if I could have managed to be more precise with the details (having it happen on a Friday night, having it at my parents' house using the old microwave we had back then, setting up the viewing of the movie in such a way that it started automatically at 8:00 and included commercials from 1983...). While my parents didn't seem to notice the smell of the burnt popcorn in 1983, it was very strong and impossible to miss in 2012. A lingering after effect of the experiment was an unpleasant odor which remained in the house for several days, and which could be detected every time the microwave was used for weeks after. It has been a month since the experiment and it's only now that the smell has really diminished to almost nothing. Quite a lasting legacy (if an unfortunate one).


  1. Every time I read one of your recreated childhood adventures, I'm reminded of Jean Shepherd's stories about his youthful misadventures.
    But I'm glad you didn't burn the house down either years ago or during the reenactment. . . or that your wife didn't try to microwave You when she had to live with the odor of burnt popcorn for several weeks. lol

    1. Thank you for the much too kind words Cathy! And, yes, considering that I was playing with fire--twice--I'm pretty lucky with how things turned out both times.

  2. Hey man, I found this Resurrection to be very touching. Sharing your deep dark secret with your parents after all that time, and the need to try and recreate that capture the feeling of that one seemingly magical night. Okay....well I'm sure it was magical BEFORE the popcorn burnt anyway. But I can definitely relate to having strong memories like that and trying to recapture the feeling of them. Thanks for sharing this with us Glen, I truly enjoyed it.

    1. Thank you for all the kind words. I realized that this was sort of an odd (and personal) thing to be writing about. I'm so glad that you found it worthwhile reading!

  3. Well I've just finished reading the new Stephen King novel 11.22.63. A Brilliant time travel story. I stumbled upon your "time travel" story because King praises Finney's book Time and again as a great inspiration. I am just about to start reading it and thought I would search for reviews and here I am reading your great night in!. Very entertaining only I didn't read the section about the book in case there were spoilers, when I have finished it I will come back and re-read your article. You are so right about smells, certain smells of food or perfumes etc can send me right back to childhood holidays and other great times. Brilliant.

    1. Thank you for the kind words and for commenting! I didn't really say much about the story in Time and Again, but did describe the process of time travel in it just a bit--so it probably was a good idea you had to wait until you read the book. If you end up reading the book and enjoying it you should also try to see the 1980 Christopher Reeve film "Somewhere in Time", which uses pretty much the same method of time travel--but doesn't credit Finney like King did. Finally, thank you for mentioning 11.22.63. I hadn't heard of it, but now want to read it!

    2. I found this site by googling January 21, 1983. On that day I took a written test for a government job in New York City which I did very well on and 30 years later I am still employed from the results of that test. I also was a big McQueen fan as a kid and recorded The Great Escape on cassette tape. I bought the book Time and Again based on what I read here and look forward to reading it since it is set in New York City and the Dakota building.