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Jack Smith

Fourth-graders get the personal touch in history as they go back to the times of one man's life

December 16, 1985|Jack Smith

I was interviewed about "my times" by a group of fourth-grade pupils the other day, and I was reminded of how much has happened since I was born, and of how much of what I have lived through is ancient history to them, as distant as the Civil War was to me.

They simply couldn't believe that when I was their age a Coca-Cola cost a nickel, or that we didn't have fast food.

They were from the Stephen S. Wise Temple Day School, and they had been well prepared for the interview by their teacher, Dr. Victoria Waller.

It was a project in oral history, and for weeks they had been reading selected columns of mine for events to ask me about. They had also gone to the library to look up important dates I had mentioned.

It was a thorough interrogation, and, as usually happens, I probably learned more about myself than they learned about me. (In the following Q. & A., my answers are not exactly as I gave them, but as I give them now, on second thought.)

The first question put me a bit further back in history than I go:

"The first phone call was in 1915. Did your family have a phone? If not, how did you communicate?"

As far back as I can remember, we had a telephone. Along with radio, it was one of the first wonders of this marvelous age.

"Did you have fast food?"

No, we didn't have fast food, except hot dogs and popcorn at the circus and the ball park. Imagine a world without McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell and Jack-in-the-Box!

"What words did you use in your day for cool people?"

My language has changed with the times, and I can hardly remember what words we used for "cool" people. In the first place, we didn't call people "cool." They were neat, or swell, or keen, or slick, or okey-dokey. I'm afraid the language of the school grounds was not very imaginative.

"What could you buy for $10 when you were 9 years old?"

I don't remember ever having $10 when I was 9 years old. But I know I could have bought a new suit for it, and I could have gone to the movies 100 times.

"What was the music like in the '20s and '30s? Did they have deejays then? Who was your favorite singer or group?"

We didn't have rock 'n' roll, for one thing. We had jazz, and we had pop music, mostly of a romantic nature. Rudy Vallee was very big, especially when he sang "I'm Just a Vagabond Lover." Bing Crosby was the greatest.

They had never heard of Bing Crosby!

"In the '20s you were 10 years old. Did you go to the movies? How much did it cost? Were they as good as they are today? Were there lots of movies to choose from? What were the themes of the movies? Were they rated?"

I usually went to the movies on Saturday afternoons. They cost a dime. We saw cowboy serials. The theme was always the same: The good guys won. They weren't rated. They were highly moral, and since I went to the movies more often than I went to church, I must suppose that my ideas of morality come from the movies. I doubt that a child could achieve my sterling character by going to the movies today.

"Barney Clark lived 112 days after receiving an artificial heart. How has medical history changed since 1930?"

I forgot to tell them that I had recently had a cardiac artery bypass, which is a kind of surgery that hadn't been attempted in 1930. But I did remember that we have developed penicillin since then and the vaccines that prevent infantile paralysis. Just those two are advances enough for one century.

"People hijacked trucks of liquor in the 1920s and 1930s. The first skyjacking was in 1961. The hijackings today are much more severe and people are hurt. How can we stop this problem? What did they do in 1920 to stop the trucks from being hijacked?"

I told them that I had no idea how to stop skyjackings, except by achieving peace among all nations, which seems impossible. We stopped the hijackings of liquor trucks by abolishing Prohibition.

"In 1947 you were a reporter. Jackie Robinson was the first black to play baseball in 1947. Did you write a story about him? How did people feel about a black playing baseball in those days?"

I don't believe that I ever wrote a story about Jackie Robinson, but, like almost everyone else, I admired him. Many people were angry when baseball let him in, especially in the South; I believe he even felt the resentment in Brooklyn, where he played; but he was a great athlete; almost everyone soon accepted him, and soon enough the ranks of professional sports were filled with many more superb black athletes.

"John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth. They've chosen the first teacher to go up in space. Would you like to be the first columnist to go into space?"

No. I love gravity too much.

"In 1954 were a lot of women working on the paper?"

As I remember, we had one woman reporter on the paper then, not counting the women in fashion, food and society.

Today we have many, and I think they're almost as big an improvement as getting rid of Prohibition.

In many ways the world is better.

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