Like many I’ve been eagerly following Julian Fellow’s newest offering, The Guilded Age. I am fascinated by the values, manners, costumes and customs of the times. In some ways the era was somewhat like our own present times in that there was great industrialization and innovation that created unbelievable wealth that fueled conspicuous consumption among the lucky few. It is a fascinating moment in our history that coincides with the youth of my grandfather, William Mack Little.
While Astors and Vanderbilts were enjoying the luxuries of their wealth most Americans were still living simply and sometimes even struggling to survive. My grandfather famously told of stories of his childhood and the times when he ventured out on his own to tackle the world. He remembered Coxey”s Army traveling through his town on its way to Washington D.C. to protest the poverty that haunted the lives of so many citizens. He recited stories of people he knew whose families were starving from lack of work. He described the almost primitive lifestyles that were still very much a way of life for most Americans. He spoke of living in a house with no glass windows and preserving food by smoking meats and canning vegetables. At the same time Grandpa was fascinated by the many innovations that came to fruition during that same Guilded Age.
I was watching one of the episodes of the television program when they featured a lighting ceremony by Thomas Edison. The magical feel of the moment almost brought me to tears as I recalled my grandfather describing his own first experience with seeing electric lights along a street. To him it was akin to traveling in space. It was almost magical and something over which he would continue to marvel for all of his life. When he spoke of it his face lit up with both joy and admiration. He knew from the first time that he saw the wonder of electric street lamps that the world around him was changing in ways that would ultimately benefit us all.
My grandfather was a great optimist. He saw the transition to the modern era as something to be celebrated. He was not envious of those who became wealthy from their ingenuity, but instead marveled at their contributions that changed the world of his childhood so dramatically. He was almost giddy as he ticked off the wonders of the inventions that had come to be during his lifetime. His favorite saying was that “these are the good old days.” He had no desire to backslide to an earlier time. She saw progress and change as something both inevitable and necessary. He embraced innovation with enthusiasm.
Grandpa realistically understood that even with all of the great changes that had come to pass we were still far from being a perfect society, but he was a living testament to the incremental improvement of the world that he had experienced in his one hundred eight years on this earth. While he saw things that would have been unbelievable when he was a boy he did not live long enough to enjoy the explosion of technology that has continued the upward trend of innovation in the last many years.
I feel certain that he would have delighted in having a computer on his lap that would allow him to draw on all of the knowledge included on the Internet. He would have been excited to have a phone that allowed him to contact people wherever he happened to be and do many other things as well. I smile at the thought of discussing the benefits and new jobs created by the creative minds of people around the world. I expect that all of it would have made him giddy.
My grandfather never made a great deal of money. He spent his lifetime moving constantly to find construction work. Only twice did he settle down enough to purchase a home. My grandmother’s death from cancer before the advent of Medicare literally depleted all of his saving at a time when he was in his eighties. For the next thirty years he would live in a rented room with an income that took him from one monthly check to the next.
One might suspect that he would be a bit bitter or envious of people who created vast pools of wealth, but the exact opposite was true. He instead counted his good fortune of living in a sturdy house with heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. He enjoyed driving his car instead of a horse and buggy. He appreciated his refrigerator more than anyone I have ever known. He never lost his joy of having a television or hearing broadcasts on the radio. He looked into the sky when a plane flew over with a sense of awe. He took nothing for granted because he had witnessed the before times. He would have laughed at a slogan wanting the Make America Great Again because he believed that the right pathway was always to look forward, not backward.
During these difficult times I find comfort remembering my grandfather. He taught me to look for the good around us, because he believed that it was always there. He saw the future as a wonderful place to be because in the grand scheme of things we humans always find ways to make things better. He was the consummate optimist who had once lived in darkness illuminated only by the flickering flame of a candle. He had seen the light that first time he walked down a street lit by Thomas Edison and knew at that moment that we humans do more good things than bad. For him life was a wonder as it now is for me. What a great gift he gave me!