Class of 2020 has a lot of history left to live through

Published 6:45 am Wednesday, May 27, 2020

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The high school class of 2020 went through an odd year.  That set me thinking about my grandmother and the times she lived through.

We called her Granny and she was born in 1898.  Her mother died when she was young and her father worked on farms, so she was basically brought up by her sisters, especially Anna.  She lived to be 90.

It was her generation that gave birth to what we call The Greatest Generation. Her generation was tough because they went through tough times and some of the biggest changes the world had ever seen.

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She was born just 33 years after Appomattox and the end of the Civil War.  While most trains blazed at about 30 miles an hour, most people got around by foot or by buggy.  Neither Oklahoma, Arizona, Alaska, nor Hawaii were states yet, and the West was still a wild frontier.  So was much of Alabama and Georgia.

She was two when the new century rolled around.  The country was about 70 million strong.  They founded baseball’s American League one day before her birthday that year.

When she was five the Wright brothers went down to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and flew the first airplane. I was there a couple of years ago and got to meet the great-niece of the man who took the iconic photo of that first flight.   The Wright brothers almost intersected with Granny when they opened the world’s first aviation school in 1910 in Montgomery, Alabama.  It is still there and known world over as Maxwell Air Force Base.

The Titanic sank on April 14, 1912, and she remembered it happening.  She would have been 14.

Granny would have been sixteen in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, was shot to death with his wife by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This began the first of two world wars lead by Germany.

In 1916 polio took root in America with 27,000 U.S. cases and 2,000 deaths in New York City alone.  It hunted us every summer until Jonas Salk found a vaccine in 1953.

In 1917 when Granny was 19, she and my grandfather, known as “Papa”, had my Uncle Oscar.  The Spanish flu hit the United States hard that year.  Before it was over it infected about a third of everyone on the planet, and 675,000 Americans died. Internationally, somewhere between 20 million and 50 million died. 

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the politics surrounding it lead to the installation of the Stalin-Lenin model of socialism.  Stalin and his people took over the Russian government in the name of the people, enslaved those people, and before his reign of terror ended,  Stalin was responsible for more than 20 million deaths. 

In 1923, aviation nudged Alabama again when a 21-year-old Charles Lindburgh—who five years later became the first man to fly solo non-stop from America to Europe—went to Americus, Georgia, bought his first airplane, and took his first solo flight from Americus to Montgomery, Alabama. Granny was 25.

The 1920s came roaring in, and along with them, Prohibition. In October of 1929 the Great Depression hit.  By then my 31-year-old grandmother, had given birth to five children, including my mother, who would have then been six.  Times were hard, but in the still-post Reconstruction South, times were so hard that many people claimed they couldn’t tell much difference.

Hitler, a person of little consequence before then, liked the Stalin-Lenis model of socialism, got himself elected Chancellor of Germany in1933, and founded the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (we call it the Nazi party).  Before he and his merry band finished, they’d caused World War II, killed millions of Jews, and were responsible for about 20 million deaths. 

Emboldened by Hitler and Stalin, Chairman Mao took over China in 1949. In 1958 he called for “grass roots socialism” which he used to starve and murder between 20 million and 40 million Chinese, again using the Stalin-Lenin model of socialism.   

Granny sent sons and sons-in-law to World War II and then to Korea.  My Uncle Spud was in the Navy, and he sent her a set of china from China.  She got to skip the Vietnam conflict.

Granny’s fifth child, my Aunt Mary Nell, had become a nurse, and her husband and growing brood had moved to Florida where my Uncle Melvin (Granny’s son-in-law) worked at NASA. Granny was a spry 71-year-old when on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, told us that he’d just taken “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, and shortly thereafter took communion on the lunar surface.

Granny lived through a lot of history.  She saw two world wars, other wars we didn’t call wars, and she outlived the Great Depression, the Spanish flu, and polio. Her life was bracketed between the horse-and-buggy days and man landing on the moon. 

I was there when she died peacefully on October 20, 1988. Her life puts things into perspective.  Graduating seniors, I’m sorry about your senior year, the lost prom, the lost sports, and all of that.  But if your lifetime is as involved as my grandmother’s, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Grow tough. Get ready.  You might just have a lot more to come.