Paw (as I called him) died in December of 1975, when I was 17. I knew him very well and still remember him quite vividly. He was not very tall, and quite wiry, and rather dark complected, unlike his two children – two boys – who were both big, burly, light-skinned, red-headed men, looking all Irish, like their mother (Theresa “Tessy” Boudreaux, née Flanagan). They had in their looks not a bit of the French that was evident in my grandfather’s appearance.
(In the accompanying picture – sent to me by my cousin Connie – Paw and Maw are both much younger than I remember them. My best guess is that this picture was taken in the mid- to late 1940s. My grandmother, who died in 1967 at the age of 62, still had little gray in her hair. My grandfather’s hair was completely gray for as long as I can recall.)
In my earlier recollections at Cafe Hayek of Paw I marveled at the economic improvements that he witnessed during his 75 years on this planet. Yet if today’s commonplace understanding is true, Paw died at middle-class America’s economic zenith. Since then, we are told repeatedly, ordinary Americans have merely treaded water economically.
Well. I wonder what Paw would think if he were resurrected on his 120th birthday, after having been dead for nearly 45 years, and given a glimpse of America in 2020. (Forget covid; forget the ‘woke’ and ‘cancel’ insanities. I’m referring here to long-term economic trends.) If the commonplace claim about stagnating living standards is true, Paw would easily recognize the America of 2020. Sure, many clothing styles and language parameters would be unfamiliar to him – as would smoking habits. (He’d be quite annoyed at being unable to smoke indoors.) But most aspects of middle-class American life would be familiar.
But would they, in fact, be familiar? Hardly.
Paw never heard of commercial overnight delivery; it didn’t exist during his lifetime. All phones that he knew were attached to walls or cords; many (most?) still had rotary dials. (The two telephones in our home – which Paw shared with us from 1967 until he died in 1975 – each had rotary dials.) The last supermarket that he visited likely offered about 5,000 different items – a mere ten percent of the number of offerings in a typical American supermarket of 2020.
Paw, who had television for less than 20 years of his life, never had more than four channels from among which to choose to watch. What would he make of today’s hundreds of viewing choices?
“Surfing the web” would be a nonsense phrase to his ears. As would “Google it.” Indeed, as would also “personal computer.”
Paw probably had heard of disposals in kitchen sinks, but I’m certain that he never saw one. Were he to shop in 2020 for food, clothing, or consumer durables, he would find their prices – in terms of the amount of work-time necessary to earn income sufficient to purchase these things – fabulously lower than he experienced during his day.
Paw would hardly know what to make of a 2020 automobile. “Whaddaya mean, ‘keyless entry’?” “Oh man, the steering wheel tilts – and best of all, this car ain’t even a Cadillac!” “GP-what? What kind of ‘navigation’?” “Whaddaya mean you haven’t ever had this car of yours tuned-up? It’s got 29,000 miles on it! It’s going to die any minute!” I’m sure he’d not really believe me if I told him that this car of mine won’t need a “tune up” until it’s been driven 100,000 miles.
As far as the car’s music system, well, what was top-of-the-line for middle-class Americans in 1975 was in-dash 8-track players. Could Paw even begin to grasp what it means to stream music into a cell phone and, from there through Bluetooth, into the car’s speakers?
I’m sure that he’d have manually to lift his jaw from the car’s floor upon first seeing the driver or a fellow passenger actually talking on a telephone while speeding along a highway.
Having never flown in an airplane – and dying before commercial air travel became commonplace (that is, before it became affordable) – Paw would be dumbfounded to discover that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren think nothing of flying because flying is oh-so routine and familiar.
Paw was a pretty good amateur carpenter, one with, upon his death, a decent collection of hand tools and some power tools. (In my mind’s eye I still see his hammer, with all of its idiosyncratic nicks and ancient paint stains, and his manual planer.) But I thrill to imagine escorting him through a Home Depot or Lowe’s. Tools unimaginable. Building materials unthinkable. Product selection inconceivable. Affordability stunning.
Despite being 100 percent cajun – all of his ancestors, originally from France’s Vendée region, arrived in south Louisiana from Nova Scotia about 150 years before his birth – he didn’t drink much. But when he did drink, he preferred Dixie or Schwegmann’s beer. He’d have a difficult time mentally processing the countless different kinds of beer available today.
Paw was on the quiet side, but he loved and enjoyed spending time with his family. What would he think of being able to talk with his favorite grandchild, my dear brother Ryan, over Google home – that is, not just talk with Ryan, but to have with Ryan and Ryan’s family a video chat?! Paw in New Orleans video chatting with Ryan, Ruth, and Adrienne who live in Nevada City, CA – oh, the thought is so wonderful!
My grandfather died at time when middle-class Americans’ living standard had never been as high. But since his death almost 45 years ago, those standards have consistently risen. 2020 America would, for my resurrected grandfather, be a place of marvelous miracles. But that which he’d find most difficult to grasp would be the speeches and writings of those who tell ordinary Americans today that they live no, or not much, better than did their counterparts in 1975. I can still hear his laugh – and he’d have a mighty good one at that claim!