A Special Centennial

Just about one hundred years ago, in a little farmhouse in Oklahoma, my dad was born. Well. He wasn’t my dad then; that came later.

Long about his ninetieth birthday, he thought it would be cool to live to see his one hundredth birthday. He didn’t quite make it, checking out shortly before he reached 97. But he was already telling people he was “almost a hundred years old.” He was always of the opinion that, as soon as he reached his actual birthday, he could claim the year he was starting, not the one he just finished, as his real age. So, yesterday, if he had been around to turn one hundred years old, he would have started telling people he was really already one hundred and one. (I also suspect he would add another year on January first, because, after all, he had another birthday coming up eleven short months later.) Fortunately, for most of his life, he would reconcile all those numbers to something approaching his real age sometime between January and December, otherwise he would have racked up something in the neighborhood of 200 “invented” years of age during his 96 year life-span.

My dad spent 45 plus years as an accountant, and he never got that creative with “the books,” so how he came up with the math for calculating his age demonstrated an imagination that I didn’t always give him credit for. I think the times he grew up in, and the way his family and early environment shaped him, kept him from being able to express his real creativity and sensitivity. I’m not going to dwell on what he might have become “if only.” It’s counter-productive for me to do that for myself, and there’s no point in doing it for someone who’s no longer with us.

What I wanted to do, instead, was look back at what was happening the year my dad was born, and his first year of life, and contemplate the gulf of history he lived through. For instance, World War I started and ended before he turned seven. On the day he was born, December 14, 1911, Roald Amundsen’s expedition reached the South Pole.

Butterfly McQueen was born that year, as was Ronald Reagan, Jack Ruby, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Czeslaw Milosz, Ginger Rogers, and Lucille Ball.

In the early months of 1912, before my dad was even eating solid food, the Republic of China was established, New Mexico and Arizona were admitted as the 47th and 48th states (respectively). Thirty thousand workers walked out of textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts in what would become the most dramatic and successful labor strike in American labor history — the Bread and Roses Strike. A man named Albert Berry jumped out of a perfectly good airplane in flight, wearing a parachute, to prove it could be done (and now my brother does the same thing every chance he gets).

During the first year of my dad’s life, two notable ships sailed for the first time. RMS Titanic. No elaboration needed on that one. USS Texas (BB-35). The Texas is still afloat, permanently anchored in Buffalo Bayou and the Houston Ship Channel near Houston, Texas. The Battleship Texas was the first battleship memorial in the U.S.

Fenway Park and Tiger Stadium both opened in 1912, and have lived large in the history of American baseball.

Women did not yet have the right to vote, but the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. was founded that year, and American Harriet Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

Woodrow Wilson was elected President in November, 1912, after Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican party by founding a party of his own — the Bull Moose party — when he was not nominated over the incumbent, William Howard Taft.

And since science is my main thing, I have to mention Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911, and Alfred Wegener’s proposal of a fully formulated theory of continental drift in 1912. No one bought it then, but he’d be having the last laugh today.

History. We all live through some of it, without even knowing whether the things that seem huge to us will be remembered at all (even by us) when we’re older, or after we’re gone. My dad served in the Army during WWII, and landed on the Philippine island of Leyte on the day the Japanese decided to try and take it back. He told a story to me and my brother about how the Japanese fighter aircraft started shooting up the beach just as he and his unit finished off-loading from their landing craft, and how he dove beneath a pile of duffle bags for cover. When he crawled back out he saw a crater where he had been standing, where one of the  Japanese shells had hit. My brother and I just looked at each other with our mouths hanging open. This was during his final year of life, and we had never heard that story before. My brother just happened to be watching a show about WWII on the History Channel, and, of course, my dad would watch almost anything on TV. It was just kind of an “oh, yeah, I remember when that happened” sort of story, but I imagine the memory was terrifying enough for all those years that he didn’t want to relive it by telling it.

You just never know.

My dad and his Army tent

My dad and his Army tent

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