Remember how amazing the future used to be?
If you don’t, you are probably too young. In that case, pick up a copy of Popular Science Magazine, circa 1956 and see what it used to be like.
Believe me, back then the future was a whole lot better.
In that future, atomic powered monorails zipped between mile-high skyscrapers and cars got 5 million miles per gallon (of plutonium).
But coolest of all, everything had tail fins, even the architecture.
In the 1956 future, no one went unemployed, overtime started at two hours per week and cat litter boxes were cleaned by the mere push of a button.
Well, not really. The future had its dark-side too. Mostly because of evil robots.
According to Analog Magazine, which my friends and I read voraciously, robots stalked the future’s nights, usually intent upon something nefarious, such as kidnapping damsels.
We never learned what maniacal plans were in store for these beauties, but one thing we knew for certain, they were always rescued in the nick of time by chivalrous preteen boys (much like ourselves) and the damsels were always grateful (which we found oddly troubling).
So if this is what the future used to be, what happened?
Where is my atomic powered monorail and why am I stuck in this dystopia scooping cat turds out of a litter box, instead of zipping through a cantilevered megalopolis in a car that gets 5 million miles a gallon?
I blame it all on Leon Hartman.
You see… Leon was the only teen to actually rescue a damsel from a robot.
Her name was Estelle.
Well… it wasn’t exactly a robot. Rather it was a tabulating machine in the basement of the Fidelity Insurance Company in Buffalo, New York – but he did save her.
The machine, a notoriously diabolical IBM 407, tricked the inexperienced Estelle into leaning too close. It snatched one of her curls into its gears and slowly, maniacally, drew the frantic Estelle into its mechanical maw.
Leon pulled the plug in the nick of time, and Estelle was grateful (which troubled Leon but not so badly that he failed to ask her out).
They fell in love, got married and purchased a new two bedroom rambler in a suburb located midway between Love Canal and Three Mile Island.
Their home was a marvel of modern chemistry.
The exterior boasted shingles made from Amazing Asbestos: a miracle material that actually gets stronger with age and the interior was colored shockingly bright by the answer to the old alchemist’s dream – white-lead paint.
But Leon and Estelle were blithely unaware of the ticking toxicity of their life, rather the only flaw in their otherwise ideal existence came to Estelle’s attention one morning after they moved in.
“Do you hear that?” she asked.
“I don’t hear a thing,” Leon said.
“Exactly,” replied Estelle.
“You are talking in riddles,” Leon said.
“The reason you cannot hear anything,” Estelle said, “is there is nothing to hear. Our new development has no birds. Not a one.”
“So you want a bird?”
“No, I want a tree.”
“You are losing me.”
“I want a tree for birds.”
It seemed a reasonable request, so Leon planted a beautiful silver maple sapling in the front yard, but no sooner had he dragged the hose out to water it then an angry delegation of neighbors surrounded him.
The chairman of the housing association shook a dog-eared copy of the development’s by-laws in his face. “You can’t plant a maple on Elm Street,” he thundered.
“Why?” Leon asked.
“Because you moron, it’s Elm Street.”
It would be nice to say, then it hit him but it didn’t. It hit Estelle first.
A week later while driving in bumper to bumper traffic just outside of New York City, she turned to Leon.
“What are we doing?” she asked.
Leon looked puzzled. “Driving,” he said.
“No, we are not,” Estelle told him. “We are sitting in an automobile that looks like a rocket, going nowhere.”
“Frustrating isn’t it?” Leon said.
“It’s a metaphor,” Estelle said, “tail fins in a traffic jam is our future…”
That is when it hit him.
“Let’s chuck all this and move to the sticks,” he said.
“Somewhere with trees,” Estelle echoed.
“Yeah, we’ll get a place where the cat can bury his turds outside, so I don’t have to clean the litter box. I hate that.”
Estelle didn’t say a word, but she smiled inwardly. She didn’t want to tarnish Leon’s dream. The best dreams, she though to herself, are the ones left unfulfilled.
43 thoughts on “Where is my Atomic Powered Monorail?”
I think Popular Science still exists, although I don’t think they try to forecast the future anymore. Still, in 50-60 years folks may look back at the things that concern us today and echo Scotty describing a computer mouse in Star Trek 4, “how quaint.”
And if they’re lucky, some guy will be around to say so with their version of Leon and Estelle.
The greatest scene in a Star Trek movie was when the crew came back to the 1980’s and Scotty tried to use a Macintosh by barking commands into the mouse as if it were a microphone.
If only the future was as bright as our hopes and dreams.
I hope our dreams will mostly remain dreams, when you try too hard, they turn into nightmares.
I remember when I was a child, one of my favorite things to do was sneak into my dad’s study and play with the little bottle of liquid mercury he kept in there. I loved the way it would roll around on my hand in tiny balls, and would handle it quite a while before carefully putting it back in the bottle. And then, of course, I’d pretend to smoke a few of the cigarette butts in the ash tray. Oh, for the innocence of our youth…..
Oh, I remember playing with liquid mercury in science class! That stuff was cool! Now days if a kid broke a thermometer in school, they would call the hazmat team. The stuff is toxic – but then so are schools that over-react to every little thing.
Exactly! Not sure which is worse!
Good thing you kept those cats and their litter boxes or you would have had to find other material for half this story. 🙂 As I’m drinking my second cup of coffee, I’m seeing Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriett, etc. etc.
I remember spending every summer Sunday afternoon attending Ozzie and Harriett style picnics with my uncles, aunts and family friends. It seemed so idyllic and it was. Only years later did I come to know the history of each of the adults and all that they went through during the depression and war. They desperately wanted to live the Ozzie and Harriett dream and were really rather stunned when their children rejected it.
This piece just flowed. Another perfect 10!
And no, you can’t escape cleaning the litter box. Ever.
I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the encouragement and support of Leon and Estelle Hartman in the creation of this post. I would also like to mention the IBM 407 tabulating machine for its technical assistance.
Scooter claims that he deserves credit too, but I don’t see how.
I wanna hear this set to a soundtrack by Lady Gaga…and please have Bradley on the music video!
I’m going to leave this for Leon – in case he’s interested 🙂 I haven’t tried them myself, but I’ve always been curious!
The one shaped like a toilet is the best! I have seen cat videos (who hasn’t?) of cats who were trained to use the people toilet – and politely flush afterwards. It would be curious to learn whether anyone has been able to address the vexing lid up/lid down problem with cats.
Lol I’ve heard potty training the cats – haven’t seen any videos but I’m going to have to find some now! Lol 🙂
Too bad it is so cold in the sticks. Good one, Greg
Going to have to start looking for warmer sticks. Maybe we will be in Port A next year. I hope so.
Don’t have a cat but I’ve been seeing the ads on the automated self-cleaning kitty box. I’m waiting for the robotic kitty that doesn’t poop but can take out the killer robots that go haywire. Great post, Craig. You have the knack. –Curt
We tried one of those auto-scooper cat boxes. It worked better in theory. The cats didn’t like it either. Nuff said.
I suspect a cat might get a little nervous when the earth starts moving under it. 🙂
What a great story – an encapsulation of a caring relationship and the little details that steer our paths. I was reading a few days ago about the painted lead toys – mostly soldiers – that little boys used to play with. Ugh. Amazing that it took humans so long to figure that out!
That and asking surgeons to wash their hands before surgery. In a hundred years, think of what future generations will say about us. I hope they will be generous with their understanding.
No way. They’re going to think we were idiots and monsters. 😉
Wow – just… wow! This story was amazing. From the punch card reader to the cat turds, it had me absolutely transfixed.
What story is complete without cat turds and punch cards? 🙂 They are my muse’s magic ingredients. 🙂
This was brilliant from the very first sentence all the way to the end! The future they promise us now is somehow focused on better television – let’s watch better lives instead of actually living them.
I have invented an app that could make billions. It is called, “the power pole detector.” It is a simple app to use, in fact you don’t even know you are using it until when you are walking with your nose in your phone and it warns you that you are about to walk into a pole.
You’re a genius!
I look forward to your pitch on Shark Tank.
Let me know when that cat box thing works. I’ve got a couple I could really use help with.
I fear spring….. because it will reveal what the shed cats have been using. It is amazing how they have wintered out there. They are fat, sleek and full of energy – despite the insanely cold winter.
Going nowhere? Yep, that seems about right. If things had turned out to be like the Jetson’s I’d be tickled pink about progress, but that didn’t happen did it? Never heard of this magazine of which you speak, but I’m kind of glad I missed it. Seems like it lead you down a technological primrose path to a place of despair.
While the sci-fi writers of the 50’s failed to deliver on an atomic powered monorail, what they did deliver on was unbridled enthusiasm. Back then, the world was open to every possibility and it is terribly sad that we have lost that.
Yes, I agree. It was a different spin on life back then.
“We are sitting in an automobile that looks like a rocket, going nowhere.”
That’s brilliant. I remember Analog Magazine, as I used to borrow my cousin’s copy. Given the magazines I read as a child, I was expecting a future with all these amazing machines, most of which I could build in my garage on a weekend. Then again, I also read MAD, and it might be sad to think that they were more accurate predictors of the future.
‘Tailfins Going Nowhere’ wouldn’t that make a great name for a country band?
It would. Then again, “cat turds buried in the yard” might work, too.
Sounds like more of a punk band to me. 🙂 🙂 🙂
Too many dreams left unfilled can lead to apathy. Which may explain our world today. We have improved our lives a great deal but we have lost a lot along the way.
The hubris of the industrial age is that things could make us happy and that technology could solve ‘people’ problems. In some cases, like medicine, technology did but in other cases, like war, it only made it worse.
Now that was a good read. Poor Leon, always a cat turd or two behind the times.
My husband has a bunch of those old magazines in the cellar and they’re a hoot to look through. But better yet are those short clips from yesteryear they used to show in between movies at the theaters. You know the ones, that perfect 50’s housewife in her kitchen of the future. Pure gold!
The thing I liked about those perfect 50’s housewives was the total glee they got from the products they used. Wish it worked around here.
“Hey hon, how come you never get as excited about dish detergent as the ladies on TV do?”
“Don’t you have a litter box to clean?”
“Hey, they are YOUR cats!”
“But it is YOUR litter box.”
What would Ward Cleaver say to all of this?
The good old days of yesteryear when women swooned over the latest Electrolux.
Forget the fact that all these broads were cleaning their houses wearing heels, a dress and pearls.
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