Last evening just before sunset my wife received a text message on her iPhone from her 82-year-old mother in Indiana. Her mother suffered a stroke just before Thanksgiving, is recovering slowly and is learning to deal with what looks to be permanent left-sided paralysis. It struck me as I watched my wife text her back how different the world has become in my lifetime.
I recall one afternoon when I was an undergraduate student sitting in the student lounge at Northern Kentucky University, watching as an “older lady” stood and stared dumbfounded at the row of vending machines which we affectionately referred to as “Vendville,” the only food service on campus at the time.
She was obviously perplexed by the operation of the machines. They were very modern compared to the vending machines usually found off campus, in that they had dollar bill slots instead of just coin slots. In addition, you had to make your selection on a keypad choosing the combination of letters and numbers that identified the product you wanted, rather than having a pull knob below each item like most machines at the time.
College, of course, is the place where you are inspired to observe and ponder the world around you, and I specifically recall wondering how old this lady was. Guessing her to be well up into her 70s, I figured that she had to have been born right around the turn of the 20th century. “No wonder she’s perplexed” I thought. Just think of the changes she’s seen in one lifetime.
People born in the early 1900s in most parts of Kentucky lived in the horse and buggy era. There were few homes with electricity, many more with gas lights, and, of course, food preservation was done by canning, salting or by using “fruit cellars” or ice boxes. Unless you lived in a city, odds are you had no telephone in your home and of course without electricity, no radio either.
Communication between people was done face to face. News of important events was shared by letters, and public dissemination of news was by printed newspapers.
Commerce was done with cash. There were no credit cards, personal checking accounts were unheard of, and living beyond your means was next to impossible because obtaining a loan was very difficult and usually required collateral.
As I made these observations about this woman and her dilemma, I recall thinking about what the world would have looked like when she was young. Moreover, I wondered what it sounded like.
We all know a lot of background noise that wouldn’t have existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Even the quiet fan noises from those vending machines, the near constant traffic noises you can hear even out in the country and, of course, the noise of airplanes overhead would not have invaded her young world.
Things would have smelled differently, too. Cooking was done on wood stoves in many places, so even in summertime the smell of wood smoke would have been common. Because there were so many horses in use, the smell of horses and their by-products would have been everywhere. And because bathing and personal hygiene were not as refined as today, people would have smelled differently, as well. Body odor, breath odor and the odor of ones surroundings would have been part of every greeting.
As I sat there contemplating all of those things, they truly passed through my mind in a matter of seconds. Then I got up and went into the vending area and asked her if I could help her. She accepted my offer, I negotiated the purchase with her dollar bill, and delivered to her the purchase and her change. She thanked me in a way only those sweet older ladies know how.
But now here we are, in the 21st century, the 20th century over a decade in the past, with an entirely different world view than the one I had as a teenage college student 40-plus years ago and than that of a lady whose life had seen so many changes.
My wife and her 82-year-old mother now exchange text messages on their iPhones in a matter of seconds, and you are reading this story on a computer that wouldn’t have even been available to you much more than 25 years ago, across an Internet that is changing every day.
Why do I mention these things? Sunday is Father’s Day and for those of you fortunate enough to still have your fathers around, take a moment between now and then to ponder the changes he has seen in the world in his lifetime. Take a minute to understand why he might be defensive of his world view in light of the vast change with which he has had to cope, and instead of just expecting him to enjoy whatever it is you have planned for him, ask him about the world he grew up in and then sit quietly and watch as he enjoys the chance to share his reminiscences with you.
College is a great place to observe and learn, but there might just be a living history lesson sitting on the couch this Sunday who would love to share his world with you, even if he has to tap it out on a cell phone key pad if the two of you can’t be together.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a regular commentary for KyForward.