Saturday, November 20, 2010

My Father's World

Had he lived, we would be celebrating my dad's 100th birthday this month. The world in which he drew his first breath was different than the world in which we live today. As was customary for the time, Dad was born at home in the small village of Browningsville, Maryland. Like his father before him, Dad grew up in the house in which his grandfather had also raised his children. In that house, which still stands today, water was pumped by hand from a well twenty or so feet from the kitchen door and carried to the house in a bucket. Hot water, for washing or doing dishes, was heated on a wood stove which also served for cooking, baking, and heat in the winter. As a boy, Dad's job was to keep both the water bucket and the wood box full. I would later perform the same functions for my grand parents who lived there for most of the 67 years of their marriage. In the winter, the downstairs was heated with wood and the upstairs with whatever heat escaped to it through the ceiling. On cold nights, sleepers would rest under two or three thick quilts while frost formed on the inside of the windows. The fire would die overnight, ensuring that one woke up to a cold house. Dad received his elementary education in a two-room schoolhouse build on land donated by his grandfather. For high school, he walked the three miles to and from Damascus. And, while not exactly up hill both ways, there is one significant summit at the midpoint. Dad became a farmer, a grower of tobacco, which was the money crop, and also enough wheat and corn to get the animals -- the horses and a flock of chickens -- through the winter. In the beginning, he worked the land using horses. He also planted enough potatoes for the winter and a sizable garden. Dad's first tractor, a 1940 John Deere model B, was useful for plowing, cultivating, and pulling stumps and other heavy objects but wouldn't go slow enough to pull the tobacco planter, so the horses, two big white Clydesdales named Harry and Jimmy, stayed around until 1949 when dad bought a John Deere model M. During his lifetime, Dad lived through two world wars, survived the great depression, witnessed the advent of the automobile, the telephone (and its evolution from hand-cranked monster to direct distance dialing), household electricity, indoor plumbing, radio, and television. He watched the airplane develop from an interesting toy to a means of transportation that eventually outpaced and ultimately doomed the passenger railroad. At age 61, he actually allowed himself to fly on one. And when the Concorde flew into Dulles International Airport for the first time, Dad was in his back yard in Frederick, MD. to watch it make its final turn inbound over the Frederick Airport. He told his young niece who was with him "You are seeing history," and she was. Dad saw the economy and his community change from agricultural to suburban and his land increase in value until it was no longer economically viable to farm it. Today, most of that land and area are grown over with ticky-tacky houses. The way of life Dad knew and lived has all but disappeared from the area in which he lived, all in less than 100 years. Growing up when I did and where I did put me squarely on the cusp of a lot of the changes I mentioned here. Although I was too young to work them, I remember the horses, and I really did learn to drive on a John Deere tractor! I remember how to split wood and keep the wood box full, and how to carry out the ashes. And I remember the warmth and comfort of sleeping under a pile of quilts with only my nose sticking out while frost forms on the inside of the windows. But I also remember the inconvenience of having to go outside to use the bathroom, and of heating water in which to bathe on a wood stove, and splitting and carrying wood, and stoking the fire for heat and a hundred other things that were normal parts of life at the time. There is a certain nostalgia involved. If I had to, I could live that way again, but I'm not sure that I would want to. Maybe, I'm getting soft. Or maybe, I am as much a man of my times as my Dad was of his. As my children observe my 100th birthday, I wonder what changes they will remark that I lived through. I look forward to being there to listen.