A brief, personal historyof the 20th century

As we leap forthwith into the 21st century, we find ourselves where everybody thought we were a year ago. Remember? Everyone thought 2000 was 2001, and you couldn't tell anybody anything. I knew the difference because I had Miss Fanny Dunham in the first grade, and she taught me to count, starting from one.

I was born in 1908, the same year this newspaper was founded, but not for the same reason and under different circumstances.

My mother was a Canadian from Prince Edward Island and she married my Yankee father in self- defense, a union I blessed on Oct. 22 at 19 Champney Street in Brighton, a part of Boston. This was, just up the street from the Oak Square car barns, a rendezvous for surface cars on the Brighton-Newton-Watertown run of the Boston Elevated Railway out of Park Street subway station.

Dad was a conductor. So I learned early that in Boston you go upstairs to get a subway car, downstairs to the elevated, and if you go to Summer Street you get off at Winter.

Conveniently, my father got an appointment as a railway postal clerk and we moved to Maine. His new job started at Portland, and Freeport was a handy place to begin a new life. I thus came to meet Miss Dunham, L.L. Bean, and all the other wonderful Freeport folks, including the Stilkey Brothers, who were Democrats. Two in one family was unusual.

At Freeport I caught my first brook trout, dug my first clam, picked my first wild strawberry, milked my first cow, and grew up to enhance the 20th century in good shape.

I think you'll find it's hard to find a person today who remembers his first anything. Didn't you see an airplane before you were old enough to remember it? I saw my first "aeroplane" in 1917, when a biplane flew over promoting war bonds. It was a miracle.

I remember when they strung a wire to my attic room and I had an electric light by pulling a string, eliminating a kerosene lamp. I can remember the day we got an ice chest that didn't take ice; it made ice!

I was there on the first Armistice Day. I recall the Boston police strike. I heard the first bubble of the Teapot Dome scandal; I recall those who said Mussolini was a genius for getting Italy's trains running on time. And I remember that Charlie Lovell took apart a Model T and reassembled it, with a pail of bolts left over.

I had a first pair of L.L. Bean's Maine Hunting Shoe, which cost $3. Mr. Bean told me never to pay more than $3 for a pair of shoes, as the best shoes can be made to sell for that.

Mr. Bean and his brother Ortho were waterfowl sportsmen and would come every fall to pick a pair of mallards from my 4-H Club flock. Live birds were legal to use as decoys, and I was gainfully selling "tollers" at $3 a pair, the same price as hunting shoes. Ortho was inclined to be clumsy, and had a knack for shooting the decoys, so during the duck season L.L. would come back to renew his decoys and usually to say a few words about Ortho's marksmanship. It was a sad business day for me when the law was changed to outlaw live ducks as tollers.

My dad's railway post office went to and from Boston's North Station. During the police strike, which boosted Cal Coolidge toward the White House, Dad came home once with a diamond ring he'd bought from a looter for 50 cents. The man had broken a jeweler's shop window and had a handful.

I was going on 2, in July, when my father and mother took me to meet my grandfather on a farm down in Maine. The trip from Boston was made all the way by trolley car, for Maine was crisscrossed by connecting short electric lines. We had about anything in the 1900s.

BEFORE radio, Art Rogers and I ran bell wire between our houses and rigged a telegraph for Morse code. Next we made our own wireless set and soon had a radio laid out on a board with earphones.

We got KDKA, WGY, the Amrad station, and static from the trolley-car tracks. I remember Gabriel Heater the night he said, "Ah, there's good news tonight," and broke the story that Bruno Hauptmann had been arrested.

Television came next, and people rushed to buy sets before we had broadcasting to watch. I did not attend, but knew about it when MIT unveiled the first computer.

Maybe you don't remember that grocery stores kept horses and wagons and made house-to-house deliveries daily. Every mother loved her children, and twice a week baked them their daily bread. Good milk had lumps in it. To get fresh eggs, folks kept hens, which took care of table scraps. Not every home had a telephone, so when a fire broke out you had to run to the village and pull the bell rope at the hose house. Then Ruel Hanscomb or Roy Marston would come with a pail and a wet broom and put out the fire.

There's more, of course. Things were slower, and when you spent a dollar, you got a dollar's worth. When you went to pay your grocery bill, Mr. Averill would thank you and mean it, and he'd give you a treat. This was perhaps a paper sack with four or five chocolate creams called Montevideos, which had nothing whatever to do with TV. A Montevideo had half a walnut on top.

So here's a Happy New Century to one and all, and if it's half as fine as the one we just had, drop me a line.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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