I have a friend named Nicole who took a walk with me through history the other day.
She's 9 years old and just about everything is history to someone that age, I guess, but this kind of history even predated me.
We wandered through time and space at the L.A. Smithsonian exhibit, tracing the roots of life and nation to their very beginnings.
We've taken a lot of walks together, Nicole and I, up mountain trails and down city streets, sometimes looking, sometimes talking, sometimes singing.
Nicole loves to try to teach me tunes that are kicking around her school and I teach her the songs we sang in the days when lyrics mattered and hardly anything was ever shouted.
But music wasn't part of the agenda in our walk through the traveling Smithsonian exhibit. There was a different kind of purpose to our stroll.
I wanted Nicole to get a feeling for the events that have shaped our world and to understand why we're where we are. A knowledge of history is essential to mastering the future, and at that moment I had the future by its small hand.
I saw the miracles of our yesterdays reflected in Nicole's eyes, and the wonder of life in her expression. She was both my mirror to the past and my glimpse into worlds yet to come.
Nicole wasn't the only little person there that day. School kids swarmed around me like noisy puppies, testing the very limits of their teachers' abilities to control and guide.
I've been told that about 50,000 children from 600 schools have visited the Smithsonian exhibit since it opened a month ago at the Convention Center, and I swear most of them were there the day Nicole and I dropped by.
Teachers were in a state of panic trying to keep them all together and a couple of times tried to drag Nicole along with them in their effort not to leave anyone behind.
I managed to pull her back each time, and once had to explain to a suspicious security guard that she belonged with me and not with the stampede of kids a harried leader was herding past the capsule that took Alan Shepard into space.
I wondered later how many little students from School A ended up at School B and had to be shipped back later.
Nicole's parents let her miss a day of classes to accompany me, even though they know I'm trying to edge her toward a career in writing and they'd prefer to let her make up her own mind.
Nicole is a bright and sensitive little girl whose imagination stretches beyond her years. She writes and illustrates stories often startling in their insights, at ease in a dreamland of fairies and unicorns.
The exhibits we saw tapped her sense of both daring and fantasy, and she responded by thrusting herself into the persona of the giants that strode through our yesterdays.
She saw a flight suit once worn by Amelia Earhart and envisioned herself soaring over the ocean. She saw the space capsule that orbited the moon and imagined herself hurtling toward the very edges of time.
I wondered as we passed the artifacts left by history's trailblazers why all of my heroes seemed to have lived so long ago. Are there still heroes among us, or only those to whom power, pleasure and the bottom line are the essential goals of existence?
Nicole was fascinated by the women who had achieved, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Georgia O'Keeffe, and marveled at the blue star sapphire that once graced the bosom of Mary Pickford.
But it was the magic of space that seemed to tantalize her the most, a little girl caught up in the intermingling of reality and fantasy that make up futures beyond imagination.
It was at one of these exhibits that she observed the barren state of the moon and wondered if one day there would be water there and air.
"It's too bad," she said, with a sadness that was genuine, "that there are no flowers on the moon."
I am stricken occasionally with the knowledge that, on the downside of life, I won't live to see what wonders exist as new and startling cosmic discoveries unfold.
But I'm content that Nicole's generation will leave tracks through history that will lead to better things for everyone. And to answer my own question, there are at least future heroes among us, and I have a strong feeling that many will be women.
One of them rode home with me in silence after our walk through time and space. She was daydreaming, I'm sure, about trips she will someday take through a kingdom of stars, and about the flowers she is destined to plant on the face of the moon.
(Al Martinez can be reached through Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org)