by Kathleen Reed
While my own birthday won’t come with any festivities this year, my thoughts are on someone else’s birthday. One very dear to my heart.
April 26, 1920. This year would have been my father’s Centennial.
Happy Birthday, Daddy!
You know how we see toddlers’ eyes widen in awe at the sight of an airplane….as wonder and amazement registers with the realization that there are people flying through the air?
I found it fascinating that as a child, my Dad watched adults share in that childlike wonder. And he held onto some of the wonder and amazement through his lifetime.
At the age of nine, he witnessed the stock market crash that would plunge the nation into the Great Depression. But he witnessed so much progress in his lifetime (1920-2006) that it makes my head spin.
His boyhood home on Hudson Street was lit with gas lamps. His family didn’t get electricity or radio until he was a teenager.
As a youth, it was still a big deal when a “talking movie” hit the local theater. The concept of home movies and camcorders were inconceivable back then. Television didn’t come along until he was a grown man, and he saw that evolve into the technology to change channels with a remote control, then record on VHS – and later DVD. Live streaming from your phone to social media across the world would happen a few short years after his passing.
He witnessed telephones that didn’t have dials (requiring an operator) evolve into technology that allowed rotary dialing….and later direct dial even for long-distance calls in the late 1950s. By the 1980s, he saw phones without cords…and then they left the house entirely. And a few short years later, cell phones shrunk from shoebox to pocket size.
And my adult children scarcely recall a time before smart phones.
As he grew into an adult saw many societal change changes – some that caused concern.
When he was young, the Bolshevik Revolution that spawned the USSR (after a massacre of Russian royalty and culture) was still practically “current events”. With that in mind, he instilled values of Liberty in us and warned that we “would” see a similar fate in our lifetimes.
Having experienced the Great Depression, he’d seen ‘poverty’ in its original definition and was concerned as the word began to include lack of things that he considered comfort and conveniences – rather than necessities.
As social programs and government “safety nets” steadily expanded, he worried that growing dependency would inevitably result in widespread loss of independence.
Many of the tremendous strides in ‘human evolution’ brought on by the Industrial Revolution were very ‘recent history’ that his parents and had witnessed firsthand. Historical rises in literacy and life expectancy….while destitution and infant mortality declined at record rates.
He was perplexed as he watched the “heroes” he’d learned about as a child become regarded as evil capitalists and “robber barons”.
Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, the “Great Entrepreneurs” of the Industrial Revolution.
Railroads and automobiles that created mobility, freedom and opportunity – the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the invention of ocean travel. And using their fortunes to build hospitals, libraries and schools that elevated disadvantaged populations as never before.
He was dedicated to finding old books and magazines….and often pointed out when contemporary publications contradicted them. It saddens me that many were lost over the years.
Even with some trends that he found unsettling, he remained in wonder at the leaps mankind took in his lifetime.
When he taught us to drive in the 1980’s…Dad still considered automatic transmissions to be a “new-fangled” thing that just wasn’t as ‘tried and true’ as standard. But he still marveled that the technology existed. Although he’d always favor his trusty slide rule for calculations, his amazement at our first pocket calculator was clear.
I was about eight. As he went on and on about the liquid crystal display and how many things we could soon be doing with a printed circuit board so small, I sort of felt a little guilty that I didn’t understand enough to share in his delight.
But there were so many other things that he showed me, that I did share the enthusiasm. The way he showed excitement over everything made him a powerful storyteller and teacher. Whenever he’d have me ‘help’ with a simple household chore it turned into a colorful presentation that may take hours……but usually left me certain that science was magic and my Dad was a wizard.
He never wanted or expected me to memorize facts, figures or formulas. He showed me. We wanted me to see it, question it, understand it. And he usually made it seem fun.
To this day, I couldn’t tell you which one of Newton’s Laws was applied….but after spending the better part of an afternoon trying to meet Dad’s challenge to make it up a down escalator, I had a better understanding of how motion in opposite directions will counteract one another. And we had ice cream afterward even though the escalator won.
He truly appreciated that learning by watching, understanding by doing and teaching by demonstration was how humans evolved. When he was a boy, learning how the world around us works wasn’t necessarily giggles and ice cream. Carrying water in a leaky bucket was learning the ‘hard way’. Understanding the how and the why was the best way to improve things.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how many medical breakthroughs he witnessed, in addition to the technology that fascinated him so much.
The Polio outbreak began a few years before he was born. Through the 1940’s when it was paralyzing 35,000 Americans each year, it was for his generation, a tragic fact of life that seemed to have ‘always been. Then it slowed to hundreds, then dozens a year. And for the last few decades of his life, it was gone.
He watched a few pandemics make it to the USA, including the “Hong Kong Flu” that took a million lives worldwide, and 100,000 here. And after nearly 30 years of watching the world suffer from HIV, he barely missed seeing a cure developed.
I think if he were still here, he’d tell me to be sensible and make good choices….but that this will pass.
And he’d probably consider staying home a fantastic opportunity for everyone to spend time learning how everything we take for granted works….and building a greater appreciation for the modern marvels that we rely on every day. And instilling the same in the younger generation.
"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." –Ellen Parr
Kathleen Reed is a resident of Catlin.