My wife says that I write very specific things. This little corner of the Internet is my little space, and I tend to occupy it with very narrow issues that I’m contending with personally. Perhaps you want to tie an asymmetrical VT prussik or hear a reasonable set of arguments for why you should get into ham radio : I’ve got you covered.
But today I need to write something that while cathartic for me might help you too, and it’s basically that now is an amazing time to be alive and better than all the previous options. To use the military tradition of BLUF: every generation has had challenges; life on this planet has never been and probably never will be easy. We’re overgrown primates who still grow tails in the womb. We should aspire to be more than we are, but stop thinking that it’s atypical for humanity to be a mess. Human problems are a feature, not a bug.
In particular I want you to imagine that you were born in 1900. A period that while old isn’t quite that old. One of the first movies every made was A Trip to the Moon in 1902 and the first internal combustion engine was 30 years prior: we’re not talking about neanderthals banging sticks here.
Growing up as a youngster things were a bit calm. At the age of 12, you probably would have heard of the Titanic sinking. And while terrible, it’s really just a harbinger. Buckle up.
For starters, there was the WW1 period.
In 1917 the draft started, spurred by the Selective Service Act. If you were a man of moderate or better health there was a good chance you were going to the European front to fight in trench warfare. If you already lived in Europe, you may have already been killed or displaced. 4.7 million US men fought in WW1, and the county was only 90 million back then. 300,000 of which would be killed or wounded, but this does not include the emotional trauma of bayonetting another 20-something in the heart while you watch your friend die of mustard gas in no man’s land, artillery shells bursting all around.
But we’re not done with your late teenage years yet, because trouble comes in threes, as the saying goes.
And of course, #2 was the Spanish Flu. Resulting in the deaths of 50 million people, worldwide, more than all of the deaths in WW1. So if you weren’t a fighting age man, don’t worry, the virus was coming for you too.
The third horror story from this period isn’t well known, but it should be, because it actually never left us. Neither did the Spanish Flu but that’s another topic. #3 goes to the terrible, terrible disease of encephalitis lethargica (EL). Raging right around this time, but particularly bad around 1918, EL killed over 500,000 people worldwide (50% mortality). There’s a fun pandemic book I’d recommend which will paint the whole picture of EL for you, but this quote can suffice in the interim:
They would be conscious and aware – yet not fully awake; they would sit motionless and speechless all day in their chairs, totally lacking energy, impetus, initiative, motive, appetite, affect or desire; they registered what went on about them without active attention, and with profound indifference. They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life; they were as insubstantial as ghosts, and as passive as zombies.Oliver Sacks, Awakenings
So we’re not even remotely done yet with the world that you would have inherited being born in 1900, but so far, how’s it looking for you? And while some of these issues were equal opportunity, we’re not even taking the side trips into being black, being a native American, being a woman, being gay, etc. This is just how bad things could go for (primarily) straight white men.
You must be thinking “whew, we left the WW1 era and now it’s time to relax a bit.” Indeed, happily the US didn’t get into any major military conflicts for another 20 years but don’t worry your life still would have sucked, and the 30s are right around the corner.
One of the things I enjoy about the 1920s is thinking about how much strife and turmoil people went through in the late teens. It’s entirely possible that one of those men above smiling and happy is loaded with PTSD from WW1, and some of those women were carrying stretchers, hauling flu patients about.
We make a point of finding joy when we can, even when book-ended by misery, perhaps especially when that’s the case. And that’s not to say that the 1920s was without strife: universal suffrage and prohibition were major battles of the day, the latter quite literally.
In the summer of 1926, the rains came pretty hard and the Mississippi River with its tributaries swelled a bit. The rain continued, and continued, and by Good Friday of 1927 fifteen inches of rain fell.
Over 200,000 black Americans were displaced and made homeless due to the flood waters rising across the entirety of the Mississippi river. Then, as now, those with more means could go somewhere else as others lived in tent cities. Despite climate change, the Great Flood of 1927 is still the largest and most destructive floodwater event in the United States.
And while that event transpired, as the flood waters grew, the largest school murder to date in the United States was being staged.
A raging asshole with a small, fragile ego, planted dynamite into a school in Bath, Michigan after he was passed up for a job. His plan included blowing up the school with children inside, shooting people who fled and came to help, and then blowing up his truck as people gathered around the street. Some of his explosives didn’t go off, but enough did to kill 45 and injure 58. 38 of the dead were elementary school children.
And while the flapper girls danced, a school building exploded, and hundreds of thousands of black Americans were living in tent cities after 27,000 square miles was flooded to a depth up to 30 feet, the Klu Klux Klan marched proudly in Washington, DC.
For context, the Unite the Right rally, where white power dorks grabbed tiki torches and marched through Charlottesville, NC had roughly 500-600 right-wing activists. When the Klan showed up to march through DC in 1925, they numbered 30,000 with 150,000 mostly supportive spectators. When it comes to dangerous white people it’s still bad, but oh my god was it so much worse. For context, more Klan members marched in DC that day than the US Marines had as active duty troops. If they had weapons, which most surely had at home, it’s not a stretch to say that the 1925 Klan could have swamped most nation’s standing armies.
Just to keep at this point, born in 1900, you aren’t even 30 years old yet. You’ve been through two pandemics, a world war, dozens of dead school children, a biblical flood, and tens of thousands of racists marching through our nation’s capital.
And we’re not even into the really bad stuff yet.
Behold, the 1930s.
It’s hard to describe just how absolutely god awful the 1930s were for much of the United States, and indeed the world. There were many things happening at once, but we won’t touch on topics like the Hindenburg Disaster because we don’t have enough time and the odds of you, being in your 30s now, actually being on the Hindenburg was pretty small.
The Great Depression was so bad that it actually started in 1929, and continued for almost a decade. An informative book I’d recommend is The Great Depression: A Diary. There is a lot of data from that period and older Americans may have heard first-person accounts from relatives growing up. A story I remember from the book I just referenced was of families burning their homes down to lower their property taxes. Still owning the land, they’d erect lean-to shelters and grow their own food. And again, this went on for an entire decade.
COVID-19, as of this writing, has gone on for about a year and a half and Americans are literally rioting in the streets because of changes to their daily lives. Vastly increase the pain and misery factors, then multiply by 7: now we’re getting near the Great Depression.
If you lived in the midwest or needed to eat food, you also fell victim to the Dust Bowl. As the late 20’s provided too much rain the mid 30’s provided far too little and (coupled with bad farming techniques) massive dust storms swept the midwest.
During the absolutely horrible 1930s, over one million American families lost their farms. Between 1930 and 1933, nine million savings accounts were reduced to $0 via the over 5,000 banks that failed. If you were up in arms about Trump’s wall I’ll do you one better: the Mexican Repatriation effort whereby hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans (aka US citizens) were deported to Mexico during the early 30’s. Children in Virginia, Illinois, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania reached malnourishment levels of 90%.
The scale and severity of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl are hard to fathom. I don’t want to use the word “hubris”, because it isn’t, it’s simply the lack of clairvoyance that humans have and our desire to enjoy good things while we have them. But go back to the picture of the Roaring 20s and realize that all of them, in ~5 years would be impacted. The club would close, most would be under or unemployed, some would be homeless, almost all of their wealth depleted. And that’s after they got through the WW1 period.
And now it’s time to fight in WW2.
The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940 put the draft age between 18 and 44. It is entirely possible that you, if you were a man, could have survived everything above and then you would have been drafted again at 40, to storm the beaches at Normandy. 16 million Americans fought in WW2, in a country of only 132 million (half of which were women not eligible for the draft, another quarter were children).
We focus a lot on European theater but the Pacific was much, much worse. I would recommend Dan Carlin’s excellent podcast on the subject, Supernova in the East. While not impacting US citizens as much, or at all, the eastern front of WW2 was also fought with a degree of saveragry that is often forgotten. I’ll again recommend Dan Carlin, this time with Ghosts of the Ostfront.
It still gets worse from there.
In your 50s, bomb shelters, duck-and-cover routines, and the threat of nuclear holocaust hung over the country. Nuclear power plants failed. A president was assassinated, we fought wars in Vietnam and Korea. When 69, you would have seen daily bombings and jailbreaks from the Weather Underground. Martin Luther King came, and was murdered. In the 1980s there was an air raid siren that still sounded on Sundays where I grew up: no one found it odd.
In the Fog of War Robert McNamara talked about when he learned, years later, that there had been 100 tactical nuclear missiles in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A cloud layer obscured a US spy plane from seeing them. Had the clouds not been there, the United States would have attacked Cuba with nuclear weapons, most likely setting World War 3 into motion. It’s accurate to say that a cloud, a single cloud, is what kept us from nearly eliminating the human race.
It’s always been hard.
I’m not sure if it’s youth or truly that the 1990s and early 2000s seemed fairly benign to a middle class white kid like myself. But whatever it was, I grew up with the false belief that the relative peace and calm I experienced was the normal state of affairs. From reading history, and hopefully from my little stroll through the memory lane o’ horrors here, you can see that compared to the alternatives Dickens might just say that this is the best of times, with no add-on.
Further, when speaking with my daughters, I point out that things are better now not because of random chance but because of the shockingly hard work that others have put in before us. From civil rights to arms reduction to public health.
And stop thinking that it’s new when a loud minority does the exact opposite of what they should. Some people will resist doing the right thing and flood their minds with stupid thoughts. People eat like crap and wash it down with Mountain Dew on the regular, in between hits on the vape pen: are we really expecting everyone to make smart decisions in the best interest of themselves, their families, and society? Likewise, are you (or heavens, I) ready to be put under the microscope for the decisions we make and how they contribute to problems our society has?
Yes, America and the world at large has issues. Big ones. But we always have. This isn’t an excuse to not address our challenges, far from it. Women didn’t get the right to vote nor did the Civil Rights Act pass because people just waited around for problems to solve themselves. They worked their asses off, they got a lot done, and we benefited from it. In a lot of ways, the only reason we can address the challenge of our time is because our forefathers and foremothers solved the previous ones.
That it’s our turn at the wheel, our turn to take up the mantle, and for our children to do the same isn’t surprising. And if I look in the history books, I’m happy at the current hand we’ve been dealt. It could be, and has been, so very much worse.