By Bill Doughty
My grandfather fought in “The Great War,” World War I – the one that was supposed to end all wars... He fought for Germany, and had a jagged scar from a French bayonet that went through his arm, shrapnel in his neck and scars on various other parts of his body.
He remembered the horrors of the trenches – the gas, the terror, the gangrene and the rats. A quiet, creative and spiritual man who before and after the war made a living as a chef in Europe and in the States, my grandfather was also physically very strong and powerful.
He and my grandmother escaped Germany after the war, just as the German economy imploded but, thankfully, before the Third Reich’s talons clawed out of the ashes.
So that they could start a family in the United States, free and safe, my grandparents had to say goodbye to their loved ones in Germany. In most cases it was a forever goodbye.
I was about 10 when my grandfather and I looked at his old black-and-white coffee-table-sized book about WWI. Now, you can find similar types of books, but with better photography, printed on better paper. They’re easy to find in the bargain section at Borders or Barnes and Noble, but in 1964 there were no such mega book franchises, and books were more valued and valuable, or so it seems.
Like today, in 1964 war raged in remote areas of the world, including in a place whose name we were all learning: Vietnam. It was the year the Beatles and the Ford Mustang made their debut in the U.S., plans were announced to build the New York World Trade Center, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.
But, this post isn’t about war and peace, per se, or about that big old picture book, or even about my beloved grandfather.
It’s about perspective.
In a way, it’s about our understanding of history, too.
I was born in 1954, the year the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation of schools was unconstitutional. It was also the year Tolkien published two of his Rings books, William Golding published Lord of the Flies, and Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
If I subtract my current age, 55, from the year I was born, we go back to 1899, the 19th Century! It was the year the Spanish-American War ended (our Senate ratified the Paris Peace Treaty by only one vote on Feb. 6, 1899), the Philippine-American War, also known as the Philippine Insurrection, started and Ernest Hemingway was born. Old Man and the... See?
Back another 55 years – 1844, the year the first telegram was sent, James Polk defeated Henry Clay and the Mexican-American War, though not officially proclaimed, was in full effect. One year later, 1845, the U.S. Naval Academy would be established, the U.S. would annex Texas and Frederick Douglass would ignite the anti-slavery abolitionist movement with his writings, fueled a few years later with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book Abraham Lincoln said helped start the Civil War.
Go back one more chunk of 55 years, and it’s 1789, the year of our first presidential election, in which George Washington was elected to the first of his two terms and John Adams became the first vice president – just 13 years after Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The point is not that I’m old (that’s besides the point)... Getting older gives you perspective.
So, now I imagine the perspective my grandfather had, his understanding of the world and history and the love he had for his adopted country. Like most American families, we enjoy our gifts of freedom because of generations who sacrificed so much.
It’s intriguing to consider some of the great thinkers in literature and science, using my own lifespan so far of (only) 55 years as a yardstick. Those authors’ voices don’t seem so far away. They seem more relevant and alive than ever.
Think how many advances there have been since 1789, 1844, 1899, 1954 – not just in technology but also in our understanding of the mysteries of the universe and the mind. These mysteries can sometimes be revealed in books, now with an even greater diversity of voices from which to learn.
As a nation we are still riding the wave of the Enlightenment and its direct effect: the beginning of the United States of America.
What will we say about 2009? Who can even imagine our world in 2064, 55 years from now?
Will we learn the lessons of the past? Or, as we read from Santayana and Huxley, are we condemned to repeat our history?
I wonder what my late grandfather would say. He and my grandmother certainly applied the lessons of history and, in doing so, provided a better world for their descendants.
Happy Father’s Day, Pop-pop.
Coming soon, an updated review of David McCullough’s 1776.