At 35,000 feet, with a steaming Starbucks and a purring iPod I read my Grandfather’s memoirs last Wednesday. I’d already put in several hours of work when I decided to crack the sheaf of Xeroxed reflections written three years before he passed in 1964.
Ninety eight years ago in the summer of 1911 he was young Officer in Training in the English Army. Then poetry happened.
“I was on a march across Salisbury Plain in full regalia because we were going to sleep out that night. It turned out to be the hottest day on record and out of 600 more than 200 collapsed on the way. We were not a happy company, but we managed to bathe in the river when we reached out destination and that revived us. At night we lay down on the ground near the old ruins of Stone Henge, the oldest and most astonishing group of temple stones in England…The evenings are very short in England in summer and I think it was shortly after 4 in the morning when I was stamping around trying to get some circulation in my cold feet that I noticed the sun starting to rise over the old temple stones. At the same moment there was a racket and over the stones came one of the earliest aeroplanes in the world, the first I had seen and about 1,000 feet up. I was looking at a combination of the oldest and newest in the world. While I stood transfixed the motor of the plane conked out and the plane wobbled all over the place, but finally landed right side up. We rushed over and there was the pilot strapped in but shaking so hard he couldn’t do a thing. We unstrapped him and laid him on the ground to carry on his shaking because he had had a close brush with death.”
It was indeed one of the first. The British formed their first Airforce units in April 1911- the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. They had a total 57 pilots – I’m assuming 56 after this incident.
Harry Wilson emigrated to Toronto in 1913 and as a result managed to avoid the generational genocide of 1914 and beyond. Almost all of his college friends perished in the war. The rest of the his story is woven through the 20th Century, moving to the US, pioneering research in Radio transmission, Mayor of his town during the Depression, Entrepreneur in his 50’s and 60’s.
It is easy to lose sight of how far we have come in so short a period of time. Ninety eight years from crash landings at dawn to email, coffee, and a book in the few short hours it takes to get from Austin to Seattle (with a stop for a sandwich in Denver).
Times are tough, and we have difficult choices to make, but the conditions of our existence have shifted so quickly in just two generations that it makes me optimistic for the day when this economic blip is over. In the long view we’ll be just fine.
Its the short term that scares me. The 20th century was the most violent in our short history. MIllions perished in a long running war of ideas and money as we sorted out the best way to organize and control an industrialized society. In the ocean of dislocation that marked this era hateful ideologies took root and were tools of power for the greedy and delusional.
As we pass from industrial to information economy the dislocations will be no less jarring at an individual and national level. Witness the death of newspapers (ironically reported daily) which is both a social transition and a personal tragedy for those who made their living in the industry.
As our collective lives improve many individuals pay an extremely high price. Education in this context is not just about having the job skills to adapt, it also means having the social and networking skills to contribute to the well being of our friends, family, and the endless stream of strangers who touch our lives. This wisdom is both ancient and urgently modern.
If you publish instructional materials are you part of the solution?