Generation passes one birthday at a time

Topeka Capital-Journal.
March 21, 1997

Yesterday, March 20, was the first day of spring, and you remembered. It also was my birthday, and you forgot. At least you didn’t send me a present, or even a card, which is nothing new. Even my family, especially my children, make it a point to forget my birthday because they have built up this myth that I never remembered theirs.

I didn’t forget my birthday. I spent 10 minutes or so feeling sorry for myself, or maybe another 10 thinking of all that has happened since that night in Oakwood, Okla., when Leona Frances Snider presented her husband, Daniel William, with their third son.

They named him Richard, for no good reason, and then, following the unwritten rule of the church at that time, gave him the name of a Saint. They chose Stephen, for St. Stephen the Deacon, the first martyr, who was stoned to death, probably for writing a column critical of lawmakers.

Although I never have used it, the name turned out to be appropriate, because I have been dodging stones hurled by editors and readers much of my life.

When I think back, I am amazed by all that happened in my lifetime, not to me personally, but to mankind. Folks in my generation like to say we have seen it all, but we’re smart enough to realize the younger generations are correct when they say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Strictly speaking, a generation is the time it takes children to replace their parents, or about 30 years. But loosely speaking, it is all the people born at a particular time, and it goes on until there is none of them left to talk about “my” generation. It is in the latter sense that I say if you were born in the 1920s, you have watched an awesome parade.

For one thing, I saw my first silent movie in Cheyenne, Wyo., when my dad took me there from our home in veteran, some 40 miles away. The movie was, “Fireman Save My Child” starring Joe E. Brown. Today we get talkies in our living rooms. Our first cars had two handles on the steering post, and they weren’t for the headlights and wipers. They were “Spark” on the left side and the accelerator on the right. There were three pedals on the floor – one to go forward, one for reverse and one for the brake.

I remember the first time I drove a car with a gear shift, the first with an automatic transmission, and my first adventures with power steering and brakes, and power windows, locks and seats. Today most cars are “loaded,” like most car salesman used to be.

Our generation has seen air travel go from open-cockpit biplanes to high-wing monoplanes, and then take the giant step to “all-metal” planes, replacing wood and fabric, and the smell of banana oil. We’ve seen jet engines make distance almost meaningless.

Much of our generation was born to outhouses, at home and at school, so we have special memories of our first indoor facilities. Now we marvel the designer bathrooms, when once we thought we’d seen it all with hot and cold running water, and a flush toilet, inside the house.

Every generation can boast of a war in its time, or at least a mini war, when some president wanted to act tough, but in our time, we had World War II, Korea and Vietnam, plus Desert Storm and the Cold War. In our span we created the A-bomb and the H-bomb, missiles to carry them around the world, and to carry men to the moon.

When we were born, there were few golf courses in the world, and most of them were for members only. Blacks? Forget it. Younger generations probably don’t fully appreciate Charlie Sifford, Jim Dent and Tiger Woods, but we do.

Our generation made mistakes, and maybe the biggest started in 1950 when President Truman sent 35 military advisors to South Vietnam. Three presidents after him poured in men and money, and in 1969 our forces peaked at 543,000. Soon after that we gave up, pulled out and the last of our 58,000 known dead came home.

But, on the other hand, give us credit for air conditioning, plastics, computers, frozen foods, penicillin, and the Salk vaccine. Blame us for organized crime, terrorists, street gangs, drugs, income tax, career politicians and AIDS.

What later generations will see is uncertain. It’s getting to the place where if the country needs a good war to straighten it out, finding a worthy opponent may be difficult. But don’t despair. If necessary, we’ll arm some country to the teeth and then invade it.

Meanwhile, relax and enjoy what we gave you: country music; Elvis, Sinatra and Tony Bennett; John Wayne, light beer, the final four, the Super Bowl, the Interstate highway system, mutual funds, fast food, slow motion, transplants, televised religion, spray paint, hairspray and (sigh) women golfers.

And to think you didn’t remember my birthday.

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