There was a time when I believed that the first twenty years of the twentieth century were boring, a bit of a snooze. I have since become wildly fascinated with that time in history because it was responsible for perpetuating so many changes and problems that are affecting us even to this very day. Learning more about my grandparents has also enlivened my interest in this particular time because it ultimately had such a profound influence on me.
As children all four of my grandparents grew up in homes without plumbing or electricity. Neither of my grandmothers had enough education to know how to either read or write. At the dawn of the twentieth century they were both still wearing long dresses that modestly covered their legs, and women in the United States did not yet have the right to vote.
My European grandparents were subject to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a conglomerate so vast and diverse that ruling it was unwieldy, leading to laws that prohibited the use of their native tongue and culture. Life in Slovakia was difficult but moving to the United Sates of America brought the promise of possibilities. Thus my grandfather bought a one way ticket to Galveston, Texas on a steamer that he boarded in Hamburg, Germany only a couple of years before the outbreak of World War II. What an adventure that must have been!
After working on all sorts of odd jobs, scrimping and saving every penny, and living all alone in a boarding house near present day Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston he was able to send for my grandmother. The two of them worked in the fields of a farm near the Houston Ship Channel and in the wooded forests near Beaumont just as oil was being discovered.
The little country of the United States that was still somewhat of a joke to the powers in Europe was on the move with an industrial revolution and an inventive spirit that thrust the United States into the modern era. Towns were being lit by Mr. Edison’s marvel known as electricity and two brothers had flown a plane for the first time in North Carolina. Mr. Ford was making cars affordable for the common man and people were marveling at having running water and working toilets inside their homes. It was an exciting time when the sleepy giant known as America was waking up and stretching its limbs.
My paternal grandparents were both working in Oklahoma where oil and almost free land was luring people from all parts. They would meet each other in a boarding house crowded with people seeking a living and, if lucky, even riches. Wild and crazy places like Tulsa and Houston were booming at a time when everyone seemed to be on the move in search of something.
Back in Europe the winds of war and revolution were blowing ominously in ways that would ultimately change the face of not just that country but places as far away as the Middle East and Africa as well. By 1914, everyone was honoring alliances and choosing sides in a battle that was supposed to end all battles once and for all. Modern warfare reared its ugly head producing weapons more terrible than anything ever before seen.
In the middle of it all the Communist revolution unseated the Czar of Russia and locked the world into an idealogical and political battle between Communism and Capitalism that continues to this day. My Slovakian grandfather was said to have been eternally grateful to be safe in Texas rather than locked into a lifestyle that would have limited his options and those of his children had he stayed in his native country.
In 1918, the world experienced one of the worst outbreaks of influenza in history. Research into the disease did not lead to a cure in time to save the millions who died, but would create a better understanding of how such diseases are spread and lead to the discovery of antibiotics that would help to stem the tide of future outbreaks.
By 1920, women in the United States finally had gained the right to vote. Along with this victory came short skirts and other once unimaginable freedoms. Their homes began to fill with modern conveniences and appliances that made daily routines easier to perform. Radios provided instant news from the world and travel became available to even the common man and woman thanks to Mr. Ford.
In the meantime the treaty agreed upon at the end of World War I created unresolved problems across the globe that still echo in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, not to mention much of Europe. The United States was seen as less of a backwater nation and more of a possible partner in world affairs, and the spirit of innovation accelerated along with an emphasis on more universal education for both men and women.
The stage was being set in motion for my parents to be born and to live far more prosperous lives than their parents had ever known. The city of Houston continued to attract men and women with a pioneering spirit and a willingness to take audacious risks. It was not the boring and quaint time that I once imagined it to be, but in fact was exciting and bursting with some of the most important changes that humankind had ever known.
We often hear the men and women of the World War II era being called “the greatest generation” but there is great evidence that those who navigated the first two decades of the twentieth century like my grandparents may well have been even better. They were members of the transitional forces that led the way to modernity, unafraid to enter brave new worlds.
My Grandpa Little often spoke of experiencing the wonders of that era firsthand. He recalls seeing a city lit up with lights for the very first time. He remembers the first radio broadcast that he ever heard. He brags that he went from a tiny home with no plumbing and no electricity to using a television in the comfort of his home to view a man walking on the moon. He did this all in a single lifetime.
I sometimes wonder if the first twenty years of the present century will bring the same sense of awe to future generations. What is happening now that will still have an impact on the world in a hundred years and will we be remembered for being creative and courageous? Sometimes I fear that we are guided more by a tendency to cling to the past than a willingness to imagine the future. Only time will tell if we possess the same can do spirit that so defined the first years of the modern age .