The time-travel ad
By John Silveira
Issue #125 • September/October, 2010
It’s become a minor Internet phenomenon. The ad reads:
It’s also been read by Jay Leno on his late night TV show, on National Public Radio more than once (including Car Talk), on craigslist.org (sans the P.O. box), it’s been printed on T-shirts, discussed on the liberal website democraticunderground.org, it’s been the subject of conversation in several online forums, and very similar wording has been used in some computer games. There’s even a ghost hunter, Richard Senate, a resident of Oakview, who’s looking for the author. On his website he says the ad appeared in a local paper in 2004. He states “Some have even walked the town of Oak View seeking…evidence of the traveler…” It keeps popping up.
Where did it come from? Who is the mysterious author? What was his intent?
Actually, it first appeared on page 92 of the Sept/Oct 1997 issue of BHM—and I wrote it.
Why’d I write it? What was my motive?
In the early days of Backwoods Home Magazine, the publisher, Dave Duffy, used fillers when the classified ad pages came up short. He’d ask me to come up with jokes or riddles. I often did. Some were original, some not. One night, desperate to wrap up the classifieds, he asked, “John, give me a couple of jokes.” It’s not easy to do that on demand. I sighed and asked, “How about I place a couple of ads—for free?” He said, “Sure.”
So, I came up with two. One was a personal—I was looking for a girlfriend. The other was the time travel ad. If you can find that issue, and look on pages 92 and 93, you’ll see both of my ads and they both use the same P.O. box. A few astute readers caught it. But I didn’t dream the ad up that night. It’s actually the opening lines to an unfinished novel I started years ago. I let Dave use it, expecting three or four responses from it and hoped for a few dozen from the personal. Instead, I’ve received more than a thousand from the time-travel ad, and maybe five from the personal—four from women and one from a gay guy. I’m not kidding. And the responses to the time travel ad never end.
Sometimes, the flow into my P.O. box is a mere trickle. Other times, the box is stuffed. I think it’s the result of the periodic appearance of the ad on the Internet and, as I said, in other places over the years. It’s also been appropriated by individuals who have either used the exact same or nearly identical wording, except they’ve changed the P.O. box to one of their own. Others have claimed the Oakview mailbox belongs to them. Some guy with a bad mullet has run the ad with his picture as if it’s his. But I’m the only one with a key to the box.
Over the years, I’ve received responses from every state and every continent, including Antarctica.
What have the people who’ve responded wanted? Most seemed to have believed the ad. Several hundred, while admitting maybe it was a hoax, hoped it wasn’t and wanted to go back in time for the sheer adventure. Though pay was offered, many of those said they’d do it for nothing. (Hell, I would, too.)
Some letters came from guys who gave me a list of some pretty sophisticated weapons they could bring along with their credentials: black belts in martial arts, explosives expertise, language skills, etc., along with assurances they can pretty much take care of themselves. I believe ’em.
But many letters came from people who wanted me to correct a past tragedy. Dozens, in prison, asked me to go back in time and talk them out of committing the crime that put them away. Others (and not a few) were from people who begged me to go back and save a loved one from a tragic death. Those letters were so heartbreaking I almost couldn’t read them and I felt a certain amount of shame for not anticipating the false hope I placed in so many hearts.
On the other hand, I also got letters from people who, despite postal regulations, threatened me with either bodily harm or death if the ad turned out to be a joke or a scam. I guess it all balances out.
Several years ago, I even got a letter from someone on the staff of the Jerry Springer Show asking me to appear on the show. Friends asked if I was going to take him up on it. Are you kidding? I’m not a good enough actor to pull that off.
But why did I use an Oakview P.O. box? (I now live in Oregon.) I used to live in the Ojai Valley, just a few miles from Oakview, and a P.O. box there was on my way out of the Valley. My daughter, Meaghan, used to read them to me on our long commute up I-5 to the magazine, about 800 miles each way.
What’s happened to all the letters? I wish I still had every one of them. For a while I kept hundreds of them in a big box in the trunk of my Honda Civic. But when the trunk leaked, they all got mildewed. I threw most of those away. But I still have a few hundred left.
What lies in the future? Even though I’ve now revealed it was just a joke, I expect the P.O. box will continue to receive letters until the end of time. And, for all the writing I’ve done, they are probably the only words I’ve written that will outlive me. In the meantime, it’s 13 years later, and I still need a girlfriend.