I wasn’t born yesterday, but I did have a birthday last week.

It wasn’t exactly a milestone birthday. I had that last year, when I turned 70. But 71 was another step toward the life expectancy of the average American male.

It wasn’t an easy step. My knee almost gave out, that very morning. I had driven to a mountain park with my wife. We took the dog there for a walk. I stepped out of the car and felt a pain. A big pain. I limped a bit.

It’s better now. A temporary setback.

So I can’t complain. Well, actually I’m a pretty good complainer. Just ask my wife. But I’m in a more reflective frame of mind now. I’m thinking back to 1950, the year I was born. And what came after: Color TV, rock ’n’ roll, rap music, the Higgs boson, personal computers, the internet and the tech multibillionaires that followed. And so on. It’s a big list.

Here’s the thing. By 1950, the modern world had pretty much arrived.

We already had TV. “Jack Benny” and the like jumped over from radio. Sure, the sets were small. And all the broadcasts were in black and white. But it was TV. And it revolutionized family hour after dinner. No more sitting around reading, playing checkers or listening to the radio.

Everybody settled into the couch and stared at the little glass tube.

In 1950, we also had cars. And penicillin, along with nukes, commercial flights, modern plumbing, electricity, refrigerators and telephones.

Most, if not all those conveniences appeared within the lifetime of people who turned 71 in 1950. They would have been born in 1879, the year Thomas Edison patented his light bulb. The Model T wouldn’t arrive until 1908. Streetcars were drawn by horses.

Of course, there was no TV. Movies didn’t even exist, let alone a Hollywood to speak of. The Wright brothers were 20-plus years away from Kitty Hawk. Flush toilets were around, but I suspect few people had them. One reference I came across said that, by 1920, only 1% of households had electricity or flush toilets.

The 71-year-olds present at my birth had to use the outhouse. I can understand if they regarded us boomers as the spoiled generation. We didn’t have to trundle to the outhouse in a January blizzard, newspaper in hand. It wasn’t for reading.

From what I could tell, anesthetics like ether were around in 1879. But surgery was probably a gamble. No electricity, remember. And no blippy screen to monitor your vitals. Operation by gaslight? I’m not sure. Ether is highly flammable.

Hope for the best. Or pray.

The 1879 baby probably had a grandmother to hold him. Let’s say she was 71, just two lifetimes removed from me. She would have been born in 1808, the year Congress banned the importation of slaves. The Civil War ended slavery nearly 60 years later.

The Founding Fathers were still around. Thomas Jefferson was president. James Madison was president-elect. Like everybody else, they didn’t have flush toilets. And medicine was primitive. There were no antibiotics. You could die from a nose pimple.

Life expectancy? I think 40 was considered a good run. The 1808 baby would not likely live to see the 1879 baby.

Thankfully, I was around for the invention of the TV tray. It allowed families like ours to take our meals in front of the television. To me, this was the height of Western Civilization: watching “Get Smart” while digging into a Swanson’s pot pie.

The kids born in 1879 had to eat at the table. After dinner? Maybe they read by candlelight or kerosene lamp. A few might have had it better. Phoenix was wired for electricity in 1884, the year “Huckleberry Finn” was published. By their 10th birthday, kids could read Mark Twain under Edison’s new light.

By the 1890s, as teens, they could listen to John Philip Sousa play march music on the gramophone. The wax cylinders might have been a bit scratchy. Teens of my generation listened to rock ’n’ roll on record albums. Some scratchy. It was the same technology. Needles on grooves.

Light bulbs and gramophones were just the start. The 1879 babies, in 71 years, would live to see cars, planes, movies, TV and nukes. Not to mention dental floss.

It comes at a cost, of course. Greenhouse gases, climate change, deforestation. And a Doomsday Clock.

Today’s babies have their work cut out for them. Saving the environment without giving up the good life. They’ll turn 71 in 2092. Perhaps they’ll look back at our generation and ask: What’s a Swanson’s pot pie?


Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at bccoates@cox.net.