When I asked him what it was like in the “olden days” when he was a little boy, my dad professed enough mock shock for me to recall it clearly even now.
It happened in the late 1940s so he, born in 1916, and home for two or three years by then from World War II, was in his early 30s. It wasn’t all that long ago, he said, but to me at age seven or eight, Dad may as well have grown up in the era of dinosaurs.
What surprises me sometimes when I note that I’m more than halfway through my seventh decade is that my 30s – or, at least, some events that took place then - can feel as fresh as this morning’s news.
I was too young to vote in the Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960, but I remember the debate that sank Nixon as well as I do the most recent ones, perhaps because it was such a novelty then. In recalling the Bay of Pigs, I can easily muster again the fear we felt at possible nuclear annihilation. And the shock when I heard that President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy had been killed. And so on through the years.
Many events live in my mind as strongly as when they happened. Some, Grant Park in 1968, Woodstock and 9/11, for example, I personally witnessed. Others I followed in the media – Anwar Sadat’s assassination, the Bosnia war, the bursting of the dotcom bubble and more. When necessary, I can summon my circumstances and feelings in relation to them as easily as if they happened last week.
This sense of the personal closeness of history came to mind frequently during the election campaign when youngish media people made reference to relatively recent presidents, campaigns and administrations in a tone and manner not much different than if they had been speaking of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or even Julius Caesar.
It was obvious that times I have lived through seemed as distant to these reporters, pundits and analysts as the days of my dad’s childhood did to me 60 years ago.
Once, when I was working at cbsnews.com in the mid-1990s, a production assistant fresh out of college asked me which came first, the Civil War or World War I. Now, I might be confused about the sequence of the War of the Roses and English Civil War, but I’m old enough to have shaken the hand of an American Civil War veteran when he visited our class in school, and I knew many World War I veterans in my childhood. So I am only once removed from those events and I feel almost as attached to them as events that have taken place in my lifetime.
One of the satisfying things about getting old is the ability to take a long view of history. It works sometimes as a warning as when Governor Palin incited people at partisan rallies to shout violent invectives. I’ve personally seen enough protests turn into riots on less provocation to know that she is ignorant of the worst aspects of human nature and therefore too careless to be given a leadership position.
In other cases, one can look back and see the ebb and flow of events. Economies go up and economies go down. I’ve lost count of the back and forth just in my adult lifetime, and although the current crisis is the worst during that period, I am, as with the Civil War, only once removed from the Great Depression my parents lived through and talked of. It’s not going to be pretty for awhile, but I’m not as fearful as some of the young commentators and bloggers I read. We’ll muddle through as people did in the 1930s and early 1940s.
Undoubtedly, today's young people think of my youth, all elders’ youth, as the “olden days.” Maybe that is what accounts for the plethora of news and opinion stories (worthless) advising President-elect Obama on how he should arrange his administration and what mistakes to avoid – as if they know what they’re talking about. They have so few previous presidents with whom to compare - only Bush 43 and perhaps some of Clinton - no other history yet to recall how it was before.
Nothing changes and so does everything. You know that when you become a dinosaur.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, a message for you.]