By Neil Ellis Orts
It was a Sunday evening. I was a preschooler. Mama and Daddy were somewhere outside, at the barn or pig pens, doing I don't know what. Evening chores or repairing something, I guess. The TV was on to the current iteration of the Walt Disney program. My brother, Gary, four years older than I, was in the house with me.
I started crying.
Gary, surely puzzled, called Mama to the house. Out on the screened porch, she asked me what was wrong. Sniffling, I tried to explain. The TV show was so good and she was missing it. I wanted her to see it, too.
Mama said to go back in and watch it, it was okay, I should enjoy it. She said she and Daddy would be in as soon as they finished what they were doing.
I guess she went back outside. I guess I went back to the TV and watched with Gary. Everything else is pretty much forgotten.
This is my earliest memory of what I've come to call my "sense of never again." It's an ache I recognized later, in high school, when we read Our Town by Thornton Wilder. When Emily leaves her grave to revisit one day in her life, she sees all the minutia we never pay attention to, all the details of a life we let slip by without proper appreciation. She grieves these moments as a spirit, but I envied her the ability to do that. I grieved the same things while living, without the ability to refresh my memory via time travel.
It's a sense I don't notice in many other people and maybe it's even rarer in these days of easy playback. In the days of my childhood—the above would have happened about 1970—many things appeared on TV once and disappeared, presumably forever. Nowadays, shows are available immediately after broadcast online and released as a DVD set at the end of the season.
Or maybe everyone has this sense to some degree—hence the ubiquitous digital cameras everywhere, recording so many moments of our lives.
It's hard to say what lies behind these things. I can only report my experience.
It was the summer of 1978. I was 14. Gary graduated from high school that May and moved off the farm immediately. This was the biggest change in my life to that point. It brought on a crisis of "never again."
To say I was lonely only begins to describe that summer. Suddenly hyper-aware of life changing, I began to notice other changes on the farm, things I couldn't quite remember. That screened porch I mentioned? It had since been closed in to enlarge the kitchen. What did the old kitchen look like? Where did we keep things in it? What did we keep on the screened porch?
There was a piece of floor attached to the back of our old barn, where we played basketball. It had once had walls and been a room in the barn. What did we keep there? Other aspects of the barn—the cows' feed troughs, the pens, the other rooms in the barn—had changed, too. I ached that I couldn't remember how all these things were before.
Into my first summer as an only child on the farm came a book I'd desired for years: Batman From the 30s to the 70s. DC Comics readers of my age will remember the ads pushing this and the companion volume for Superman. A hard cover book of long out print comics! Those ads also brought some little despair, as the book was over ten dollars, plus shipping and handling!
But somehow, I got both that impossible sum and my parents' permission to spend it on this thing (I would have definitely needed Mama to write the check). When I finally got the book in the mail, it felt like some kind of legitimizing moment for my hobby. A 300+ page hardcover book was serious stuff! I dove into this collection of stories, the type of which I'd only glimpsed in 100 Page Spectaculars and other such reprint vehicles of the 1970s. Best of all, I got to see stories of the original Batwoman and Bat-Girl, characters I'd seen somewhat revived in current comics like Batman Family and Teen Titans, but never in their original stories.
I particularly loved the Batwoman and Bat-Girl stories.
As I sprawled across my bed, hot summer winds coming through my open windows, this book took on other emotions of that summer. As much as I enjoyed current Batman books, I began to get that ache, the one that said "Never again will they make Batman stories with such goofy aliens; never again would Batman and Robin travel through time via hypnosis; and, never again would Kathy and Betty Kane fight crime with tricks from their utility purses—at least not as prominently as they did before I was born." Robin had long since gone off to college, so even stories of Batman and Robin could never again be the same.
This book fed that peculiar nostalgia for a time never personally experienced and braided it with my loneliness and sense of never again. It was a bad combination. There was occasional crying.
The pleasure I found in Batman From the 30s to the 70s was real, but so was the sadness. Really understanding for the first time that life came at you with changes you couldn't possibly control grieved this sensitive farm boy. I tried once to explain it to Mama—she could see I was sad—and I couldn't find the vocabulary. In another time and place, I would have found myself in the office of a child psychiatrist. Maybe I should have been in one, anyway. A 14-year-old crying for reasons he can't name probably should receive some professional attention.
But somehow I survived it, as a remarkable number of melancholy teenagers do, and even if I pined over pictures of comics covers I felt certain I'd never see much less own, I found the energy to move forward, to see the possibilities as well as the loss in uncontrollable changes.
As I write this, I'm days away from turning 50 years old. I still suffer bouts of "never again" and it's starting to share space with an encroaching sense of "never will be." Yet, maturity brings with it an understanding of these things, an acceptance that passing time is full of new, wonderful things as well as loss of old, wonderful things.
And if I ran across a copy of an old comic book with the original Batwoman or Bat-Girl on the cover, at a price I was willing to pay, I'd likely buy it without hesitation. And if it was at a price I couldn't pay? I'd pine over it, as I did the pictures in Batman From the 30s to the 70s, as I did over my loneliness in 1978, as I suspect I always will when I remember anything that will never be again.
Neil Ellis Orts is a writer and performer living in Houston, TX.