My youngest nephew, now an adult, has no memory of 9/11, surely the formative event of the generation who came of age at the turn of this century. I wasn’t born until after World War II, indisputably the formative event of my parents’ generation. In between were the events that shaped my peers and me: the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War and the tumult of the 1960s generally. Today there are few who have memories of World War II, much less the precious few old enough to have fought in it. Mine is now the older generation, and already we find the world in the hands of those for whom the 1960s are not even a memory. Increasingly, the future will belong to youngsters like my nephew who see clips of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center much as I view old newsreels of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The dislocations of time become more apparent as we grow older. Washington Irving’s iconic tale about Rip Van Winkle speaks to this. Irving’s protagonist is an amiable good-for-nothing who wanders off into the Catskill Mountains with his dog and his musket, seeking respite from a nagging wife. He comes across a group of bearded men dressed in ancient garb who are later revealed to be ghosts from the Henry Hudson expedition. Sampling some of their “magic” brew, Van Winkle falls into a deep sleep. When he awakens, the men are gone, his dog his gone, and his musket is now a rusty relic. When he makes his way back to his village, he recognizes no one, nor do they recognize the gray-bearded old man standing before them. He learns the Revolutionary War has been fought while he was sleeping it off, and George Washington’s portrait has replaced King George’s in the place of honor at the local inn. Happily, Van Winkle eventually encounters his son and namesake, now fully grown, as well as a daughter, and he is able to resume his former life as the village idler.
The 20-year hole in Rip Van Winkle’s life has enabled him to see the profound changes wrought by time, whereas most of us experience them incrementally, day-by-day. It is only when we are caught short by the recollection of something we thought of as having happened not that long ago, and it turns out to have occurred five or even ten years before. Or we recall something from our distant past and realize every single person who was part of our lives then has dispensed to the four winds or is no longer with us at all. And in their place are generations of people who did not exist at the time, including perhaps our own children and grandchildren, who increasingly see us as we saw our elders when we were their age, as relics from another time.
Who can blame them? I remember a college alumni weekend more than 50 years ago when I was still an undergraduate. This was the late 1960s, and we students were admittedly a pretty scruffy-looking bunch. A horrified alum took a good look around and told a reporter for the student newspaper that in his opinion at least one third of the student body should be sterilized so they didn’t reproduce. Fast-forward half a century, and I find myself grumbling at the antics of today’s student body. They look much the same as we did. However, instead of marching for civil rights or against the War in Vietnam or otherwise trying to change the world, they are obsessing about micro-aggressions and “safe spaces” on campus. Our roles have been reversed, and now I am not much different from that cantankerous old alum muttering about sterilizing the student body.
I look around at the all the young people with their noses in their electronic devices, not in a book. The days when I could sing along to the tunes played on the radio are long since past, even if I could hear what the kids have plugged into their ears. I no longer recognize most celebrities, who appear to be my children’s age or younger. They all seem to have gleaming teeth and unsightly tattoos. They star in movies I don’t watch and sing hit songs I don’t listen to. I tell myself I have moved on in life, as indeed I have. But I also recognize the world is passing me by, as indeed it must. In the end, we all wind up a bit like Rip Van Winkle, who woke up to find himself a stranger in strangely familiar surroundings.