Oh, how our lives have changed during the past thirty years. We’ve had great medical advances. Once-fatal diseases are being cured, and hope exists where once there was none.
For those who like to stay connected, life has changed considerably. The brick-like mobile phones of the early 1990s have been replaced by tiny smartphones that take pictures, send messages, play music, pay bills, and oh yes, make phone calls.
Social media sites connect us with long-lost friends and allow us to communicate with relatives we once saw only at funerals. Online shopping has taken a bite out of traditional retail stores, and we are far more likely to buy something with the click of a mouse than we used to.
Beyond that, life in 2021 is not terribly unlike it was a generation ago. We drive on the same highways, we attend the same churches, read the same newspapers, watch and listen to the same TV and radio stations, and attend the same schools.
I have often joked that my parents had some great “when I was your age” stories, usually in an attempt to educate me about how easy I had it, compared to them. They told me about walking to school, chopping wood for heat, and milking the cow. Me? I told my kids about growing up with only three TV channels, and no remote control.
I was reminded of this recently when my 90-year-old uncle Owen Norris, whom I have written about in my “Volunteer Bama Dawg” book, passed away. Before he died, he self-published a book, and gave it to all his nieces and nephews. It is easily one of the best gifts I have ever received.
He wrote about growing up in poverty on Sand Mountain, in Bryant, Alabama. Owen was born in Chattanooga in 1930, and his family was among many who took a chance during the Depression. Land was plentiful and cheap on the mountain, about thirty miles southwest of the big city. The soil was fertile, and big families had plenty of farm hands. Although there was no electricity, and the roads were unpaved, they were counting on a brighter future.
As Owen told me, World War II changed everything. The soldiers who survived the war returned to a better world. The postwar economic boom encouraged new businesses and industries, creating a new batch of jobs. Women who had once tended the home or helped with the farm had entered the workforce out of necessity during the war, and many families now had two paychecks coming in each week.
People were building houses, buying appliances, and installing indoor plumbing. During the Depression, it was a struggle to survive. But by the 1950s, anything was possible, even in rural America.
Uncle Owen experienced both of these worlds. Those of us who came along a generation later only saw the better one. We would hear about the hard-times era, but for many of us it sounded like a fairy tale. We saw that world in black-and-white, like an old movie. For Owen, and others of his era, it was real.
They picked cotton until their fingers ached. They slept with multiple siblings in small beds in crowded rooms, with snow blowing in through the cracks in the walls. They walked a few miles to get a gallon of buttermilk, and crossed a dangerous creek going to and from their destination. If they broke a leg, they would have to find some generous soul with a car to drive them to the city for medical treatment.
Throughout Owen’s childhood, this was his world. And you know what? He was perfectly happy. To his dying day, he talked about missing the closeness of his tight-knit family. Each depended on the other to get chores done. People sat on the porch, appreciated the little things, and listened to each other.
Still, when he returned from serving in Korea while in his twenties, opportunities awaited that he had never imagined. He got a job, bought a car, and drove on smooth, paved roads. The dreaded day-long journey to the city was now a quick one-hour round trip.
He was able to build a house with indoor plumbing, and thanks to the Tennessee Valley Authority, it was fully connected to electricity, heat and air. He could start his own business to better provide for his family. He built a long life and career and prospered beyond his wildest dreams. He was able to see his parents, in their twilight years, enjoy comfortable living at last.
Owen’s book was not just a refresher course in history for me, but a reminder of the gratitude we all should have. Those who came before us made great sacrifices, in many ways, to provide the luxuries we enjoy today. They rebuilt the nation during an amazing period of growth in the 1940s and 1950s. From my generation to yours, thank you!