Take it from me, based on personal experience: Time travel’s just not worth the hassle

I had a time-travel dream last night.

This is a first for me, which is sort of odd, given what a popular theme that is in movies. I’ve had dreams before in which I encounter people such as my grandparents who’ve been gone 40 years and more, but never a dream in which I was conscious of the fact that I, a denizen of the 21st century, was in another time.

What confirmed it this time was the price of gasoline: In the dream, it was 26 cents a gallon. Which means I landed somewhere between 1949 and 1959. I had a sense that it was within my lifetime, and a time I would have remembered, so we’re talking toward the last two or three years of that period. And no, I don’t remember what I was driving, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a DeLorean. It was probably something that didn’t look out of place.

That’s really all I can remember of the dream, but I recall a number of details about this gas station stop. I don’t specifically remember the attendants surrounding my vehicle to pump the gas, check the oil, clean the windshield, etc. I just remember staring at that pump price, and marveling at it.

Of course, it was the old-style pump, and the gauge had the old digital-yet-analog numbers — white on a black background — that physically clicked over to tote up the price as you pumped. The pumps looked kind of like the ones in this picture — the kind with rounded corners, like an old refrigerator, or a car from the early ’50s — only brand-new. The enamel paint on them was shiny white. I don’t recall the brand.

As it happened, my tank was almost full, to the point that I just needed slightly more than a gallon. My total was 35 cents. I felt this great disappointment that I hadn’t had an empty tank, so I could have the pleasure of filling it up for less than five bucks. I wondered whether I could spare the time to drive around a few hours and come back, just to experience that, before having to be wherever I had to be.

But then I realized I had a bigger problem than frivolous disappointment. I had no way of paying the 35 cents.

Out of habit, I was holding a debit card in my hand. I suddenly realized that not only was it useless — no way to swipe it — but I couldn’t let anybody see it, or it would raise questions I couldn’t answer: What’s this strip like recording tape on the back? What’s this shiny square that looks like a mirror, with the shifting image in it?…

I slipped the card into my pants pocket, and even before I started to feel around for change, I realized that even if I had some, none of it would pass a close look — or even the briefest glance, or touch, for that matter. Post-1964 “silver” coins are a different color from coins before that date, and feel different in the hand. They would look like what they are — cheap imitations of real silver. Never mind what would happen if somebody looked at the date, or if it were one of those quarters with the 50-states theme on the back: What’re you tryin’ to pull, Future-Boy?…

Without looking, I knew there was close to zero chance that I’d find a coin that would pass muster. Seriously, when was the last time you saw a pre-1964 quarter outside of a numismatist’s blue book? You still run across dimes and nickels that old, but they’re rare as hen’s teeth.

And don’t even think about trying to pass modern paper money. The shape, the color, the size of the presidents…

I started wondering whether the station manager would take barter (in which case, what did I have to trade that wouldn’t be suspicious?), or trust me for it while I tried to go scrounge the tiny amount I owed him, somehow. It was a tight spot.

And you know what? I’m not sure what I could have done to avoid this problem. I suppose I could have bought the coins from a collector before leaving the present, which would have totally ruined the joy of buying cheap gas, since the coins would have cost me many times their face value.

It’s all just a huge hassle. So take my advice, based on bitter experience: Forget about time travel. Just stay here in good ol’ 2012. Going back’s just not worth the trouble.

15 thoughts on “Take it from me, based on personal experience: Time travel’s just not worth the hassle

  1. Brad

    While I don’t remember the attendants swarming over my vehicle, I do remember having this thought, as I stood right in front of the pump, staring at it and thinking how stupid I was holding that debit card in my hand… I realized that any second, an attendant would come up to me and say, “What are you doing there, sir? Please step away from the pump…”

    Of course, the next thing he would do is ask me to pay…

  2. Kathleen

    As if I didn’t feel old enough already. My husband once worked for the company that made the clicking dial for those old pumps.

  3. DanM

    Enjoyable column. I indulge in a daydream fantasy now and then in which I go back in time to the place where I was a junior in high school (1962 in suburban Philadelphia). The daydream includes taking my current car with me and driving around in it.

    I could easily drive it since unleaded gasoline was available then (Amoco premium was unleaded). But my car has “Xenon” headlights and LED taillights, and that would result in my being arrested for violating the federal law that mandated only round sealed beam headlights on cars.

    The car is a Japanese brand, and of course that would confound people back then, as would the iPod I have in it to play music. How could I possibly explain digital technology to people with no frame of reference? All the other issues about money, current phrases you might use in conversation, references inadvertently made to events or people in the future, and so forth, would be problematic.

    So, I agree, while such a daydream is enticing, I’m better off staying where I am.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    I have bought 26 cent a gallon gasoline and have only been able to drive since 1975. Perhaps as in so many things, Aiken was a few decades behind the times.


  5. Kathryn Fenner

    And here in Germany, pretty much everything is cash only. Makes you far more aware of what you’re spending. No added taxes on food or groceries, so what they list is what you pay, in nice round numbers. Makes things very easy and straightforward.

    I may switch to using more cash when we get back.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    Aiken is more like Mayberry than what I have read about Mt. Airy. FWIW, in a Barney Fife moment, my mom was stopped by a foot patrolman for speeding in Wilcox, PA. so the South doesn’t even have a lock on Mayberry moments.

  7. Herb Brasher

    Kathryn, have you noticed all the solar panels on roofs in this country? They are pushing alternative energy in a big way. Meanwhile, we in the U.S. guzzle gas and sleep away. Just paid 1.51 Euros per liter for diesel.

  8. Kathryn Fenner

    Totally. And all the people of every age riding bikes everywhere on the separate bike paths that go everywherel

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    Also surprising, at least here in Ulm–the price of just about everything except fuel, non-coffee drinks and public toilets, seems lower than the U.S., even housing, although probably not of comparable size to the U.S., and with higher taxes, though, you get a whole lot more for your money!

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    No, the people in Germany look a lot fitter than most Americans, despite sharing a lot of the same genes. They eat a ton of bread and pastries and (small) ice cream cones and beer and sausages.

  11. Herb Brasher

    The only thing is, Kathryn, one doesn’t build up air miles by using cash. I like a card for convenience, and pay off the bill every month–carry no balance.

    There are a lot of places in Germany that won’t take credit cards. Wish I still had one of those bank cards with electronic cash on them like the Germans use.

    I’m about 100 miles from you at the moment in the Black Forest. Working vacation at the moment, meanwhile the folks back home run the house and office.

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