April 2012 - Comments Off

Abbatino [in the event of an accident]

Naomi Washer '12

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In 1791, Frenchman Claude Chappe invented a system of two sided panels—one white, one black—and synchronized clocks to send messages. Moving hands on the clock paired with black or white side of panel displayed encoded messages visible through a telescope. Chappe called his invention the tachygraphe—from the Greek “fast writer” until a friend persuaded him to call it the telegraphe—“far writer.”

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Compasses installed in cars indicate which direction the driver is headed. As a kid, I thought those four letters were my own initials and my father’s. N stood for North but I thought Naomi.
E was not only East but Erin, my middle name. W was both West and Washer, my last name from my father’s side—my father S/South/Steven.

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To: C
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From: N
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MOCCASINS RUINED BY SNOW STOP WE’LL GO TO THE PARK IN SPRING STOP SOON AS MY FEET HAVE THAWED
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Chappe’s invention depended on sight—on sight lines. Messages could only be received in short distances. It was personal. Visual and quick. Every early version of this invention held fast to the benefits of sight.

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On long car rides in the back seat I was small enough to squish between two others, to watch the compass tell us who we were, where we were going. A long journey took us towards Naomi but turned sharply into quests for Erin. From Erin we would shift to seek the Washers and to go home we would always follow Steve.

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To: C
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From: N
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LET’S DANGLE FEET IN MEKONG STOP MISS HOW WE WALKED IN CAMBODIA STOP CHEAP SANDALS ROAMING CITY STREETS
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The telegram era was briskly ushered in by Samuel Morse and the invention of Morse code. Impersonal. Auditory and quick. Series of dots and dashes representing words, tapped out, transmitted across wires, received by operators. Hand of the writer rendered
irrelevant. Voice disembodied. Morse code’s small bandwidth could be amplified quite loud providing assurance that a message would always be received. Multiplexing: the ability to transmit eight messages simultaneously over a single wire—four in each direction.

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I thought I understood what it meant to travel a path Northeast towards Naomi Erin. Northwest was logical too—my whole self. Heading Southwest meant going after Dad. But it perplexed me endlessly to ponder what I’d find if I ran Southeast.

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To: B
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From: N
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STILL NOT WINTER HERE STOP DON’T KNOW WHY STOP SNOW WHEN I WAS FOUR PILED TALL AS DAD AT FRONT DOOR STOP NOT COLD NOW BUT LEAVES ON TREES TREMBLE STOP WONDER IF I SHOULD BE STOP KNOW YOU ARE
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The height of the telegram age was the 1920’s and 30’s. Western Union maintained a fleet of 14,000 uniformed messenger boys on foot and bicycle. Telegrams took less than a day to be delivered, faster than a letter, more urgent than a letter’s wandering tone.

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As a child I often rode in the back of station wagons, facing the road, traveling backwards while the driver moved forward. I never saw streetlights or signs until we passed them and stop signs breezed by my face—their warning message not received.

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To: B
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From: N
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GET IN YOUR CAR STOP I’LL PAY GAS STOP ROOM ON COUCH TO SLEEP STOP PLEASE
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Telegraph prose had a snappy brisk style. The frequent omission of pronouns and articles often became almost poetically ambiguous. Telegrams were almost always brief, pointed and momentous in a way unmatched by any other form of communication. Often used to inform loved ones of events too difficult to say aloud: the end of a life. Punctuation was more expensive than a word; telegrams avoided using periods, avoided proper sentences, merely found the essence of the message. Instead of “.” between lines, simply STOP.

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To: Z
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From: N
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HOW’S YOUR HEAD STOP KNOW YOU HATE DRIVING STOP WALLACE STEVENS NEVER LEARNED STOP PLEASE LEARN TO LOVE WALKING STOP THEY SAY HE WROTE POEMS BY FOOTFALLS
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Caught up in the magical nature of telegrams, some people believed them capable of miraculous feats. In 1870 A woman in Prussia appeared at her local telegraph office carrying a plate of food. She asked that it be telegraphed to her son—a soldier fighting in the war against France. Operators told her it was impossible to telegraph a physical object. The woman insisted that if soldiers could be ordered to the front by telegram you should be able to telegraph sauerkraut. Another man tried to telegraph his son a pair of boots.

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To: B
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From: N
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DOE EYES SEE NO BETTER ON MAIN ROADS STOP I MISS THE JOURNEY WHEN I READ ON BUSES STOP WORKING MY WAY UP NORTH STOP SAVE ME THE AIR
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If your telegraph station is unable to receive, simply transmit the word “wait.” If a telegraph station does not reply, repeat your call at suitable intervals. Every telegram must be terminated with a cross signal.

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I hide boxes of letters from old friends in the Northeast. I visit them and read the old piece of advice that got me through a difficult year: “Do what makes your heart beat faster. Or slower. Or consciously beat. Come to New York.” This piece of paper has become too frail. Years later I still feel the rhythm of these lines when I exhale.

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To: B
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From: N
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FEEL LIKE I’M MELTING STOP CONNECTICUT CHEMTRAILS STOP SMOKING COWBOY KILLERS STOP NEW BOOTS ARE CLUNKY STOP NO MORE SHIT FROM STRANGERS
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In Morse code 1 dash is equal to 3 dots. The space between signals that form the same
letter is equal to 1 dot. The space between 2 letters is equal to 3 dots and the space between 2 words is equal to 7 dots. Silence differentiates measure. Travel implicates empty space.

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Wallace Stevens never learned to drive. He walked through Hartford’s purple light towards work and home again. Each day he’d use his footsteps to compose a line of poetry, backtracking and replacing certain words. I choose to walk because of this. I tell myself that getting there is not about the time it takes but the way in which one moves.

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To: D
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From: N
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JAMMING FEET INSIDE POEMS STOP TRIED DRIVING STOP NEVER GOT LICENSE
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By 1845 books of numeric codes were being published for use in telegrams. Many codes were numbered lists for words such as “A1645”—Alone.

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I finish conversations and take the long road home. The words they uttered last become
my tempo: right, left, right, left, take, it easy, Naomi, take, it easy, Naomi, take, it easy, Naomi. My left hand taps out each melody against my thigh until my feet receive it—
       1      3  4  3  2  1
       1      3  4  3  2  1
       1      3  4  3  2  1

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To: Z
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From: N
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GET OUT OF BED STOP GET YOUR POEMS READ
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Some very sensitive business was conducted via telegram and codes were designed to keep information secret.

Libant: If it is not…                                    Libavio: Why is it that you…

Liberons: The issue between us…           Libitum: It is as I said…

Libongo: It is all wrong…                          Liburnos: Would jeopardize everything…

        Librated: It will now soon be ended.

Naomi is slowly saying goodbye to Vermont to pursue her MFA in nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago.

Published by: in Prose, Volume 68

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