I was driving along a highway in New Jersey with my grandfather, telling him about my recent adventures in Baltimore learning about the War of 1812. Earlier, he had let me read a few sections of his memoir concerning his life growing up in the 1930s. Reading the stories, I grew uneasy with myself.
He could remember details from 70 or 80 years ago, and I can barely recall things I experienced in the mid-90s. What’s wrong with me? Too many happy hours, not enough note taking?
Taking a deep breath last night, sitting out and writing on the porch in the pleasant and mild evening, I realized that there was a very good reason my grandfather could remember more than I: Things have flat out changed dramatically in his lifetime.
Everywhere he looks, it’s different. Dishwashers and refrigerators, the Internet and the cell phone. Air travel, dating norms, inflation. As he would say, it’s a different ball game.
Compare that with my life, which is essentially the same as it was when I was growing up. Little things have evolved – no more compact discs, for example – but the major factors remain the same. The windshield wipers on my car have always been automatic and I still store my milk in the fridge. My theory is that as time passes and the world transforms, the memories will grow in significance, both personally and historically. As I sit here with my iPod, I can recall stories about my Discman. That recollection will make my generation laugh, but it will make the next drop their jaws.
It’s weird how things work out. As my mind swirled over this idea of change last night, I began working on my final thoughts on the recent War of 1812 tour that took me all over Maryland. I mentioned in a previous post that sometimes the battle between folklore and fact becomes frustrating for me – each historian seems to have a different interpretation of the same events. Every time you think you’ve wrapped your head around it, someone comes along and shares a different version.
I felt this two weeks ago as I was sitting at the Harris Crab House in North Grasonville, drinking a Red Hook and chewing on some soft-shell crab, looking out over the water (good spot if you’re a crab and beer fan – I’d recommend hanging out on the deck when the weather is nice). A historian was speaking about the specific battles that took place in the area, but I was trying to keep focused on the bigger picture, the things everyone can agree on.
One such thing: 2012 looks nothing like 1812. Although America was technically free at the time, we were still getting pushed around by the British, both politically and physically. Two hundred years later, as the United States stands as arguably the world’s strongest nation, it is easy to look back and immediately notice the individual (slavery, for one) and big-ticket items that are now different, including the transfer of world power from east to west.
I wonder if the British are impressed. They might not be happy about it, but they’ve got to be envious on some level, don’t they? We sort of flew on right past them.
This is the sort of realization that makes history fun for me – seeing how far we’ve come in such a short amount of time. Look elsewhere: Engineering, medicine, food production – we’ve come a long way, my friends.
It’s hard to imagine what we’ll look like in another two hundred.