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Rough Draft: Summer of '81

[My column in the Post magazine.]

Go back 25 years: It's the summer of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." The movie is smashing great fun, directed by Spielberg, produced by Lucas, a comic book on the big screen, pulp fiction spliced with special effects, and full of bad guys who shrivel or melt or explode when exposed to the righteous godstuff of the Ark of the Covenant. You don't need to know the precise physics of their hideous demise, because these guys are Nazis, they're flamboyantly evil, and so of course their molecular structure can't withstand the awesome spiritual juice of the ark.

I'm a college student spending the summer in San Jose, interning for a newspaper that for some bizarre reason thinks I can pass for a journalist. When not working, I drive. The road is my hobby. The terrain is entrancing. When you're from the piney woods of the Deep South there's something hallucinatory about California, with its exaggerated landscape -- everything jutting and thrusting in three dimensions and the redwoods like something from a fairy tale. I go to Half Moon Bay and Muir Woods and Point Reyes. I drive the ridgeline of the peninsula and roll down through forests where the hippies haven't seen a razor since they met Kesey. I have no place to go, which means I can go anywhere.

For many of us in the summer of '81, money is something that affects the lives of other people. A lack of cash has clarifying qualities. So many activities are unthinkable. A movie is a splurge. My main expense is gasoline. My main fear is that my car won't survive the summer. If I can get it to the end of August, I can sell it for scrap. It's a hulking '67 Mercury Monterey, purchased for $400, and with enough steel and chrome to build a bridge. It must easily get eight miles to the gallon, possibly nine on the highway.

Because of a previous accident it won't turn left. The simple solution would be to take the car to a garage and get it fixed, but the lack of money inspires a still simpler solution, which is to spend the summer going straight and right.

Reagan is president. He will be cutting taxes, busting the budget, taking on the Evil Empire. The professors and the CIA analysts presume the Soviet Union will always be around, that the balance of superpowers is permanent, that our fate is to exist forever in the chilly, grim world of mutual assured destruction. We love it when Indiana Jones, faced with a saber-twirling assassin, just pulls out a gun and calmly shoots him.

It is the summer when a new thing called MTV will appear on cable. The most popular game in America is Pac-Man. Scientists have recognized a new contagious disease, which will soon be known as AIDS.

Here's what we can't perceive in the summer of '81: That it's an almost pre-technological era. That there will come a day when it is no longer possible for anyone to spend so little time communicating. That what's missing from our pockets are cellphones. That what's missing from our homes and offices are personal computers.

I barely realize I'm in Silicon Valley.

In 1981, people are often forced to communicate in the Paleo-lithic tradition of face-to-face interaction. But that requires friends, or at least acquaintances. I hardly know anyone. I work a late shift, driving out to fatal car crashes and murders and banging out a few paragraphs on, say, a body found in a trunk.

My bosses grade me on an extremely generous curve. Sticking with one tense, keeping the singulars and plurals in agreement, triggering no libel suits -- anything beyond that is a bonus.

I can't afford an apartment, so I live in a dorm room at Stanford University. No phone. No TV. A suitcase of possessions. When I show up for work at the beginning of the week, I realize I haven't spoken to anyone in a couple of days. Maybe a waitress. "Eggs over medium, whole-wheat toast." I'm self-absorbed to the brink of solipsism, but there aren't many other options.

Lonely? Hardly ever. I'm getting paid to do adult work, which is a novelty. I'm old enough to buy beer but have no responsibilities. The terrain is wide open. There are no ruts yet, only a few potential grooves. Aimlessness is a luxury that few people appreciate until it's no longer a possibility. Our compulsion to get a life can cause us to get too much of one. We want more, always, of everything. In the summer of 1981, it's time that is abundant. It is impossible to feel rushed when you have no agenda or destination, or any idea what you ought to be doing. Weekends are empty expanses of time, waiting to be occupied by a clever inspiration.

See "Raiders" again? Maybe.

Or maybe just start driving, and see what happens beyond the next right turn.

By Joel Achenbach  |  July 15, 2006; 2:58 PM ET
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