Four hundred million years ago, during the Paleozoic Era, Joanne and I had just celebrated our first anniversary and set off on our second vacation. We flew into Seattle, rented a car, and wandered north of the border, into the wilds of Canada. They used to allow that sort of thing.
We did all sorts of Canadian things on that vacation, including being nice to people we didn’t know, using the metric system and hating the Quebecois.
We saw lots of amusingly duel-labeled food, in English and French, including English muffins (“Muffin anglais”) and French dressing (“Vinaigrette française”). At a supermarket in Kamloops, there was an open barrel of bar-b-que sauce (“bar-b-que sauce”), with little plastic jars set next to it and a ladle. I still have nightmares about what could have been at the bottom.
I got a speeding ticket doing 14,421 mkph (which translated to 35 miles per hour, at then-current exchange rates) from a cop who stepped into the fast lane ahead of me, pointed at me, pointed at the side of the road and then stepped out of the way as I zoomed by. After I stopped, he walked over and wrote me up. I should have kept going, just to see if he would give chase by jogging briskly after me and going, “Beee-dooo. Beee-dooo.”
When we were in Victoria, we went whale watching out on Puget Sound. This mainly consisted of being encased in these comical environment suits to keep from freezing to death, racing around in an overgrown inner-tube hooked up to two gigantic outboard motors, and failing to see whales. After three hours, with faces stung red by needle-sharp spray, we decided to forgo the half-price afternoon run.
We ate cucumber sandwiches in a tea house, served by very English butling types, who vibrated with stiff-upper-lipped rage at having unruly Americans come in and improperly eat cucumber sandwiches.
And after all that touristy nonsense, we finally spent one wonderful afternoon just wandering around a leafy, sunny neighborhood in Victoria. We made random turns, found parks, sat on benches, and eventually came across a tidy house with a well-kept yard and two dozen birdhouses set carefully on the front fence. They were each solidly made, detailed without being fussy, and each had a small hand-written price tag hanging off a string. We picked the one we liked best, gave the nice man who wandered out our address and he shipped it to us a week later. It hung in the backyard for years, before finally succumbing to the punishing Southern California weather.
Last week, my wife was digging through a long-neglected envelope in a long-neglected drawer and came across a hand-stamped business card that had been slipped into the box the birdhouse came in.
The man’s name was Art Braaten. He might have mentioned it while we talked, a dozen years ago — I’ve long-since forgotten. But here he was again, unexpected, a little reminder of that great birdhouse, and that great walk, and that great vacation.
I searched for him, of course; it’s a reflex at this point. The Internet’s come a long way since 1997, and I found him almost immediately:
Arthur “Art” Lloyd Braaten
On Tuesday, March 2, 1999, Arthur “Art” Lloyd Braaten, late of Weyburn, passed away at the age of 75 years.
Mr. Braaten was sick when we spent our time with him, with the colon cancer that would end his life less than two years later. Near as I can figure, it was the last year he spent healthy, his last year in Victoria. He and his wife had their 40th anniversary then, and they remade their vows to each other. He built our birdhouse around that time, the last real chance he had to do what he obviously loved to do. He’s been dead for over a decade, and I just found out.
And that’s why I love the Internet. That small obituary — hosted on some cheesy advertising circular’s Web site, last modified in January 2001 — has sat out there, patiently waiting for someone to need it. Nearly ten years on, an idle curiosity prompted by some fleeting serendipity instantly brings it to me, and suddenly I know something I didn’t — something I should have no way of knowing, given time and distance — and I’m mourning a man who improved my life every time I looked out the window.
Our lives are being documented, in ways large and small and trivial and important, and it will all be waiting out there for anybody who has the inclination to find it. People rightly worry about the implications of all this — about what it means for privacy and for history — but right now, remembering Art and the birdhouse and what it was like to be part of a young couple on vacation in a strange and dangerous land, I can only be glad for it, thankful even, and hope that someday, someone will find this tiny story — last modified in November 2009 — and think fondly of me.
Hi there! My name's GREG KNAUSS and I like to make things.
Some of those things are software (like Romantimatic and Buzz Clock), Web sites (like the Webby-nominated Metababy and The American People) and stories (for Web sites like Suck and Fray, print magazines like Worth and Macworld, and books like "