My father died 42 years ago last week. The anniversary gave rise to various emotions — a little sadness, of course, though we’ve had time to get over it — but chiefly I thought about how much he has missed.
He died a few months after three astronauts were killed in the Apollo 204 fire. He did not know whether we’d ever make it to the moon.
When he died, Richard Nixon had yet to be president. The World Trade Center hadn’t been built.
The Viet Nam war was still relatively small, though it had been growing for years even then.
All the computing power in the entire world, put together, amounted to that which you can now pick up at WalMart for a few hundred bucks. (And WalMart was a very small chain of tiny stores, called “Wal-Mart Discount City,” in Missouri and Arkansas.) The idea that people would have electronic digital computers in their homes — that was the stuff of science fiction.
The world had never heard of AIDS, or bird flu, or even swine flu.
People were still building bomb shelters, and new silos to house nuclear missiles were still being dug not far from our home. The threat of atomic war with, of course, the Soviet Union, was very real, a constant presence. While there was some concern about the Mideast, it seemed distant and not of much immediate concern but for the possibility that it would become the catalyst for war between the big powers.
The civil rights movement was building steam, though the outcome was uncertain. The country still didn’t quite know what these California “hippies” were, and “pot” was a kitchen vessel.
A guy named John Denver was the lead singer of the Chad Mitchell Trio. A band called the Jefferson Airplane had just taken off.
My dad never heard of Pet Rocks or mood rings or Jordache jeans. He never knew of any of the last five presidents. All his life he was an avid conservationist, but he would not have embraced the religious aspects of “environmentalism.”
He never saw a digital wristwatch or even a pocket calculator. He would not have been able to identify a light-emitting diode or a liquid crystal display.
It’s funny how anniversaries — sad ones and happy ones — can give us perspective on the passage of time. In a lifetime — the lifetimes of people living today, especially — there are lots of changes. One of the reasons to note anniversaries, it seems to me, is to take time to deliberate and keep it all straight. For instance, I’ve spent the majority of my life in three towns that are strikingly similar. Without conscious effort, they tend to blend together. When my old grandmother would speak to me, she would recite the litany of my older cousins before landing on my name. I used to think it was funny, but now I understand.
A completely unrelated event brought all this into sharper focus. I was walking along railroad tracks in nearby Meigs County with my friend John, and I noticed a piece of stone that showed the unmistakable signs of having been worked by humans. It was (as my avid Indian relic collector father taught me) a “scraper.” Nobody is sure how they were used, but it’s thought they removed fat from hides, perhaps scraped the fibers from plants, and so on.
I picked it up. It felt strange yet comfortable in my hand. Here was something that had been held and used by another human being, what? 200 years ago? 500? A thousand? In any case, this was a tool used by someone long gone, someone who knew its purpose and put it to use. Perhaps the very person who chipped its edges sharp employed it, or perhaps there was specialization in tasks including the making of implements even then.
There was a sense that through that primitive scraper there was some kind of connection: the living, almost palpable, presence of someone dead for a long time, not ghostly, but connected.
We can believe but we cannot know much about the spiritual nature of things; that’s part of what makes them spiritual. Yet just as with that scraper, there is a distinct and personal link with the past, with people long gone. When I’m working outside, or building something in the shop, it is as if my father joins my internal dialogue, making suggestions and offering criticisms. When I walk in the woods, it is as if everyone who ever wandered the ridges and washes of this part of the country is along.
Time is a difficult thing to wrap one’s head around. It is as difficult as one’s own mortality — we know we are mortal, yet very few of us really believe it. And there’s something else, put well by the terminally ill great aunt of a friend a decade ago.
“I don’t mind dying,” she said, “except for this: I won’t get to see how everything turns out.”
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.