It was the best of times? It was the worst of times?

Opinion March 28, 2013 0 Comments

by Hugh Gilmore

Do you get emails from old-classmates saying how everything was rosy back in our day and everything stinks now? I do, and I find them unbearably smug, defensive, and wrong-headed. Pardon my French, but why is that that the older people get, the less history they know?

Fed up with the modern age? You need only open a crusty old news gazette from an other era and your blood pressure will simmer down. You’ll be able to breathe again. Try reading a few old newspapers – you’ll see that the Good Old Days weren’t so good. Same as today.

Here, let’s take a look. In my used-book business, I often come across old magazines and newspapers. On my desk right now is a randomly chosen sample: The Prescott (AZ) Evening Courier for Monday, January 9, 1933.

Unlike today’s newspaper layouts, the Courier’s 18-inch-wide page one contains both big and little stories, of local, national and international interest. Among the eternal verities, we find: “Flagstaff Man Murders Wife” (handgun used during family quarrel); “2 More French Boats Disabled” (passenger boats catch fire and have to be towed to port); “Indict Meeker In Bank Case” (president of defunct bank indicted for fraud); “7th of Town’s Folk Have Typhoid Fever” (This, actually, from nearby Chamberlain, S.D.); “4 High School Players Killed” (after basketball game, head-on collision at night, one headlight not working); “Congressman is Dead, Suicide” (Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, Samuel Austin Kendall, unable to overcome grief at the loss of his wife, shot himself with pistol in his office). And from Napa Valley, CA: “Roger Sprague, former university professor who went insane on the Berkeley campus in 1919 and shot and wounded two college officials, laid his head deliberately on the tracks of the Napa Electric Railway today and was decapitated.”

These stories were laid out side-by-side with such tidbits as a parking ticket given to an elephant, a two-headed turtle that “couldn’t make up its mind,” the Premier of North China offering a truce to Japan, with whom it had been fighting quite a while, President FDR meeting with Stimson, and a veterans group (WWI) still fighting Congress for aid to veterans.

Inside the paper, as eternal consolation, you’ll find the sports and entertainment pages. In one column Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics Baseball Club blamed the recent sale of Al Simmons, Jimmy Dykes, and “Mule” Haas to the Chicago White Sox on Philadelphia’s Blue Laws, which did not allow Sunday contests. Speaking at The Holy Name Society of St. Jean of Arc Catholic church, he said the loss of revenue left him unable to pay the players’ wages. On the plus side, the new movie “Rackety Rax,” with Victor Mc Glaglen and Greta Nissen was described as a laugh riot. In college basketball, unfortunately: Pittsburgh 45 – Temple 23.

Oh my, you might think, but those stories were out of Prescott, Arizona, and everything’s a bit strange west of the Schuylkill River. Granting you that possibility, I pick up the Philadelphia Evening Ledger for Wednesday, July 26, 1937. The banner headline reads “THOUSANDS FALL IN BATTLE OF PEIPING.” The Japanese army continued its assault on China. Under the banner, two columns by 10 inches, you’ll find the day’s baseball scores. (Phillies lose to Pittsburgh, 6 – 4; A’s losing to Cleveland, 6 – 5).

In Belfast, Ireland, bombs, arson, and gunfire greeted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth as they toured. Fumes forced employees of the 7-UP bottling company at 817-19 Carpenter Street to flee with handkerchiefs pressed to their noses.

Camden’s Director of Public Works, Frank J. Hartmann, declared war on crickets in the neighborhood of 10th and Vine. Neighbors were finding crickets in their hair, bathtubs, and beds. Hartmann threatened to bury the crickets with an asphalt parking lot “if we have much more trouble.”

A policeman from the 69th and Dicks area got paid on Friday and failed to return home or show up for work on Monday. A boy drowned in Pennypack Creek. “15 Horses Saved in Cemetery Fire” The cemetery was Holy Sepulchre near Easton Road in Glenside. On the cemetery grounds were two shacks – one kept as a chicken coop and the other as a pheasant house. These tarpaper lean-tos caught fire and sparks flew over to set the roofs of the stables at Gramm’s Riding Academy of Glenside on fire. “William Wardell, a Negro stableman” and two boys, Arthur Hammarlund and Robert Fisher helped to rescue the horses. (This news item chosen apropos the running controversy in the Local about racial identification of newsworthy people.)

You’ll find similar stories in every edition of every uncensored newspaper in the world, no matter what era the paper is from, including the Holy American Era when our Founding Fathers bestrode the earth. My point today being simply: please stop sending me supposedly funny, nuggets of wisdom about how great the old days were. I don’t believe them. I’m with Benjamin, the mule in Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” His mottto: “Life will go on as it has always gone on – that is, badly.”

That doesn’t mean I don’t like people. I do. I have a tremendous sympathy for my fellow mortals. Nor does it mean I’m a pessimist. I’m not. But, boy, people sure don’t learn easily.

Hugh Gilmore is the author, most recently, of “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour.” He blogs at “enemiesofreading.blogspot.com

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