NOW… AND THEN… Elizabeth Willis Barrett February 24, 2011
I remember asking my mom probably on more than one occasion: “Did you live in the olden days?” I haven’t asked it lately, of course, but only when I was little and thought the world was made up of “now” and “the olden days.” She would look at me a little quizzically and not answer for a minute. I wonder if in Cleopatra’s time little girls asked their mothers if they lived in the “olden days”. Actually, since my mother’s family had a horse and sleigh, I still think that she lived in the “olden days.” But as I consider the massive changes that have come in my lifetime, I guess my era could be called the “olden days,” too.
When I was in high school—which was a very long time ago, although it really doesn’t seem long at all—I distinctly recall thinking to myself or idiotically saying out loud, “Everything that is ever going to be invented must have already been invented because there can’t be anything left to invent.”
That statement could have really put me in the loony bin. I don’t think I’m the only one who has ever thought it, though. For instance, “someone” said that years ago they were going to close down the patent office because they thought everything had already been invented. (I think I will Google that statement just to make sure I’m not leading anyone astray. That’s something I couldn’t have done while I was in High School, even if it was the fabulous Westwood High School of Mesa, Arizona. No one could have Googled anything back then. And now that I’ve Googled that particular patent office concern, I have found out that it is another of those tales that just gets bigger with the telling. The person who didn’t say "Everything that can be invented has been invented" was Charles H. Duell. So, no one was ever going to shut down the patent office. That’s good to know.)
There have been many inventions since the 60’s that have made life considerably easier and their usefulness has not been wasted on me.
For instance: copy machines. We didn’t have copy machines. If we needed several copies of something, we would have to very painstakingly type it onto a ditto master. Type it, I said. With a typewriter. If you made an inevitable mistake, you would have to scrape it off the back with a razor blade. By the time you were done, you seriously considered using the blade on your wrists. Sometimes you would type your document on the wrong side and then the whole thing would come out backwards. That could send you into depression for a very long time. At least for as long as it took for you to type it all over again and finally fit it onto the ditto machine, turn the handle, and end up with your copies—purple-inked copies. As Westwood’s Student Body Corresponding Secretary Treasurer, I had many opportunities to use the ditto machine. A computer would have made such a wonderful difference. I could have fulfilled my calling with much more precision and professionalism. It’s a good thing I didn’t know back then about the ease that computers would bring. I think I would have sat in that Student Council room and waited for them to be invented and widely used.
I have made a hundred mistakes in this essay already but with my fabulous “now” laptop, they have been very simple to correct. (Wish my errors in life could be corrected so easily.) And when I want copies, I just hit “print” and stand by the printer and out they come. Perfection!
We only had one phone in our house—a black, heavy device with a rotary dial that sat expectantly on a bookcase by the stairs. Because it was connected by a short cord, multitasking was nearly impossible unless you wanted to dust the bookcase or organize the books for the thousandth time. A long call might get me down on the floor with my feet up on the shelves, but usually the phone user would just stand. When the phone rang my brothers would call out “hostler” which meant: “I choose not to answer the phone, so you’ll have to.” I don’t think I was ever very fast with my “hostler” call so I answered the phone quite a bit. There was no caller ID, no call waiting, no phone messaging. And we had party lines so if our neighbor was using his phone, we’d have to wait for his long conversation to be over before we could use our phone. Our ring was two quick ones. His ring was one long.
If I could have envisioned what was to come in phones, I would have been ecstatic. I would have prayed fervently that I could live long enough to enjoy the magic of driving down the road while conversing with my friends or having a phone tell me how to get to the Scottsdale Goldwater’s store. The ability to text someone a message wasn’t even a glimmer on the horizon. And who then could have imagined that you would be able to raise a phone to the night skies and be told the names of the constellations?
Once in high school I went to a slumber party at Becky Sharon’s house. She had a record—a record is a black disc-like thing that was played on a record player, in case you didn’t know—that played a horse race with several outcomes. You’d try to guess which horse would win. I don’t know how it worked, but that a record could play something different each time it went around was amazing to me. Now look at the video games and computer games that you can manipulate. They are astounding!
In my youth, our family TV was small and boxy. Our one TV. I didn’t even know anyone who had more than one. You could get four channels: 3,5,10, and 12. If you weren’t right there at 7: 00 p.m. on Thursday night to watch Donna Reed, you certainly couldn’t Tivo it or even record it on a VHS tape. Our family didn’t have a TV for a long time. My dad always said we’d get one when they came out in color. I thought that meant when the case around it was in color, which I didn’t think mattered much unless you were really into decorating consciousness. Well, we did wait until they came out in color but ours was black and white. It had rabbit ears that you had to keep adjusting to make the picture clear enough to watch. Once in a while the weather or some other interference would shut down all the channels. If you wanted to change one of those channels, you got up and changed it, of course. You didn’t look around everywhere under cushions or in end table drawers for a remote.
Mom used a wringer washer for years and then would hang the clothes out on the line. Sometimes my job would be to iron the pillowcases and Dad’s handkerchiefs. For the boys’ Levis (we did not call them jeans) Mom would put wire forms in the washed legs and then hang them out so they wouldn’t have to be ironed. Some people ironed their sheets, but since there was always enough ironing to be done, we skipped the sheets. Every Friday each of us would take the top sheet from our bed and use it as the bottom sheet, getting a clean top sheet from the linen closet. I don’t think fitted sheets were invented then. The process wouldn’t have worked with fitted sheets.
We didn’t have a crock pot, a microwave or a dishwasher. We always ate breakfast and dinner as a family and after each meal, my two older brothers and I would decide how the dishes would be done by calling out “clear up,” “wash”, or “dry.” Tim always yelled “clear up” and I would quickly call out “dry.” Rick would usually end up with “wash.” It took us a while to realize that washing is what Rick preferred so he didn’t have to hurry calling his preference. Neither Tim nor I ever chose “wash.” When Ron and Maxine were old enough to help, Rick and Tim were too busy for dishes. I ended up having to clear up and wash, while Ron and Maxine shared the drying. If you divided all the dish washing procedure into 6 parts, then I was doing 4 parts, while each of them only did one part. I wasted a lot of emotions on that perceived unfairness. I don’t know if a dishwasher would have helped or not.
What else didn’t we have? Hmmmm. We didn’t have seatbelts, in-line skates, four wheelers, Ipods, Ipads or Costco. Come to think of it, we didn’t even have Wal-Mart.
We didn’t have Blogging or Facebook, that’s for sure. If I had wanted you to know the contents of this essay, I would have had to call each of you one at a time while standing by our bookcase attached to our corded phone and read it to you. Or maybe I could have mailed you each a copy with the help of a 5 cent stamp.
I suppose there will be no end to inventions. They will make life for our Grandchildren and Great Grandchildren considerably different from ours. And one day these children will most likely look back even to this present time and reflect, “Yep, those were definitely the olden days.”