This would have been my mother’s 115th year if she were still alive. She was born in 1898. She lived a long, and for the most part, healthy life, dying in 1990 at the age of 91. Even though she was born in the waning moments of the 19th century, my mother was very much a creature of the 20th, living all but her first year and a few days in that tumultuous century.
The United States of her childhood was a much different place from the one we know today. Over 60% of the people lived on farms in rural areas. By the time of her death, this had dwindled to 20%, and it continues to drop today as corporate agribusiness drives small farmers out of business and buys up their farms.
In 1898, the automobile was a curiosity, a toy for the very rich. But progress in automotive design was rapid, and five years later, cars were being produced by the thousands. By the mid-30’s, when I was born, most families owned at least one car. I bought my first car in 1953 when I was sixteen years old, and have owned at least one vehicle ever since.
The Wright brothers’ flight did not happen until my mother was nearly five years old, in December of 1903. But again, innovation was explosive, and by the beginning of WWI in 1914, airplanes were being used for both reconnaissance and attack.
A brief period of prosperity followed the end of WWI, but by 1930, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, a period that my parents suffered through, and which marked them for the rest of their days. My mother was an obsessively frugal person, a real believer in “waste not, want not.” I think this was a result of those years of poverty and hopelessness.
Commercial airlines, computers and travel to the moon were barely in the realm of wild speculation at that time. Development of aircraft continued, and by the time of WWII, commercial airline ventures were flourishing, and air power was a decisive factor in determining the outcome of that war.
The economic boom stimulated by the war continued in the post-war era. My parents were finally able to build their “dream house” and buy some much-needed farm equipment. But the marks of the Depression were still there. They would never borrow money to buy anything. If they couldn’t pay cash, they did without.
The end of WWII did not mean the end of conflict in the world, of course. The Cold War was upon us, with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The real wars in Korea and Vietnam, and many other brushfire conflicts continued the misery. The nuclear Sword of Damocles hung over everything…the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. This was the era of MAD…Mutually Assured Destruction. People built bomb shelters under their houses.
There were exciting things too, like the Man-in-Space program that culminated in the Apollo Moon Missions that put a man on the moon in 1969 when my mother was 70. I never asked her what she thought of that, but considering the contrast to the world she knew as a child, she must have found it almost unbelievable.
By the late 60’s, computers had emerged as a powerful new technology, but the real explosion of microelectronics had not happened yet. By the time she died, home computers were a common consumer product, and many other consumer products were microprocessor-controlled. As far as I know, she never owned or operated any kind of computer.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, 29 years after she had seen it erected. When she died in 1990, the United States was the dominant superpower, reigning over the world. My mother had seen our nation ascend from a second-rate power just flexing its muscles to become the dominant economic, military and cultural force on the planet. What a contrast from the early 20th Century, when we were still an agrarian nation, when our military was not strong, and the general attitude of the people favored isolationism.
Sometimes I am glad that she has not lived through the years since her death in 1990. For the most part, they have not been good years for the United States or for the people of earth in general. The Green Revolution and the explosion in world population, combined with continued economic development, has caused an accelerating decline in the life-sustaining resources of the earth. Rampant air, water and ground pollution with toxic chemicals, depletion of fossil fuel reserves, and the newer problems of ozone layer depletion and global warming have degraded the lives of many of the earth’s inhabitants, and threatened us all.
The rise of international terrorism, and the threat of nuclear terrorist attacks have placed a new Sword of Damocles over our heads, In many ways, it is more horrific than the Soviet threat that ended thirty years ago. The MAD era was characterized by nations who had the capability to destroy their enemies, but the result of such a war would probably be the end of human life on earth. I never felt as threatened by the Soviets as I do by the fanatical terrorists today, who view the annihilation of the human race, and even all life on earth as a desirable outcome. Their religious delusions lead them to believe that they will be rewarded in Heaven for their criminal acts. In the days of the Cold War, we assumed that we were dealing with rational leaders who did not wish to commit national suicide. Today, I fear we cannot make any such assumption.
I think my mother was fortunate. She saw the ascension of our nation to the heights, a global superpower, unchallenged in its hegemony. She did not have to witness, as I fear that I will, its decline, nor any of the global catastrophes that may await us on that downward path.