What’s in his nassssty pocketsssesss?

In Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (now available freely on-line!), a historian visiting Rome gets shunted from 1939 to 536AD. Besides half-way decent knowledge of Latin, he has what was in his pockets at the time of the transfer:

He strolled up an alley to be out of sight and began going through his pockets. The roll of Italian bank notes would be about as useful as a broken five-cent mousetrap. No, even less; you might be able to fix a mousetrap. A book of American Express traveler’s checks, a Roman street-car transfer, an Illinois driver’s license, a leather case full of keys-all ditto. His pen, pencil, and lighter would be useful as long as ink, leads, and lighter fuel held out. His pocket knife and his watch would undoubtedly fetch good prices, but he wanted to hang onto them as long as he could.

He counted the fistful of small change. There were just twenty coins, beginning with four ten-lire silver cartwheels. They added up to forty-nine lire, eight centesimi, or about five dollars. The silver and bronze should be exchangeable. As for the nickel fifty-centesimo and twenty-centesimo pieces, he’d have to see.

A modern person would be worse off in regard to coinage, as none of the coins in common circulation are silver or copper. PDAs would hold out as long as the battery charge, though the data within might survive much longer.

If a man knew he was going to be whisked back into the past, he would load himself down with all sorts of useful junk in preparation, an encyclopedia, texts on metallurgy, mathematics, and medicine, a slide rule, and so forth. And a gun, with plenty of ammunition.

But Padway had no gun, no encyclopedia, nothing but what an ordinary twentieth-century man carries in his pockets. Oh, a little more, because he’d been traveling at the time: such useful things as the traveler’s checks, a hopelessly anachronistic street map, and his passport. And he had his wits. He’d need them.

Slide rule could be replaced with a solar panel calculator, the rest makes sense. A person getting shunted from modern Rome or even New York City would be unlikely to carry any sidearm at all, though he might have a pocket knife. A person getting time-shunted from Boise or Nashville may well be better prepared, though his chances of finding any civilization in 536AD would be slim indeed.

So assuming you get moved back in time as you are on a typical day, with just the clothes and the contents of your pockets coming along, how would you do? I would assume that language and medical skills would be more important than specific artifacts, but having a few useful gadgets can’t hurt.

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21 Responses to What’s in his nassssty pocketsssesss?

  1. Marko Kloos says:

    Right now? I’d have with me a wallet with a bunch of patently useless IDs and money transfer instruments. I’d also have two pens (fountain pen and gel ink pen), a mechanical pencil, a reporter-type pocket notebook, a locking CRKT folder, a Victorinox GAK with all kinds of handy tool thingies (probably the most useful thing in my pockets for that scenario), and a 9mm pistol with 27 rounds of ammunition.

    All in all, that’s probably not a bad collection of pocket stuff for accidental time travel, but it’s not exactly a stellar survival kit either.

  2. Murphy's Law says:

    I’d always have three things:

    1. The pistol that I’ve always got on me any time I leave the house,
    2. My knowledge and experience gained as a paramedic,
    3. A practical understanding of the concepts Machiavelli wrote about in “The Prince”.

    Give me five years and I’ll be running wherever it is that I wind up.

    • BLT says:

      Heh, you’d better have something useful to offer…or the locals will teach you a few things about Machiavellian principles. 6th century Rome probably has all the opportunistic and cunning attitudes of the late Roman empire, plus some Germanic tribal “efficiency” thrown in.

      Though being a paramedic puts you into God-like Doctor category, so you might pull it off 🙂

  3. alan says:

    The banknotes might have value as art objects. They’re also made from very rare and high quality paper, the farther back you go paper gets less common and ultimately unknown.

    Most likely an inadvertent time traveler will wind up dead. The past wasn’t safe at the best of times and modern Western humans are singularly unprepared for sub-third world conditions and violence.

  4. perlhaqr says:

    Albuquerque, NM — 536 AD? I’m fucked. Unless I happen to have a gallon jug of SPF 500 sunscreen in one of my pockets, I’m going to fry to a crisp really fast.

    Though, the Anasazi are thought to have been at least slightly less hostile than later native tribes in the area, so if I survived the environment, I might not get killed immediately by the locals.

  5. Jason Allard says:

    I’d be screwed language-wise. Very little German, Latin, or Japanese spoken in New England around 500AD. Granted, I’m far from fluent in any of those.

    Skills-wise, I’d be ok. As a former archery, camping and wilderness survival instructor for the Boy Scouts, I’ve got some practice with living in the woods around here. I’d be ok with what’s in my pockets. Wallet and phone might not be too useful, but the lighter, swiss army knife, CRKT folding knife, and the Leatherman SuperTool could come in handy. if I could grab my daily bag on the way, that would add an Opinel knife and my diamond sharpening stick.

  6. Firehand says:

    At this very moment, I’d have the pocket pistol with six rounds, a useless phone and a good knife(My, CRKT seems to be popular!). And the one thing you always have, the knowledge and skills learned.

    ‘Course, I’ll probably need that first-aid knowledge, because Oklahoma at that time was grassland and buffalo and some tribes that might want to use me for a trophy(“Look at this funny pale human I found at the water hole!”) And it’d be a ways before I could find suitable wood for a bow. And something to make a fire drill with. And…

  7. John says:

    The killer for me would be corrective lenses. I wear contacts daily and do not have a pair of glasses in my pockets. I have a spare set of contacts and glasses close by but not on me.

    My contact prescription is -10.50 in each eye so once the contacts went, I’d be blind.

  8. Oleg Volk says:

    I would guess that nonverbal interpersonal skills would be the major survival tool. Knowing how to forage, hunt, maintain health are all long-term strategies. Not getting killed by the locals long enough to learn the language and the customs would be the most urgent task. That acquiring immunity to the local diseases.

    On a good day, I’d have a cell phone (useful for taking photos and making notes but not for long), a folding knife, keys-cards-paper money, 9mm with 35 rounds and a .32 with eight, wristwatch (with battery good for a year or two at most) and sometimes a pen but no paper. English and Russian not being common in 6c. Tennessee, I suspect I’d have to learn some local language and learn to get along. With luck, I’d live out a long life without ever firing a shot in anger.

  9. outlier says:

    For lack of a better word, I’d probably be boned. On any given day, all I have on me are my P220 in .45, with about 15 rounds total, and a pocket knife.

    I don’t even carry a wallet, but it’s not as if it would help me in an ancient setting anyway.

  10. Sean says:

    How long would I survive? I always have a Leatherman Wave multitool, a Leatherman S2 flashlight, two bandanna handkerchiefs, a folding knife of some kind, right now either a full sized Gerber Paraframe or a SOG Flash II, my leather wallet with chain and crab’s claw (some form of improvised weapon perhaps), filled with nothing important to survival, my key ring has a Gerber Shard on it and perhaps keys might make a weapon, my Timex with Indiglo, my battered iphone 3GS that can’t hole a charge longer than ten hours, sometimes, though not regularly, a Molskine pocket notebook and either a pencil of pen. I haven’t lived in TX long enough to carry yet.

    But I’d be dead pretty quick anyway! I take meds for high BP which without I am in ‘the stroke zone’, I wear very strong corrective lenses, suffer from a great many nasal allergies (again, meds) and am fair skinned!

    It’s been great! Thanks!

  11. jeff says:

    Depends. I’m always armed with a pistol and various knives, and I almost always have my “man purse” within arms reach, which has a first aid kit, flashlight and other sundry items. I have a smartphone that has the local area (4 states worth) of topo maps on it, as mentioned that wont last long (I have been looking at solar chargers though). No meds, no lenses, lots of military field training (plus the Army FM for survival on the phone). As long as I don’t annoy the locals, I’m good.

  12. Dave says:

    Right now? I’m at home, so nothing in my pockets and nothing on my feet. It doesn’t look good for our hero…

  13. BLT says:

    Wow, he’d be lucky to be whisked back to 6th century Rome. Functioning society with agriculture and trade…and a place where his basic knowledge about life could be applied not just for his survival, but to thrive.

    I’d end up in 6th century Utah…with a Glock 19 and two mags if I was real lucky. But more likely a Ruger LCP, a Kershaw knife, my glasses, and wallet-survival kit (a compass and Fresnel lense being the only things of real import). Survival past a month would require finding natives and befriending them. Utah was awful sparse on natives back then…but I might get lucky. And if I got lucky…I’d just have to live at their level. Most of my engineering and practical background would be useless, but I might offer a few basic mechanical and construction benefits that would help me and my new family tread water a bit more efficiently in the harsh high desert.

    Gawd, going back to Rome would be so much better. Just having access to blacksmiths, iron-age metallurgy and a population with educated and literate segments (what did they speak in 6th century Rome? Was it still basically vulgar latin? Doesn’t really matter, I could pick up vulgar Latin or Italian pretty quick) would make my odds of thriving much better.

    What a cool topic. I’ll have to pick up the book!

  14. James says:

    I remember reading the book when I was a kid, still have a dogeared copy laying around here somewhere.
    I remember reading it back then and thinking that the most important things he took with him were the ones in his head.

  15. Tam says:

    If I have my Turse, I’ll be happier.

    Leatherman Juice. SAK. A decent hank of 550 cord. 2 butane lighters and a book of matches. Little TwinTask 1L flashlight and a Photon light on my keychain. Little Simonich Bitterroot knife on the keychain. A couple “camper”-size rolls of Charmin. An AirLite .44 Special with ten rounds of ammo. Pens, pencils, and scrap paper. CRKT GetAwayDriver and Eat N Tool. Folding titanium spork. I don’t know what all else is in there, but there’s more stuff…

    There’s a good-size folding knife in my pocket and a pistol on my belt. I need to get back in the habit of carrying a reload rather than relying solely on a BUG. I have a little business-card holder in my back pocket that, in the 6thCentury, contains scrap plastic and firestarting materials…

  16. One of the common mistakes that people make in these games is assuming that the people of the past were stupid. They weren’t. And while one might have knowledge they didn’t remember you’re just one man (or woman) and you’ve got to sleep sometime. So any approaches that involve riding roughshod over the locals are essentially doomed.

    That said, I’d have my Leatherman Wave, two lighters, a folding knife that I keep honed to a finer edge than the Leatherman, my Kel Tec P3AT with a full magazine (and one up the pipe) and maybe my 1911 with 8 rounds. I think the person uptopic who suggested money (and I’d add various other cards) as works of art had a good idea.

    Central Indiana in 536 AD? That would be the beginning of the late woodland period, after the nominal fall of the Hopewell civilization. Just in time for the extreme weather events of 535-536 (Severe cooling, probably caused by volcanic eruptions or cosmic impact). All I can say is “interesting times.”

  17. EMS-Guy says:

    For another take on this subject, check out “Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen” by H. Beam Piper.
    I’d at least have one real silver and one real copper coin.

  18. anonymous says:

    For those of us that will eventually be transported back into the past, we know that none of us made enough of a difference to change history.

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