Originally published on Jan. 1, 2000.
About life in the first one-third of the 20th century I know only from hearsay. About the lives of the privileged-by-birth I know nothing at all, though I suspect they were no happier.
What’s sure is that the destinations of all lives finally are the same.
My father was a country man, born in the century’s second year. He passed his boyhood on a gullied hill farm in the far north of the state, and later would speak of winters so severe that snow tunnels had to be dug from house to barn.
As soon as age and circumstance allowed, Hugh fled that misery and passed nearly all his 70 years here in one town, serving but one employer, remaining married to the same woman until his last day.
It was a life pattern quite usual for men of his generation, although less common now.
My mother’s beginning was in the Ozarks, in what she liked to say was the only house with plastered walls in Texas County. She never spoke of snow.
What she remembered was the bitter season of her heart, when her mother died of food poisoning gotten at a church picnic. The grieving widower remarried, making then a family of five small children, of whom Dorothy was the only girl.
They moved then to Kansas City, and she was schooled here. In a drawer the other day I came across her “Memory Book” from her senior year at Northeast High School.
The writings in it are not perfunctory greetings but real letters from her friends, rich with detail and the accounts of shared adventures. The date of all of them is May 1922 — the last month of their last school year together.
Other saved things are taped or pasted in the pages: a locker key, gay bits of ribbon, pressed roses, a ticket to a Saturday whee at Electric Park, some Kodak snapshots — not too much faded — of herself with friends, her brothers, others not identified.
There is a savings passbook showing a single entry of 50 cents, March 16, 1917, deposited in what grandly proclaimed itself the “Only savings institution in Kansas City not closed during the panic of 1893.” Also play and concert programs; the wrapper of a Hershey’s Sweet Milk Chocolate bar, “More sustaining than meat.”
And this: a formal calling card inviting her to a social evening at 8 p.m. on September 13, 1921. The sender’s address, 601 Elmwood, is printed on the card. Hand-written, on the page it’s pasted to, is a brief, happy review of the event, “Lots of fun!! Oh Boy!”
Quite a touch, a card like that, for a lad recently in from the country. He would have been 19; she just eight days past her 17th birthday. That, evidently, was the beginning.
So much for borrowed history. The rest I lived myself.
The earliest memory is of a strange man bending to suffocate me with an evil smelling cloth — and parents allowing him to do it! A moment’s struggle. A sudden sleep. And waking then with the awful sore throat of a 4-year-old just separated from his tonsils.
Medicine in the 1930s was a primitive art. Many diseases were unnamed and undetected. Of the known ones, many could not be treated. People died of the commonest infections.
Veins filled and tumors grew without intervention. And for most of us, the X-ray machine was a device at the shoe store that would let you see your foot inside the shoe.
The mad were locked away for their own good. The human beasts who committed monstrous crimes were put to death for the general good, and hardly anyone questioned the rightness of that. Vagrancy was a crime, and drunkenness a moral defect, not an ailment.
Frances Willard School was just across our backyard fence and I could come home each day for lunch. I was left-handed, and smeared the page when I wrote in ink. The third-grade teacher smacked my hand each day with a wooden ruler, trying to make me change.
Because all the city’s schools were segregated by race then, I would be in my 20s and in the Army before I knew a black person to speak to, and that was very wrong, of course. But they could teach, those schools could — even the least advantaged ones — and they turned out accomplished graduates.
Many years later I had an older colleague and friend who’d taken his degree at a famous Ivy League university. He once told me that it wasn’t until his junior year there that he received instruction of the quality he’d gotten at Westport High School.
The days and the seasons marched in a predictable cadence.
In the morning, the paper was on the lawn and milk waited in bottles on the porch. The clop-clop of the bread man’s horse punctuated the middle day.
In the shank of afternoon, just as tired fathers came trudging up the long hill from the bus, you would be listening to the radio tell the adventures of Jack Armstrong and the Lone Ranger.
Later, crackling across the Atlantic from London, came the news of war. But if you were much too small for soldiering, and your father a bit too old for it, war was only a newspaper map with arrows showing the advance and retreat of armies.
The people in the house next to ours in the 5800 block of Park had a German name, spoke with a strong accent, and kept to themselves. Often a light could be seen in the basement window at some strange hour of night, and we were pretty sure he was a spy, down there with a short-wave transmitter sending secret messages to Berlin.
You dreamed away the open-window days of spring, waiting for an end to confinement in the classroom. The evenings grew languorous and long, and games could be played in the street because cars were not so many, or so fast.
Air conditioning was all but unheard of, so when the brutal fist of summer closed we bedded on blankets on the Swope Park mall with thousands of sufferers like ourselves. Then the days shortened, and school was for a little time a welcome novelty again.
A moment more and it was winter, but the rattle of coal sliding down a chute into the basement bin meant we were safe against the freeze, and the wonderful heat pouring up from the registers warmed hands and feet gone numb from sledding.
I’ve been appalled, in later life, by the way some giant corporations use people, then, with a terrible casualness, discard them.
The truth, though, is that the workers today enjoy more and better protections than my father ever did. He gave more than 40 years of loyalty to the same company — loyalty that was undeserved. During many of those years, especially when times in the country were hard, he was tormented by fear for his job.
Children understand little about family finances. But I can remember nights when I was small, listening from my bed as they counted out his week’s pay, dollar by dollar, according to the bills they had to pay. Sometimes, with the counting, there were tears.
For a time he worked a second job, loading freight cars outdoors at night in the rail yard in winter, not getting home until I’d been several hours asleep. Then, in the morning, he’d bend to wake me with a goodbye as he left for his day job.
In years when he felt safe enough to take the vacation he was due, he would point the old car north to Minnesota, an overnight journey, though only 400-some miles away. The roadside tourist cabin in Iowa had a bed, a cot, a table and two chairs, and a sign that said to leave the rent, $1, on the table.
Gas was 15 cents a gallon, sometimes less. The week’s budget for the trip, $10 a day.
One summer there came the great affliction of a new disease, poliomyelitis, whose common name was infantile paralysis — although it claimed adults as its victims, too. It was even more terrifying in its time than is AIDS today, because it could be transmitted without contact.
Crowds were feared. Theaters and swimming pools emptied. People stricken by polio lay in machines called iron lungs, struggling to breathe. If they lived, they were likely to be grievously disabled.
All this was before the century reached its midpoint. Then time accelerated.
Hugh and Dorothy, who never rode an airplane, lived to see men walk on the moon. To see polio and smallpox conquered, and hearts transplanted. To see information circle the world with the speed of thought. To see empires dismantled and the map changed by the determination of people to be free. And to see that same impulse begin to transform in a fundamental way the city in which they live.
I got older. I went away to college, and my parents helped as they could. And due in great part to their sacrifices, I have had the gift of an advantaged life.
It’s certainly been no better life than theirs, and not as courageous, but without question it has been easier. Isn’t that every generation’s dream, which makes the hurts the world inflicts along the way seem unimportant in the end?
I haven’t told this personal history believing that it is in any way remarkable. With some small differences in the details, it is the story of the families of nearly all my friends, and perhaps the story of yours.
Indeed, it is narrative shared in common by a great many of our countryfolk as the century draws to its close, and it provides the surest hope that the miracle will repeat in the century that lies ahead.