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A lifetime of change, from WW II to wifi

Saxtons River

A year from now, I will have a milestone birthday. Perhaps I should have waited until then to write this essay, but then, as a friend of mine says, “Maybe I’m too old to buy green bananas.”

So I’m striking while the memory iron is hot — and because lately I’ve become aware of the momentous events I’ve lived through.

I’ve witnessed historic milestones, extraordinary innovations, and human actions that have awed the world and opened eyes wide to human potential, for good and for evil.

Like others in my age group, I have seen follies and foibles change the course of human history.

Here are just a few examples.

* * *

For context, I should say that I was born (a Jew) one month before the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto during Hitler’s Holocaust. I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was 13 and imagined myself, budding writer and believer in the human spirit, in the attic gazing at the sky while Nazi police cars screamed through the streets of Europe looking for people like me.

On the day I was born, the local newspaper ran ads for asbestos and Newsy Notes like this: “Miss Ruth Hutton entertained at her home Tuesday evening for a group of eight friends.” Casablanca was film of the year. Matrons ran ads seeking “reliable white woman for housekeeping.”

When I was in elementary school, the Nuclear Age having arrived, we learned to duck under our desks at the flash of white light.

My family got its first TV and a Touch Tone phone. My father bought his first Buick that wasn’t black. I wore “corrective shoes” and had my feet X-rayed whenever I needed a new pair.

No matter what was wrong with me when I was sick, Dr. Burkett (who made house calls) gave me a shot of penicillin.

Later, during high school, Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne, the Suez Canal crisis occurred, and fear gripped the nation over the Cuban missile crisis.

Everyone loved Jack and Jackie Kennedy, who had brought us Caroline, John-John, and Camelot. Girls took home ec while boys went to wood shop. We learned that “nice girls” didn’t “do it” and then the Pill was invented. So was the polio vaccine.

In college, girls studied to become teachers, nurses, or secretaries while hoping to earn an M-R-S degree. When we graduated, those of us who weren’t prepared to teach or nurse checked the classified ads for “Females Wanted” and ended up being “Girls Friday.”

* * *

It was during this time that the civil rights and women’s movements began to matter and that people started the massive anti-war protests which ended the Vietnam War.

Washington, D.C., turned into a police state, the Kent State shootings happened, and Americans worried that there was no more future. People like Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Howard Zinn, Gloria Steinem became familiar to us.

The assassinations happened: JFK, RFK, MLK Jr.

So did Watergate. Nixon resigned.

The Berlin Wall came down. The AIDS pandemic rose up. War in the Balkans brought back memories of the Holocaust and genocide took place in Africa, even though we had declared, “Never again!”

The wedding of the century took place before our eyes, and then our beloved Diana was killed in a Paris car crash, reminding us of the other princess who died too young in a car, too.

Computers were invented, cell phones became ubiquitous, kids left us in the dust with their aptitude for texting, sexting, and IM-ing in a post-email IT world.

Airplanes got bigger and faster (the Concorde having come and gone). Cars morphed into SUVs and then hybrids. And in some countries at least, mass transit took off with slick high-speed trains and ferries that skim across the water like flying boats.

The warnings of Rachel Carson went unheeded. “Climate change” became the unheeded mantra of worried environmentalists.

* * *

The towers fell, and the Age of Terrorism began. America did things we never thought possible as a nation, things like extraordinary rendition and Abu Ghraib.

In our finer moments, we elected our first black president and made possible the election of a woman to the highest office(s) in the land. Then, sadly, political fault lines burst into major fissures, and our political system, along with nearly-collapsed economic and institutional structures, no longer seemed viable.

China prospered, seduced by the promises of capitalism. Arab Spring happened. Peace in the Middle East did not. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued; our fragile partnership with Pakistan may not.

We live, as always it seems, in fragile times. I remember them all as if they had happened yesterday.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #146 (Wednesday, April 4, 2012).

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