For a few short days almost 25 years ago, five generations of my family were alive. These were my great-grandfather Pete – a retired doctor from Canada, his son (my father’s uncle) – a college professor from New Jersey, my Dad – a sales & marketing executive, and my sister’s first daughter – a newborn infant. In the weeks before his death at 107 years old, my great-grandfather met my newlywed wife from Australia. Almost nobody else in my circle of friends has had that experience.
As children in America, Pete was the marvel of our family. He was a diminutive man at a mere 5 feet tall. His furniture was antique – not because he bought it that way or because it was handed down to him. It was because it had been with him for so long. He had a routine and rhythm to his daily life that came from another era. He awoke before dawn, played his mandolin and sewed to maintain his manual dexterity. He was what later became to be known as a health-food guy, an was since the 1920s. He walked 3 miles each way to work at a hospital every day, snow/rain or shine. He went to the same beach resort only a few miles away every summer for the same week in July. He loved the horse-races with a passion. He read every edition of Scientific American for almost 80 years and kept each magazine in an organised library. His television set in the 1970s had a round monochrome screen because it had been made in the 1940s. He submitted to family pressure just before his 90th birthday in 1969 and drove a 1940’s car down to the junk yard; Pete never drove again. I watched the Apollo 11 moon-landing with him on that old TV with my parents & grandmother. He was an adult when the Wright Brothers first flew.
Pete studied medicine by kerosene lamplight. He witnessed countless medical advances in the 75+ years he was a working doctor. He survived a stroke at 102 years old as a patient in the same hospital he worked in for over 60 years. For a year or two at the end of his career, the Guinness Book of World Records recognised Pete as the oldest practicing medico on earth. Pete was a practical man, a very hands-on doctor. He could take the spectacles off your face and tell you how much your prescription had changed since the last time he’d done that 5 years beforehand. He was a well-read man. He could talk about scientific and medical technology with the same ease as history, current affairs, economics, social change, religion or politics. During the 20th Century, all these things changed and did so at an accelerating rate.
All my life, Pete has been the benchmark by which I measure the changes one person can see in a single lifetime. He saw so many new things that would have boggled his father’s imagination – particularly in science and technology. He saw the very localised world of steamships, trains & telegraphs change into the globalised world of jet planes, rocketships and The Internet. What used to take days & weeks in the world Pete grew up in took seconds & hours in the world in which he died. His son flew for the US Army Air Force in China during WW II – a man who later became an accountant and a university professor who taught undergraduates how to use personal computers for financial modelling (using Lotus 123 spreadsheets on original IBM PCs). His nephews (my father and uncle) became global businessman in the manufacturing and mining industries on 4 continents. In my generation, we have an air-traffic controller, a psychological councilor, an MBA business-school instructor and an IT guy. In the next generation we have a biologist, a real-estate professional, an information manager and a fashion-industry person. Of those, all but two knew Pete’s son; 6 of us knew Pete. The sense of change in the family is deeply shared.
More importantly, we all seem to understand how Pete & his son adapted to the vast changes in their lives. They told us how they did it – more often face to face and more than once. Pete & his children were story-tellers. They made the message real and relevant for successive generations. They could put things into historical context and offer insight and guidance for the future. They did not preach, even if they wanted us all to go to Church. They did not lecture, even though they knew how. They did not dictate as they had all fought dictators in one way or another. They spoke from the heart as they spoke at the fireside – from a deep personal experience of adapting to changing times throughout their lives.
As children of the jet-age and space-age, my sister and cousins & I experienced more rapid change. Moving countries & houses frequently, we saw many parts of the world when they were very different from each other. Our relatives often visited with us from faraway lands and we visited them. We watched TV from childbirth onward. We never feared war and never wanted for anything, unlike the 2-3 generations before us. A wealth of education & opportunity was always before us. The best food & healthcare was a part of our North American way of life, regardless of where we lived. We all remember watching the moon landing with Pete as part of his extended family because he told us the story of the Wright Brothers right afterwards. We spoke about the Space Station and space-planes that night; most of us have seen that come true.
What Pete and his children would dare not imagine is an African American in The White House. What my grandparents could never understand is climate change. Few of them could have grasped the impact that telecommunications and computer technology would have in the years ahead. Even though everyone except Pete had spent time overseas, almost none of us would understand globalisation as it now exists. The social, healthcare, political and economic future of the world of the next 50 years changed far too much for anyone in that living room in July 1969 to fathom.
As my nieces have become adults, I sometimes wonder what their great-grandchildren will be like. I occasionally ponder what kind of world they will live in and how they will think about generational change. It seems they will live in a world of many more people – perhaps up to 10 times as many – as the world into which Pete was born (5 times more than the world into which I was born). It will be a smaller, more connected world. A world in which more will need to share in less of what we shared and will share in more and different things that I can imagine. I hope it will be a better world. Sometimes, I harbour fears of what kind of world it could become, but I think every generation does that in some shape or form. Mostly, I’m optimistic. The billions of starving Chinese & Indians of Pete’s lifetime seem to be on their way to a better life…