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Columns / Short Stories
Shep was always writing. . .
October 1979


The Lost Culture of Deli
Inside the grey metal vault was the key to this extinct civilization
Inside the grey metal vault was the key to this extinct civilization

The expedition had been working the site, with minimal success, for some time. Tempers were frayed. Even the most civilized and erudite members of the party were nipping at one another. The rains, alternating with the searing heat, had worn down all of them. That, and of course the looming sense of failure. None of them, in spite of earlier optimism, had the vaguest idea that they were about to make a strike that would rival, and indeed surpass, the discovery of the fabled Rosetta Stone of millennia past. Little was known of the area where the expedition was working. The few facts, only partially substantiated, were that thousands of years or more in the opaque past a great city had flourished on the site. The area had been under the sea for centuries during the last Ice Age and had only reemerged in recent geological time. There was much dispute and there were many theories about what this settlement had once been called. A few hints were available to scholars who could decipher and understand the scarce archaeo-logical references, which were all in an ancient, dead language. One school maintained that the area had once been known to its inhabitants as New Amsterdam. The spelling was variable: sometimes NIEUW Ammsterdamme, other times N-E-W Amsterdam. Another faction held that the site had been known as the Big Apple, which led to a theory, since it was known that apple referred to some sort of fruit, that the place had been devoted to agriculture. A small but vocal element of academics, admittedly unorthodox in their views, had recently unearthed a reference or two among the fragmentary records of the past to something called Fun City. The translation of the word city was sure, meaning "a large, organized gathering of creatures," but a battle was still raging over the meaning of the word fun. Some felt that it was used in reference to a religion of the time. Others scoffed, maintaining that the civilization being studied had no discernible religion and hence "Fun" was just a meaningless proper name of no significance. Then, of course, there had been the discovery of that curious, deeply buried monolith that read Queens Plaza IND, which, according to a recent treatise, pointed to the conclusion that the settlement had been some sort of matriarchy, if in fact there had been any form of government at all. But to the members of this expedition, all such views were merely speculative. What was real was the mud, the boredom, and the lack of rest. The leader had considered closing out the operation and in fact had already begun to compose in his mind the message that he would send back to headquarters, informing those in control of his decision, when the big strike occurred, a find that was to open up the truth of this ancient lost civilization in all its bizarre romantic glory and barbaric splendor, far more revealing than any of the poor fables and tepid myths of what these peoples had left behind, which they called Art and Literature. These childish scrawls had dealt mainly with the endless pursuit of something they termed sex or, even more curious, self-fulfillment. Little was ever mentioned about the actual life, the day-to-day existence of those bygone times. But today's epic discovery would change all that. Like many significant finds, this strike came about as a result of a fortuitous accident. deep in the tunnel that had so far yielded nothing but disappointing bits and pieces of incomplete artifacts, although one curious, perhaps meaningful minor find had been made. A number of small plates bearing the enigmatic inscription IBM Selectric had surfaced. According to the leading technicians, these plates had apparently been attached to some kind of machine, although its use was not known. The machines themselves had long since largely disintegrated. Only a few cogs and wheels had survived the millennia. One small container made of an unknown flexible substance had been found. It bore the inscription Dannon Yogurt, which was obviously the proper name of some long-dead native who had used this receptacle for some purpose or other as yet not established. Other digs had unearthed quantities of these containers, which indicated that Yogurt was a very numerous tribe, rivaled only by one that appeared to be called Deli and a third named, enigmatically, Dixie. Did the reels hold the answer? A brace had given way, causing a large section of the tunnel wall to collapse, partly blocking the passageway. Members of the expedition quickly moved to clear away the mud and other debris; suddenly they beheld a sight that none of them would ever forget. A great gray metal vault gleamed dully under the lights. The leader was summoned immediately. The very air was charged with excitement as he peered at the mysterious discovery. A small attached label bore the inscrutable letters BBD&O and, in smaller script, TV 60 Sec Commercials. With a sense of scientific history being made, the cabinet, after being suitably measured and photographed, was carefully opened. The interior revealed row upon row of reels wound with a sort of film. The lowermost compartment contained, in absolutely perfectly preserved condition, a device that was obviously to be used in conjunction with the mysterious reels. The party was jubilant, but even in their joy they had little appreciation as yet of their stupendous find. Months later, in the laboratory, all the work and disappointment paid off. A new, startling vision of this ancient extinct civilization burst upon the scholars and scientists like a thunderbolt. For months there had been intensive research into the connection between the mysterious machine and the reels, and at long last, through a series of keen deductions, it had been found that the device had been used to project images from the reels so that they could be viewed. A carefully selected group of high-level personages had assembled for the first viewing of one of the reels. The lights were dimmed. There was absolute silence as each observer waited for a true vision of the past. Then there came a whirring sound from the rear of the room. Ancient symbols flashed on the screen: X-X-X-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. And then it happened. A spectacular scene so stupefying in its effect as to boggle the mind blazed forth before them. A dozen figures dressed in colorful, crisp uniforms danced and cavorted wildly, their teeth flashing, their footwork remarkable. High above them, gleaming in the brilliant sunlight, were two Olympian golden arches. As they danced, their rhythmic chant, pulsing with primitive vigor and abandon, boomed deafeningly: We do it all for yoo hoo hoo... We do it all for yoo hoo hoo! The scene quickly changed, and a manic, wild crowd of natives, who appeared to be arranged in family groupings of various colors, their teeth sparkling, eye-balls rolling, consumed vast quantities of mysterious round, spongy objects. The dancers in their uniforms reappeared, in-toning: We do it all for yoo hoo boo. The family members, many of whom appeared to be immature, or possibly a subspecies, grew more agitated as they ate voraciously. The arches suddenly reappeared; then darkness. The observers sat in stunned silence. At last, pandemonium broke loose. The leading scholar of them all lurched upright. His voice quavering with feeling, he blurted, "Nothing we have studied even hinted at what they were really like! None of their famous authors or artists even suggested anything like this!" He sat shaking with emotion, unable to speak further. "More! More!" they shouted. No longer was this a solemn gathering of minds. "More! More!" Again the machine whirred in the darkness. The numbers came and went. Another horde of celebrants appeared, if anything even more manic and wildly contorting than the previous tribe. They seemed to be at the seaside, on a sandy beach, dressed in outlandish pagan costumes of staggering immodesty. They leaped about madly, striking balls with extreme, childish delight. Again a deafening chorus intoned another chant: Join the Pepsi Generation, come alive, come alive! A sudden close-up of one crazed native caught him frantically sucking at some sort of small urn or container. His frenzy increased as he was joined by a female, also sucking a similar container. Come alive, come alive... Join the Pepsi Generation... The sea crashed noisily as the scene ended. One of the scholars hissed in the stunned silence, "Is it possible that it was a whole damned civilization that worshiped food?" Another voice cut in: "Don't jump to conclusions. We haven't even scratched the surface." A third; "I wonder what Pepsi' was." A fourth: "What about those arches? Now, that's significant." The leader spoke: "Easy now, let's not get excited. The only thing sure is that these things they call commercials are far more important than anything else they ever did. By the way, I agree with you about the arches." Another voice, choked with emotion: "Those dancers were young females. Maybe a variation on the old Vestal Virgins cult. This is incredible! I can't stand it!" The leader cut in hastily: "Settle down, all of you. Let's not go off the deep end. One thing is obvious, to me at least. Every theory we've ever held about this curious civilization is now called into question. Let's bring a semblance of order to this meeting. First off, I'm going to assign you and, yes, you, too" he indicated two of the more solemn scholars "to come up with some kind of theory, or a rational explanation, if possible, of what the word commercial meant. What were they trying to do? Perhaps these were recorded messages directed at us." The two scholars nodded solemnly as they began taking notes. "And you, over there. Your assignment is to decipher 'B B D and O.' Was it, perhaps, a religious order? It'll be a tough one to crack, but it may be the key. While you're at it, if any of you have any ideas about this tee vee' business, I want them in writing. That phrase, as you know, has appeared over and over in other digs." "Sir?" a youngish, eager-looking scholar interjected. "Yes?" "Respectfully, sir, a monograph was recently published by Sponlak Seven in which he suggested that for the purposes of scholarship we apply the official designation of the Tee-Vee Culture to this tribe. Do you..." The leader interrupted, "Yes, yes, I read it, of course. He may be right, but those golden arches may change things. We'll just have to wait and see. All right, have you got that next spool ready?" A voice from the darkness at the rear of the room mumbled, "I think so. This crazy machine is a bugger to work." The leader cut him off. "Let's be tolerant. Remember, we're dealing with a people of very minimal technical skills." The lights dimmed, the machine whirred, the mystic symbols marched again across the screen, followed by a brief second or two of blackness, and then the screen was filled with a great mass of silvery, gleaming metal, some sort of massive grille. The scene widened to show a large, gaudily painted wheeled machine covered with strips of silvery material. Again a native family group cavorted around it, their eyes gleaming with emotion. The dominant male ran his hands lovingly over the machine as a chorus chanted: Hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet... A large, furry animal leaped about, making guttural barking noises. Smaller natives, apparently the young, opened and closed metal hatches, emitting squeals that possibly denoted pleasure. "Yes, America, Chevy's done it again," the voice boomed. The chorus chanted: Hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet ... as the little band of ancients entered the machine, finally joined by the mysterious fuzzy animal, still busily issuing its ugly barking sounds. The dominant male, now strapped in the machine, appeared to be holding some kind of large hoop, attached to it, in his hands. Hot dogs and apple pie... The screen went dark. The lights came up in the room to show a very pensive group of researchers. Some-one in the rear finally broke the silence. "Well, no arches in that one, that's for sure." Another voice picked up the theme: "It's that furry thing that scares me. Do any of you know what language it was speaking?" A third asked, "That machine? What savage use of colors! They certainly weren't inhibited. I'm very impressed by their childlike exuberance, and..." "Just wait a minute," the leader broke in. "That machine, as you call it. has appeared often in what fragmentary images have survived from that time. I frankly believe it wasn't a machine at all but a habitation of some sort. They apparently lived in those." "Uh...sir?" the young scholar timidly asked. "Is it possible, sir, that Chev-vee, or its variation Chev-ro-lay, was the name they gave to one of their benevolent gods? In what we have just seen, he appears to have given them something for which they are grateful." "That's the trouble with you radicals," the leader said, "always jumping on every bandwagon that comes around. That's an interesting thought, and I don't want to inhibit you, but they also had other quasi gods. Don't forget, we're dealing with a highly superstitious culture." He glanced around expectantly, encouraging discussion. "What were those hatches and that furry thing? Is it possible that he was their leader? Perhaps they were enslaved by..." The leader imperiously motioned for silence. "Save all this for later, when we get down to specifics." He stood, facing the team. "I want none of this released. You hear me? Do not speak to anyone outside this room about anything you have seen. As you no doubt already suspect from what little we have examined today, there will be enormous repercussions. The religious questions alone are staggering. Reputations built over a life-time of study and toil will, I shall repeat, will come crashing down." He glanced meaningfully around the room. They sat silently, and yet it was obvious that they were seething with excitement. From somewhere a hoarse whisper: "Apple pie... apple pie. My god, do you know what that could mean?" Several nodded pensively. The leader gestured again for silence. "There, see what I mean? Let's just try to remember that we are scientists." Refreshments were brought in. Little groups of excited researchers gathered in corners, discussing the incredible visions they had just watched. One, who had said little up to now, spoke to his comrades. "I never thought I'd live to see anything like this. It's as if we were privileged to watch the Romans in their daily lives, or the barbaric Huns at play. I tell you, this is a turning point, a..." "Shhh." his friend hissed, back to work." They took their seats as the leader re-turned to the room, his face grave, yet with a hint about him of tightly controlled elation. After the group had quieted down he spoke. "I have been in communication with the Supreme Foundationman. Naturally, I did not go into details, because of the sensitive nature of some of the things we have witnessed today." A sly smile creased his face. "I don't have to tell you what this will mean for next year's funds." There were a few muffled cheers from the rear. The leader continued: "As you know. you were carefully selected from among the world's experts for your specific knowledge of the dead language we are hearing today for the first time spoken by those who actually used it. We are a chosen few. Before we continue viewing, are there any questions?" A hand was raised. "Yes?" "Ah... It's not exactly a question. sir. But as you know, some time back I published a monograph on the symbol 'Y 8 R,' which I proved conclusively stood for the words young and rubicam, and..." The leader cut in: "What's your point?" The speaker continued nervously: "Well, sir, we know the word young means 'an immature state,' but rubicam has been more difficult. I believe it is a misspelling of a legendary river, which was also called Rubi-con. Perhaps, using my methodology applied to 'B B D & 0,' I could conceivably" The leader interrupted again. "Are you suggesting that there might be a connection between Y & R and these B B D & 0 symbols?" "Er... just possibly, sir. I note that bits of material bearing the Y 8 R symbol were found in the vicinity of this recent dig. There might just possibly be some parallels ..." The leader motioned for silence. He appeared deep in thought for a moment. "Hmmm, Possibly. Just possibly. But these people seem to have had hundreds of cults bearing indecipherable symbolic names. We know of NCR, RCA, TRW, NBC, and who knows how many others? I'll leave that sort of study to the dusty ones who spend their lives working on puzzles that lead nowhere. But never let it be said that I stood in the way of research. So if you want to play around with the idea, go ahead. It's an interesting thought. Anyone else?" No one volunteered. "Well, then, let's push on," said the leader impatiently. The lights dimmed. They leaned forward, some scarcely breathing. Whirr. Clackety-clack-clack. A muffled curse from the rear of the room. The leader's voice boomed out: "What's the trouble?" "I'm sorry," a voice replied, laced with exasperation, "this thing got all unwound from the spool and is tangled up..." The lights came back up. More muffled swearing. The leader stared at the ceiling, feigning great boredom. A few laughed. Most were afraid to. "Sir, I think I've got it. Those old-timers must have had some trouble with this dumb monster." Whirrr. Darkness fell. 5-4-3-2-1-BEEP. Seven multicolored furred and bewhiskered tiny monsters danced on the screen. "Meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow..." A large, lumpy female appeared, dancing in unison with one of the furry creatures. Together, they sang: Purina Cat Chow... Chow chow chow! Purina Cat Chow... Meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow... The leader faced the rear and bellowed, "Are you sure you have that thing hooked up right? This is incredible!" "Yes, sir. I can't help what..." The leader barked an order. "Put that one aside for special study." The room bristled with excitement. The leader asked what was obviously a rhetorical question. "Now what in the world was that!" The eager young scholar piped, "That creature was what they called a cat. The ancient Egyptians had them, too. In fact, they worshiped them." The leader, lost in thought, muttered, "Meow. Does anyone here know the meaning of that? Meow." The technician called out from the rear. "I have another one threaded on this thing, sir. Should I run it?" The leader grunted in affirmation. He leaned to his left and whispered to his trusted lieutenant. "You realize that this could mean my directorship, at last. I can tell you now that I was worried toward the end of the dig that it was just another dry hole, but I always knew that there just had to be something of importance in the Madison Ah-vay Littoral. I just knew it. It had to be." He glanced to the rear, where the operator was struggling with the machine. His lieutenant politely asked, "Why do they call that area Madison Ah-vay?" The leader, always delighted to show his superior erudition, went on expansively. "Canmut Nine's first dig years ago came across a plaque or shield of some sort bearing that name in the area, and you know how he was. He immediately gave the dig that name, significant or not." The assistant leaned forward. "Does Madison Ah-vay mean anything?" "Yes, I suppose it does. Canmut at least thought so. Madison was the name of one of their early patriots or generals, and Ah-vay is a Latin word meaning 'prayer' or 'sacred song.' If Canmut was right, the area might well have been a sacred place of leaders. Or perhaps of high priests." His lieutenant, now thoroughly inter-ested, asked, "You mean it's possible that these commercials, as we call them, could be some sort of scripture, or...?" "Shhh," The leader motioned for silence. "Never give away your theories for free, especially in this crowd." 3-2-1-BEEP. A magnificent pastoral scene burst upon them: green trees, grass, but above all another wildly enthusiastic group of celebrants, young and old. At the center was a rapidly revolving device bearing mysterious wooden animals, upon which many of the young were seated. Pennants and banners flew. This curious scene was accompanied by loud pagan music. There was revealed, high over them all, another revolving device gleaming in the sunshine. It resembled a vast spinning container bearing the likeness of a benevolent white-bearded ancient. The voice boomed: "When Mother needs a rest, give her a day off. Go to the Colonel's!" A group appeared, bearing containers exactly like the one in the sky, but miniature. They began devouring the contents, while looking upward in rapt adoration at the bearded ancient's image. "The Colonel's eleven secret ingredients make it finger-lickin' good ..." A chorus, accompanied by native drums, screamed: FINGER-LICKIN', FINGER-LICKIN', FINGER-LICKIN' GOOD! Various disjointed phrases echoed around the room. The leader's lieutenant hissed into his ear, "You could be right. That revolving icon must have been one of their major priests!" The leader, his face stony, nodded. "Shhh. Don't tip your hand." The technician, who seemed to have got-ten the hang of the primitive machine, al-most immediately announced that he had another spool ready for action. 5-4-3-2-1-BEEP. An interior of a colorful repository of some sort appeared, row upon row of shelves adorned with gaudy cubes. Three females in bizarre costumes moved into the foreground. They were pushing spidery, wirelike contrivances filled with more cubes. The three of them stopped and reverently picked up some mysterious white circular rolls. Their eyes glazed in ecstasy. They fondled the rolls. A stern male arrived, clad in a white uniform. He resembled a guard, or perhaps an officer of some kind definitely a figure in-vested with authority. "Ladies, please don't squeeze the Charmin!" The three females continued to fondle the rolls, with even more intensity. The guard, overcome by emotion, himself began to squeeze a pair. One female piped, "I just can"t help it, Mister Whipple." Nervously the guard squeezed even harder. "See, Mister Whipple, they're so squeezably soft!" The scene concluded with all four of them fondling the rolls in high excitement. As the lights came back on, there was a barely suppressed roar of conversation in the room. The leader stood and cut through the hubbub with his voice of command. "All right, that's more than enough for our first session. Tomorrow I want to hear some of your theories on what we've seen. Remember, no leaks. I repeat, we must not allow any of this to get into the wrong hands. Get some rest. We'll see you on the morrow." He and his lieutenant moved toward the exit. As they left the chamber, the leader, his voice low and trembling with emotion, said, "We are right. Now it's clear to me. Those tightly rolled white scrolls they were worshiping! Are you ready for a cosmic theory?" They both glanced around conspiratorially as they moved toward their conveyance. "Yes, yes. What is it, sir?" The leader muttered almost to himself, "If we can find out what was on those scrolls, or what they were used for, I believe we would know what their civilization was all about, what they believed in. Do you follow?" The lieutenant gasped, "By Karnak, you could just be right. Yes, you could just be right!" In high triumph they moved off. Inside the grey metal vault was the key to this extinct civilization

Copyright: 1979 Omni Magazine

Where Shep Made Reference To This Subject
2462 (197910xxC)