I was born square in the middle of the 20th Century and have now lived a decade into the 21st. I am equal parts vanguard of the post-war baby boom, and tag-end afterthought of the WWII generation. Because of this, I have faint recollections that extend well back, second-hand, into a time that I could best describe as post-19th Century. The world of my grandparents, and their families, extends me, incredibly, to the late 1800’s. (In fact, my grandfather had a box of Civil War bullets that he and his friends dug out of a tree stump when he was a boy.) I can remember petting horses while my grandfather talked to men in farm wagons and buggies, and I recall watching people bring up buckets of water from a well.
My father grew up in rural western Michigan during the Great Depression. It was a sparsely populated region with no economy to speak of: no cities, no factories, save for a couple of paper mills and canning factories. The only income came from the few odd-jobs that supplemented what scant agriculture could be gleaned from the sterile sandy soils that lay inland from the great sand dunes. The Depression hit this region especially hard.
My father’s father couldn’t take it and ran off, leaving the family destitute and completely without resource. My Dad and his two older siblings were parceled off to live with local families while the two youngest stayed home with their mother. Communities were tight that way. They took care of their own. My father grew up with a local farming family, the Braggs, who took him in as one of their own and raised him like a son.
As a boy growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, I recall going with my Dad into the warm, pre-electric kitchens and parlors of old farm houses in rural western Michigan to visit with the Braggs and other families and old-timers that he had known when he was a boy. The world I remember was frank and no-nonsense. Old women wore dark, heavy dresses and sturdy black shoes. The men wore baggy pants, with suspenders and hats. It seemed that everyone smoked cigarettes. Teeth were yellow, voices were coarse, undershirts were stained, shoes were worn and dusty.
Screen doors were wooden, heavy and always slammed shut behind you, causing children to jump and the adults to chuckle. The heavily-waxed floors creaked, the wall paper was thick and busy, and the air smelled of firewood, apples, wet dogs and musty rugs. The rooms were cozy but always dimly lit. There were no carpets, only thick throw rugs, dark and dusty but always well-swept.
Every house had a wood pile and a garden. Most had only outhouses. Every back yard had a clothes line and every front porch had a rocking chair. In some homes, those with electricity, a radio the size of an easy chair sat patiently waiting for someone to click the “on” switch, lighting it up like jack-o-lantern and causing it to buzz and crackle as it warmed up. The circular tuning dial would indicate “Berlin”, “Tokyo”, and “Buenos Aires”, but you would be lucky if you could pick up Detroit or Chicago.
In half of a century, my life has gone from hand-cranked washing machines, clumsy black rotary phones and cast iron typewriters to computers, weather satellites, stem cells and cell phones. The world has gone from three networks to 300 channels. Phones no longer ring, they play overtures. With a technologically-savvy teenage daughter to lead the way, what remains of my future will intersect with technologies that neither I, nor my father, could ever have imagined. My daughter may tell my stories to her grandchildren, extending my legacy into the 22nd Century.
The 22nd Century!
It wasn’t long ago that there was a gas station on every corner and you could drive all evening on $2.00 worth of gas. The World Series was played on autumn afternoons and everyone snuck away to listen. It wasn’t long ago that a kid could roll out of his yard in the morning on his bike with a group of friends and not be expected back until the sun set. And it wasn’t that long ago that no one could imagine that it wouldn’t always be that way.
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