Reflecting on a Past Generation

Generations past worked their bodies so much more each day than people in today's world.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


A little more than a month ago, my wife's family held an auction out in North Dakota. Her father died last spring, and he had collected lots of stuff in his multiple careers as a plumber and air-conditioning technician and a small farmer.

It was a chilly but brilliant fall day. The beautiful grove of trees surrounding the farmstead where he grew up, lived and died was shrouded in golden leaves. Hundreds of people showed up to find a bargain, to talk to neighbors, to drink coffee from Styrofoam cups, and listen to the auctioneer's song.

My father-in-law whose name was Verle Vram(ph) was a child of the Depression. He never threw anything away, and in the week before the auction, all that he had accumulated had to be dragged from the barn and sheds and arranged on the lawn, nails and bolts on one pallet, hand tools on a flat bed trailer, tractors, cars and trucks all lined up - least desirable to most desirable to keep the maximum number of bidders around until the end of the sale.

As we sorted through 10-pound pipe wrenches, hefted 50-pound compressor motors, and dragged tons of scrap metal from the trees, it became physically clear to me how different my life is from my father-in-law's. He lifted more weight in a day than I do in a month. He was a Machine Age man; I live in the age of the silicon chip.

Verle learned to sling pipe wrenches during World War II, in the engine room of a liberty ship surrounded by glowing coal-fired boilers and massive pistons propelling the supply ship through dangerous waters. As a plumber, he carried tons of cast iron and copper pipe. Later, he wrangled old three-ton tractors to till his small farm. He became incredibly strong and though I was six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier, I believe that he was the stronger man until his health began to fail at about age 75. Part of it was his understanding of leverage, of fulcrum points, of using an object's weight to your advantage. He patiently taught me a lot of those things as I worked with him over the years, but I have less and less chance to apply those skills. In fact, they've become metaphorical for me - finding leverage in a negotiation, the fulcrum point in an argument, using an opponent's strength against them.

The world has become so light. I have a laptop computer on which I can do all my work; soon I'll be able to do it on a device the size of a BlackBerry. Where will it end? Are we being liberated or becoming insubstantial? When men like Verle are all gone, who will carry the heavy things?

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.