The Lost Tapes

Three mid-1980s Peace Corps Volunteers in Burkina Faso along with Salam, who worked for me and a woman I don’t recall.

This morning, the first day of the semester, I was babbling and told a story, a true one, that normally I elide. A colleague and I were talking about artifacts from earlier technologies and how we lose understanding of them as times move ahead.

There are details to the story I had forgotten, so I told it poorly and incompletely. Now, after a few hours of memory dredging, I have it a bit more clearly and cogently, even if, perhaps, not quite complete.

A friend, a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I (a teacher on a Fulbright to the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso) had decided to take a Christmas trip up into Mali. We decided to travel to Ouahigouya and from there across the border to Bandjiagara on the edge of Dogon country.

We didn’t make it.

War got in the way, starting that Christmas morning at the end of 1985, and we ended up scrambling back to Ouaga. What I was telling this morning concerns the end of the scramble.

After a thoroughly exhausting (and rather frightening) morning, Bob and I managed to squeeze ourselves onto the pickup of a couple of Dutchmen also forced out of town. The road was packed with people, on foot, on donkeys, on bicycles, on mopeds, on motorcycles, in cars, on trucks and in buses. For some reason, I was able to snag a seat in the cab, leaving an annoyed Bob to ride on the hood for a time (if I remember correctly). We were going quite slowly, so it wasn’t much of a problem. Not from my perspective, at least.

After a time, as people began to feel they were far enough from the fighting, passengers hopped off the back and melted into the bush, allowing Bob to climb into the bed where he sat on one of two metal trunks, both firmly padlocked. The road, laterite dirt, eventually cleared of people and vehicles and we were able to speed up, just a bit. I asked one of the Dutchmen what was in the trunks, what was so important about getting them out and not more people.

“Medical records.” They belonged to the hospital in Ouahigouya, to the doctor who had stayed behind to tend to the scores and scores of wounded. He had asked the two Dutchmen to take them to safety until the fighting stopped. I shrugged; we continued along.

After an hour or so, a semblance of normalcy returned. We eventually came to the paved road at Yako and sped on to Ouaga.

just before we got to the reservoir at the edge of town, we were forced to stop at a checkpoint, this one run by members of the CDR, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (there had been a leftist coup d’etat a couple of years earlier). Modeled on a Cuban organization, the CDR was composed mainly of youths, sometimes preteen, sometimes with an AK-47 in one hand and a comic book in the other. They were scary; you tended to give them what they wanted as quickly as possible.

What they wanted, in this case, was to look inside the two trunks. After asking what was in them, they asked the Dutchmen for the keys–which the Dutchmen didn’t have. So, using the butt of a rifle, one the the largest of the boys bashed off the hasps. He didn’t open the trunks himself but waited for a superior to arrive from their small station house.

The superior opened one of the trunks and let out an angry roar. Suddenly, we were faced by clicks as guns were raised and readied. “These are not medical records!”

“We did not know. We had not seen the inside. We  were just asked to keep these safe.” The Dutchmen tried to explain.

Problem was, if the officer had seen videotapes at all, he had surely seen few. Here were two trunks full of them. A few of them clearly store-bought but most home recorded, their contents marked in pen on their sleeves.  They were obviously (to me, to Bob and to the Dutchmen) the doctor’s prized collection of movies. Yet there was no way to explain what they were to someone unfamiliar with them, for there was no VCR around; they could have been anything. They could have been contraband or spy material.

I don’t remember, quite frankly, exactly what happened after that, if the Dutchmen were allowed to retain the trunks and their contents. We were all tired, by that point, and just wanted to get to the relative safety of the city.

Which we did.

Why did I relate the story today? Well, we were talking about a vast and wonderful collection of science-fiction books and magazines, some of them close to eighty years old, that was donated to City Tech a year or two ago. Both of us are interested in retaining the artifacts of the past and, in the case of this particular collection, of giving people a better understanding of what things can mean at different times and places. A magazine could be a cherished possession, as could be a photograph or–in the 1980s–a videocassette. After all, the idea of watching movies at home on your own schedule and of your own selection had changed many people’s relationships to movies.

Today, of course, on-demand possibilities have overwhelmed the videotapes and their successor DVDs, leaving them an odd backwater washed from a bypassed time. Yet once these things were extremely important, important enough to put people at risk for.

That doctor, from what I later learned, saved dozens and dozens of lives during that war (it only lasted three days) and was something of a hero. That his love of his collection of movies would put others at risk was not something he could have imagined, I am sure.

Today, the story of those tapes can, I hope, help us remember that we should not throw out the old completely when the new comes in. Only someone who has held a carefully hand-labelled videocassette in her or his hand can really understand just how important these artifacts were–or can really understand how much things can change, and how quickly, as time passes.

That’s why I told it. My audience of one, however, didn’t need to hear it. He understands. He has a wonderful collection of typewriters, word-processors and early computers and has a real passion for the evolutions of technology.

Maybe, by telling it again, here, I can convince a few others to hesitate before throwing away that old eight-track, or super-8 system, or photo album. Or even DVD. Knowing that these things existed is not quite the same as actually holding them.

I wish, in fact, that I had an old videotape in hand as I tell this.

But I threw them all away.

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