Posted by: JDM..... | November 6, 2009

The future of the universe as I know it

When I was sixteen, people of my current age had been born in the 19th century, an observation which gives me pause to ponder as I walk down the street, and to quietly editorialize about the potential relationship between the tattooed, baggy-drawered, steel-studded creature shuffling along in front of me and the future of the Universe as I Know it.

What will come to awe this young man who just spat on the pavement with excruciatingly accurate prediction of where my left foot is likely to be in precisely seven steps? What will he create, what will he change, and what will he destroy in the process?

My mother’s mother, watching television with the family as Neil Armstrong took the famous “one small step for man”, was awed by the fact that she had ridden to school in a horse drawn carriage and studied by the light of a whale oil lamp.  She was raised by an uncle who had been wounded at Port Hudson, Louisiana during the Civil War.

My father’s father was born before the automobile, before the first commercial electric power station was built, before Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated the first radio, and before the keel was laid for the USS Maine.

The United States had thirty eight states when my grandfather was born. The Statue of Liberty did not yet grace New York Harbor and the Sioux of South Dakota were still led by Sitting Bull. Wounded Knee would not occur until 1890.

When I was a child, we lived next door to an elderly widow and her spinster daughter. My sister and I called the widow “Auntie”. We visited often. She always had sweets for us. Auntie was born a year after Alexander Graham Bell came up with his first “telephone”, before Thomas Edison finished the model for his phonograph player, and a year before English physicist Sir Joseph Wilson Swan created the first practical incandescent light bulb which Edison later improved on and eventually got popular credit for “inventing”.

Like my father and his father before him, I have seen many things come into being during my brief lifetime, things that are now taken for granted or even long forgotten.

I was a “War Baby”, born during WWII. Franklin D. Roosevelt was President of the United States. The population of the country, which was 138,397,345 in 1944, has more than doubled to in excess of 301,000,000 people. I was a year old before the first computer was brought to life. It was named ENIAC, (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer,) stood two stories tall, and weighed 30 tons. I can carry more processing power in my shirt pocket today.

There were forty eight states in the United States when I started school. Alaska and Hawaii had not yet entered the union.

My earliest memories are of about 1947, the year television became available to the public for the first time. We didn’t have one until I was eight or nine years old. We listened to programs like Tom Mix, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, and Straight Arrow on the radio. The girl next door had an early television, though, and we would go to her house in the afternoon to watch Howdy Doody, Kukla, Fran and, Ollie, and Kate Smith. When the last show was over, the screen would show only a “test pattern”. When the broadcast day was over, the screen would go blank. Each broadcast day began with the National Anthem. Television was “live”. It was awkward at times, and mistakes were seen by all. Early performers came from the Radio field, and physical appearance was irrelevant.

My toys were made of wood, molded rubber, or stamped steel. Other than Bakelite, household plastics were unusual.

Our next door neighbor owned a car in the late Forties. It was a Ford “Woodie”, one of those station wagons with wooden sides. Most people did not own a car, or used one they had owned before the war sparingly. Gasoline was rationed, as were many household staples like sugar. We didn’t use butter. My mother bought “Oleo”, which she had to mix with a yellow dye to make look edible. When we needed to go somewhere, we walked, took a train, or waited until we could ride with someone who owned a car.

Roads were two lanes wide. The Interstate Highway System had not yet been conceived of, and a “major highway” might have a third center lane available for passing in either direction. Seatbelts were unheard of, even in race cars, and a driver would indicate the intent to turn or stop with hand signals out the window. Some cars still had running boards. Most still had flat, two piece windshields.

There were street vendors then. Some of them sold their wares from horse-drawn carts. Others used push-carts or bicycle powered wagons. The “Catnip Man” sold his product from a big bag he carried over his shoulder. He was ragged, and looked like a character out of a Dickens story. The Scissors Grinder would work his way up the street calling out his services. “Knives! Scissors sharpened!” Housewives would gather a few pieces and walk out to have them sharpened. There was a Fish Monger, Meat Man, and Vegetable Seller. I remember a Rag Man who would collect rags which he sold somewhere, probably for papermaking. There was an Iceman who parked his big stake truck loaded with blocks of ice by our house. Not everyone had an electric refrigerator yet, and required regular delivery of fresh ice for their “ice boxes”. The iceman wore a heavy rubber apron and shoulder protector. I remember his pulling a big block of ice from the truck with a large pair of tongs, slinging it over his shoulder, and walking hunched over under his burden down the Alley Steps next to our house to deliver his load to someone on the street below. My mother thought he was disgusting and didn’t like him. My puppy ran out and menaced him one day.

Our milk was delivered to the door by the Milkman. He wore a white uniform with a cap and always whistled. The metal milk crates in his big square truck, which he drove standing up, rattled loudly as he moved from house to house. The milk came in glass bottles with little paper caps. The cream was all at the top, and one had to shake the bottle to mix it before pouring. It was a treat to be allowed to pour the cream straight from a new, unshaken bottle onto my morning cereal. One could also buy orange juice, butter, and eggs from the Milkman.

Although jet airplanes were developed during WWII, most people didn’t hear of them until the 1950’s. Propeller driven planes were still the mainstay of Commercial air travel until after I was in high school and had my driver’s license. I had my first airplane ride in 1951 when the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where my father was to be a shop foreman at the Evendale General Electric Plant, making, ironically, turbines for jet engines. We flew there from Boston in a propeller driven TWA Super Constellation L-1049. My father returned to Massachusetts and drove back in our 1941 Ford.

I turned sixteen in 1960, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, before Lt. Col. John Glen became the first American to orbit the earth, before President F. John Kennedy was assassinated, before Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech and was later assassinated himself. 

I’ve seen a lot. Assassinations, wars, nations born, nations dismantled, troops in American streets during the early years of the Civil Rights movement. I’ve seen “Whites Only” signs in the south, and witnessed the “Tail Hook” behaviors at NAS Pensacola as a Student Naval Aviator during the 1960’s.

The world continues to change. I will see more during my brief existence, some of it wondrous, some of it evil. At my final accounting, I can only hope that I have managed to contribute to the former rather than the latter.

At some point in time, perhaps some emerging fountain of testosterone will spit in the path of my baggy-drawered co-pedestrian, and perhaps he’ll ponder similar things.





  1. We also had a bread man and a dry cleaning man, who sometimes stayed for dinner with us.

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