Aside from counting years, how do we know when and if we have become old?
There are many possible standards that might be applied to answer this
somehow important question about ourselves.
I like to think of myself as being ‘˜older’ but not yet ‘˜old.’ The measures are varied
and include 1) What I see when I look in the mirror; 2) My own changing
capacities, understandings and preferences; 3) An admittedly embarrassing shift
from looking at the front section of the morning paper first to glancing through the
obituaries to see if I knew anyone listed there and, generally, to survey the ages
of the newly departed, and 4) The growing list of things I grew up with and used
that have become museum-like anachronisms.
The latter category is probably easiest to describe, so here are some of the
things that were either important or trivial objects in my life that have passed into
those not-always-so-golden but somehow fondly recalled memories of
– The Dial Telephone.
The home phone was black (always), quite heavy, wired to the way and had a
dial that required a manual twisting of the hand with finger firmly inserted in each
circular opening that accompanied each several letters and a number. As a
youngster, our phone service was what was called a Party Line. We shared a
single line with two other households. The number of rings (yes, the phone
actually make a ringing sound) determined which household on the Party
Line the incoming call was for.
There was but one telephone in each home and the access of children to it was quite limited.
– The Slide Rule.
There was a time still in clear (adult) memory before there were
cheap, ubiquitously available, hand-held electronic calculators.
I recall the first one I saw. My employer bought one the earliest ones made, I
believe, by the company then called Texas Instruments. It cost him about $100.
That was quite a lot of money back in 1974 or so,
Before that, People actually had to know how to do calculations manually (yes,
paper, pencil and arithmetic skills that were one taught routinely in school) and,
for more complex computations, a device called a Slide Rule. Somewhere
between a foot and 18 inches ling, it looked like an oversized ruler with multiple
scales, a middle section that could slide from side to side with a see-through
plastic sliding component with a line down the middle of it.
Every math student was expected to master one. I never did. They were actually
worn in holsters on the belts of engineering students, marking them, along with their plastic shirt
pocket protectors, as “nerds.”
Personally, I was slightly more proficient with an abacus. (An ancient counting
device used by sliding beads across parallel bars or strings.)
– The Typewriter:
I was taught how to type (what we once called word-processing) on a manual
typewriter. It used an inked ribbon that needed to be replaced every so often and
was black on top and red on the bottom. A control key allowed shifting colors.
The manual Smith Corona I had as a high school student was painfully
unforgiving. It was not possible to neatly or unnoticeable correct mistakes.
Smudges marked the work of even an experienced typist, as did uncaught
misspellings and grammatical errors.
Within a few years, electronic typewriters became more common but were, by in
large, plug in versions of the manuals. The most important difference was that
the keys could be struck with less force. Only with the development of the IBM
Selectric line, did things really seem to change. They allowed for backspace and
correction using a plastic white tape and offered a variety of fonts, each complete
on a small ball which needed to be changed manually whenever a different font
I loved the Selectric and in the early years of personal computers, I kept one
under my desk “just in case.” I believed that machine to be true state-of-the-art
and was unable to imagine anything more technologically useful for a writer.
– A World without Spell-Check:
Yes, before word processing programs were common and somewhat refined,
people actually either had to know how to spell and/or to be able to utilize a
bound volume we called a Dictionary. Of course, there were limitations. I found
it often difficult to find a word I did not know how to spell as words in a dictionary
are listed in sequence according to their correct spelling.
Suffering from the bad habit of being a phonetic speller (spelling words the way
they sounded to me ‘” a particularly lethal situation for a Bostonian!), spell-check
was and still is a real value-adding feature to my life and work! Not only does the
word appear in red if I misspell it, but a right click will give me the correction I
– Cars that Could be Maintained by the Owner:
One upon a time, automobiles were reasonable simple machines. In and of
itself, the basic internal combustion engine is neither difficult to understand or
maintain. What sits under the hood of a modern car bears little obvious
resemblance to the cars we drove in the 1950s and 1960s.
They were essentially devoid of all but the most rudimentary electronics.
Maintaining a simple (flat head six-cylinder) car engine involved 1) changing the
oil every so often, 2) changing the spark plugs and points about once a year,
and 3) replacing the gasket covering the valves, then changing the brake fluid
and the windshield wiper blades as needed. Other that keeping an eye on tire
wear and replacing the battery when they died that was pretty much it.
All of that could be done in the driveway at home, except sometimes for the oil
change if you had no way to dispose of the old oil. In that case, getting it done at
what we referred to as a ‘˜service station’ was necessary. Being a clearly
untalented person in the mechanics department, even I was able to uninstall and
replace a dead thermostat mounted on the front of the engine block.
Short of major mechanical repairs to the engine or transmission, that was how
most people maintained their automobiles.
– Air Travel as a Luxurious Treat
It felt special to be a passenger on a commercial airline. The people we once
called “Stewardesses” smiled and were helpful. They brought meals that were
included in the price of the ticket. Passengers could order from a menu of a
dozen types of meals including Vegetarian, Kosher, Chicken Beef or Pasta
among many others.
There was much more leg room and the modern ‘˜cattle car’ experience was
years in the future. Even flying bargain red-eye charters cross-country as an
impoverished college student, included the amenities I have mentioned and a
good deal more. Commercial flying has clearly become a good deal less special.
The list could go on and on. The value of money and the prices of things.
(Gasoline was 25 cents a gallon when I began to drive and a standard candy bar
was a nickel. A pack of cigarettes ‘” of course before the tobacco companies told
us they would kill us ‘” was 25 cents for unfiltered and 27 cents for filtered ones.)
The way people dressed. We would never go downtown (into the City) without
getting dressed up. Blue jeans that were once called dungarees, were not
permitted in school, nor were tee shirts or the tennis shoes then known as
sneakers, except of course, on gym days.
Even in lower working class neighborhoods, when there were two parents, the
mom stayed home.
So much has changed.
Men had not been into space, let alone on the moon. The enemy-in-wait was
always the Russians, Presidents were caring and capable people worthy of our
respect, parents were generally obeyed, Policemen stopped cars at intersections
children had to cross on their way to school and summer was always hot and
Many of the changes are welcome, but others are missed with a sense of loss of
somethings about our culture that are forever relegated to history. I suppose that
recalling these things they way I do reaffirms the notion that I am older ‘” at
least. And you?