The other morning while waiting on a Metro station platform, I glanced up over the edge of my newspaper and saw a very elderly man, well into his late 80′s or perhaps even into his early 90′s, as he came shuffling by on the platform. He was dressed in that most paradoxical of garments, a light-colored summer suit made of some type of artificial fiber, from its cut looking to date from the days when such things first began to appear on the mass market. It was the sort of material which was so thick, he would have been better off wearing wool flannel for breathability.
To go along with it, this gentleman wore a very simple bolo tie, along with cowboy boots. Now one sees these things from time to time in Washington, particularly around political conventions or Presidential inaugurations, though not as often as one might in places like Dallas or Santa Fe. On top of which, this fellow sported a white cowboy hat which was not quite as tall as the cowboy hat my father – a native Texan – used to plunk on my head when I was little, as we sat on the riding mower and rode around trimming the lawns at the house.
For some reason as I watched him I had the fancy that this elderly man had volunteered for and voted for LBJ in the 1960 Presidential primary, and again subsequently when LBJ ran in 1964. Back then he would probably have been in his mid-to-late 30′s, and certainly the Washington he knew was completely different from the one which I now inhabit. For one thing, of course, there was no Metro system at all, just a system of city trams and buses.
Since he had been born in the 1920′s, or so I was guessing, I imagined all he must have seen during that time period, in a period of really dramatic changes for the United States. Perhaps he had fought in the Pacific in World War II, for example. He might have seen Elvis in first appearances on television. He saw the Civil Rights movement, the late Neil Armstrong, and countless other events which shaped our world. How very far away all of that seemed from the fragile old man making his way along a subway platform.
One of the reasons why I enjoy spending time with the elderly is that they always have great stories to tell, which bring us closer to events, concepts, and experiences of the past. We think we understand these things, from seeing pictures or film footage, but unless you have lived through such momentous events, they are difficult to fully grasp. This is always a heavy burden on the professional historian who, if he is writing about long-dead people and places for example, has to use his imagination to the best of his ability, but will never quite get the details right.
Your relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances who are of advanced age are, to put it frankly, a great treasure which is slipping through your fingers even as you read this. Great-Aunt Martha who is in her 90′s now will vividly remember what she experienced during the Great Depression, for example. Nice old Mr. Nowak, whom you always end up chatting with in the grocery store, can tell you what it was like for him to cross the Atlantic on a ship for several days, as a refugee from Poland, worrying about being pursued by German U-Boats. The elderly woman who sits across from you on the city bus almost every morning on your way to work or errands could give you a tale or two about what it was like living in your town well before you were born or moved there.
We have a holiday weekend coming up in the U.S., during which we will spend time with families and friends, saying an unofficial (meteorologically speaking) farewell to summer. There will be picnics and barbecues and cook-outs, perhaps visits to the beach or to grandma’s, but unlike many holidays on Labor Day there are no real fixed national traditions which we must honor. There are no concerts, decorations, fireworks, and so on that everyone feels compelled to join in on.
Given the lingering lethargy of a particularly warm summer, why not make a point of spending part of it talking to that relative or acquaintance about their own memories of the past? You will no doubt learn a great deal, and make the other person happy even as you add to your own understanding of the world in which you live. After all, who knows how many more summers you will be able to do so, before that man in the 5-gallon hat disappears permanently from view.