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Untapped Resource: the Aging Are Often a Built-in History Book

February 11, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

Frequently at social gatherings, talk gets around to something that happened in the past, and the speakers are quoting books and secondary sources, and it hits me with a real jolt that I was there. I saw or heard it happen. My own recollection is a primary source of history.

That point was brought home to me vividly a few weeks ago after a long and rich conversation with James Roosevelt, the eldest son of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I pressed him eagerly for details of what went on behind the scenes at historical events to which he was privy, and when I left, I was rolling them about my mental palate, tasting them against my own recollections of the same period.

And once again it occurred to me powerfully that not only my own memories but those of all people who have attained my age form a resource that is seldom tapped in this frenetic time of living strictly in the present. This, more than anything else, may set Americans off from older cultures:We tend not to learn from our mistakes, nor to cast our present within the often useful perspective of the past.

We were looking recently with some friends at pictures of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the Hotel del Coronado when I realized suddenly that they were contemporaries of mine. I huddled with my family around a console radio and listened to the halting, lisping abdication speech over the whistles and screeches of an overseas transmission. Live, by God. The real thing.

In front of the same radio, I almost missed Joe Louis' knockout of Max Schmeling because it happened so fast. It astonishes the young person in my household today when I tell him that I preceded not just television but commercial radio. I used to build crystal sets in my garage, one of the few technical things I ever mastered. I listened to the reports of Charles Lindbergh's landing in France on one of them--and a few years later to the kidnaping of his son.

I found the body of a neighbor who committed suicide after the 1929 stock market crash, and I saw bread lines--thousands of U.S. workers with blank eyes shuffling into soup kitchens for enough food to keep alive. I find it impossible to explain the Great Depression to anyone who didn't experience it. Without question, it has influenced many of my attitudes ever since. Yet, even during the recent collapse of the market, I found very little interest in probing those times for insights that might be useful in the present.

I heard F.D.R.'s Fireside Chats and his "day of infamy" speech. I saw the U.S. 7th Fleet assembled off Okinawa, the most awesome panorama I have ever seen. And I saw kamikazes circling lazily overhead, human bombs selecting a target that would immortalize the soul of the pilot. I saw the immense storehouse of supplies on Manus Island in the Philippines that were to be used for the invasion of Japan that never happened because the atomic bomb was dropped.

I rode on a Senate subway with a pleasant young Massachusetts senator named John F. Kennedy. I spent an afternoon in the sprawling suburban home of Adlai Stevenson, talking with him privately for an hour, then listening to him ad lib a speech on education at the opening of a new local high school that was the most breathtaking example of intellectual grasp and spellbinding oratory I have ever heard.

I watched then Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy court the press over several years at a Florida resort in which my family was allowed accommodations because we went there before it got famous.

I drove to the West Coast when there were no paved roads, and the journey was delayed dozens of times while road builders set off great charges of dynamite through the northern Rockies. I saw Huey Long and Father Coughlin and Billy Sunday and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Red Grange and Jack Dempsey and Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and F.D.R. So great was F.D.R.'s charisma in those pre-TV days that a whole generation of us grew up without knowing that he was crippled. We simply didn't look beyond that ebullient spirit.

Each one of us is a built-in history book that goes mostly unread. Maybe it has been ever thus. James Roosevelt said that the lack of curiosity among young people today about his own past was probably paralleled by his own lack of curiosity about the Civil War when he was young. I'm not sure that's true. I think he's being too generous to the Me Generation.

I can remember vividly the disappointment I felt at not being able to talk to my mother's father about his experiences in the Civil War, where he was a colonel of infantry. He died the year before I was born, and I pored through his diaries and treasured his sword, which was bequeathed to an older grandchild and is now irrevocably lost.

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