Communication Collision: 500 years in 5 days – Serfs, Spikes, Sparms

I’ve always felt that words were central to communication, but I was recently reminded that the delivery system for those words is equally important. During a trip to Utah, I experienced a “communication collision” where in a matter of days I was bombarded with images and information in such extreme contrast that it left my head reeling.

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Days 1 and 2: Attending a Family History Expo to learn about genealogy, I discovered the value of Church Records and Colonial Gazetteers, of markings on maps and clues left in classifieds. In the course of the conference, I was transported to a feudal town in Germany, a village in Sweden, and to the American frontier.

Day 3: The following day we drove to Antelope Island which sits in the Great Salt Lake, home to birds, brine shrimp and brine flies which feed the birds and keep the cycle going. There we visited the Garr Ranch which houses the artifacts of 150 years of ranching. Bison, mule deer, and antelope roam freely, so we were not surprised by the sign reading, “Buffalo: Stay on the Road.” But there’s that grammar thing again! Was this a message for us — or for them?

Day 4: Next we visited the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Part of the Mormon mission, this resource is available for secular use and draws from a database 9 times the size of the Library of Congress. There I pulled up the 1930 Census which displayed the information you’d expect: name, gender, age, birthplace etc – but what I found unusual was the column which indicated whether a household had a radio or not. Clearly, communication was key.

Day 5: On our last day, we drove to Promontory, where the Golden Spike united the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads. Chinese and Irish workers dominated the construction crews, and while their words were different, the message was the the same: get it done. A sign commemorating the final push read: “10 miles of track laid in one day.” On the tracks sat a replica of the Jupiter, polished within an inch of its life. Conductors in vintage clothing stoked the engine with wood, and soon a plume of steam was spewing forth. With a clang of the bell and toot of the horn, we regressed to that windswept platform in 1869.

Now here’s where the biggest time warp took place.

Leaving the park, we saw a sign for ATK where a rocket test had taken place that morning. Driving less than two miles, we came upon an enormous “parking lot” of space craft. Stark white against the blue skies, the size and scope was dazzling. There were TX38 Sparms and TX500 Spartan Boosters, new NASA shuttle craft and the charred end of a device where burn-off had left its mark. But the sign that made me smile was far less scientific as it addressed human nature in most basic terms: “Please do not climb into the nozzle.”

So there I was – catapulted from castles to solid fuel combustion … spiraling forward from steel rails to space navigation. In my ears, the sound of buffalo hooves beating the earth mingled with cries of human herds pressing the gates at Ellis Island. Jolted from past to future, I needed a moment to ground myself in the present.

What a strange trip that was … but what a great testimony to our ongoing quest for communication.

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