Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi A Longer Perspective

By Harry Willson

OCTOBER 11, 1999: 

Q: What does age get you?

A: A longer perspective.

As a young boy I was interested in history, but it took a while for what historians call "the time line" to fall into place in my head. "Dad," I once asked, "do you remember Zachary Taylor?" He was only mildly amused. He was old enough to be my grandfather, but not quite that old. In fact, his grandmother, who reared him, was married in the year that Abraham Lincoln was first elected, 1860, but Zachary Taylor came even before that.

There is a large quantity of time into which a thoughtful young person must organize the stories from the past that he hears or reads about. It takes some doing to get all that into chronological order. The idea of B.C. -- before Christ -- was important fairly early in my childhood, because Christianity was. It was my first encounter with negative numbers and counting backward. Abraham (1900 B.C.) came before Moses (1250 B.C.).

I remember when I was little, Franklin Roosevelt was president forever, it seemed. Then one day when I was 12, he was dead. The entire business of presidents and elections has been a steady decline ever since then, it seems to me, but I have paid attention anyway and am able to list the names and dates of subsequent presidents.

Formal study helped nail down that time line -- what came before what, what may have influenced what, what couldn't possibly have influenced what, because it came after -- all that. Christopher Columbus came before George Washington. Martin Luther came before the doctrine of papal infallibility. Julius Caesar came before Attila the Hun. Genghis Khan came before Napoleon Bonaparte who came before Adolf Hitler.

I'm sorting all this out, and four decades whistle by, with job, career, job changes, career changes, marriage, children, divorce, remarriage. My children learned of World War II the way I learned about World War I -- by reading and by listening to their father's conversations with other older people. My children do not remember the Korean War at all, because it was stopped before they arrived on the scene.

I began to sense that the perspective that comes with aging, combined with paying attention all the while, helps a body understand things better and see patterns. For example, President Clinton wants to be like President Kennedy, and as a womanizer perhaps he is, but as a president, he's much more like Lyndon Johnson. Even the words of their speeches about war and foreign policy are almost identical. Young people can hardly perceive that, however, because they can't remember Johnson.

I recall how upset I was recently when a major party nominated a youngster who could not remember the Vietnam War for a seat in Congress. He was born just as it ended. I pondered all that and realized that that candidate wasn't the only one. All new armed forces recruits lack any memory of that war. But the Vietnam War has had such an ongoing and wholly deleterious effect on life in this country that it seems somehow questionable that people who don't remember it and know little or nothing about it can vote and even come close to electing a person in a similar mental state to a serious decision-making office.

The kicker in this perspective thing came not long ago. A certain celebrity on Celebrity "Jeopardy" looked very young, although there was another one even younger on the podium. A question revealed that she did not know that Ronald Reagan, an actor, had once been president of the United States of America. Now, I admit to wishing sometimes that there was a way we could all forget the Great Prevaricator, but when I saw a card-carrying celebrity -- someone young people look up to, I guess -- demonstrating such forgetfulness, or some other sort of perhaps unavoidable ignorance, I was alarmed.

All this is not meant to denigrate young people. Every year there is more history to learn. A continually larger body of information builds up. One has to learn it artificially, that is by reading and listening, since one can't possibly remember what happened before one was born. It is a daunting task.

These observations of mine about perspective are intended to help young people understand older people better, for starters, and to encourage both groups to pay closer attention, so that the wisdom that comes from the longer perspective can be allowed to do its work.

For more of Harry's writings, go to www.amadorbooks.com.

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