Thinking about a time before

Imagine a world before the horror and reality of World War II lodged in every person’s consciousness, where a horse’s snorting wicker was part of everyday noise, and a real treat was a fresh-picked apple.

I’m reading Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, a Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mystery. The book was published in the 1930’s, and it’s set in a British resort town, Wilvercombe. At the beginning of the book, Harriet discovers a corpse on the beach, and she searches for a way to let the authorities know before the tide comes in and floats the body away.

She climbs to the road and runs from farm to farm, but no one, yet, has a telephone hooked up. The vehicles that pass her as she makes her frantic search are as often horse-driven as motor-powered.

It’s a time when the technology has been tested and approved but not adopted. What a leap from that decade to the one we inhabit, when any event is captured in a video on a cell phone. The tragedy Harriet discovered in fictional 1930 England would have been resolved entirely differently in 2014 United States. Authorities would have been summoned immediately. DNA testing would have established and ruled out a number of suspicious folks who just happened to be around the scene. The body would never have floated out to sea, and experts would have quickly determined if the wound was self-inflicted or if the victim had died at someone else’s hand.

Of course, the right answer floats to the top in the book, thanks to the wits and skill of Lord Peter and Harriet, but the solution requires a long and thoughtful process, and a lot of fatiguing footwork.

Dance clubs play a big part in this story, and I’m reading about a dance club here in town, The Hawthorne, where Eva Prout Geiger was hostess during the 1930’s. Geiger planned entertainments and welcomed guests; her husband acted as master of ceremonies. With their strong fresh ties to vaudeville, they no doubt arranged for stunning acts.

My friend Susan’s mother remembers going to the Hawthorne as a young teen. It was very exclusive, she told Susan, and it was a big deal to be invited.

I try to think of a modern day equivalent. What invitation would give us the same kind of thrill as being invited to a dance at that very select club?

PBS airs a preview of a series about the Roosevelts, and the 1930’s are pivotal. The Depression is crippling the United States. FDR is surmounting his physical challenges and rising to a point where the presidency is within his reach. My mother is a pre-teen in a Fresh Air camp, and one of their distinguished visitors is Eleanor Roosevelt.

FDR initiates programs that try to bring electricity to the farflung rural districts, to get people on remote farms access to a telephone.

It seems to me a time of struggle, in the shadow of Hitler’s rise and a conflict and a thirst for power that will change everything, the whole world over. When I think about the 1930’s, I realize it was one of those decades that draw a thick black line between one kind of life and the possibility of ever living that way again.

Less than 100 years have passed, but what changes we’ve seen. Now the outlying areas in my corner of Appalachian Ohio are struggling to get access to high speed Internet, and our education is shaped or hampered by this access. We are connected, connected, connected–there is seldom a time when an electronic device is not handy and streaming our information onto that electronic highway.

Now, it happens that we might see a horse and rider on a country road, but it’s a fun oddity.

And yet…the farmers’ market is a bustling place, where we stop at stalls to talk with growers, caught by the beauty of a jumble of red, yellow, and green peppers, the regal purple shine of eggplant, the waxy, ‘touch-me’ skins of yellow squash. We shop, seduced and entranced by the freshness and beauty of the produce, grown in ways very similar to those of the 1930’s. We stop and talk with people we know, neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances, and friends. We line up for a freshly fried doughnut and a cup of just brewed coffee, and we amble.

And–although our smart phones may buzz in our pockets, and one of the young people we talk with may have an interesting facial piercing and magenta hair–the scene cannot be that different from what our parents and grandparents experienced and enjoyed in the 1930’s. There’s something we need here, something we search for,–something that keeps the deeper connection, to the land, and the food, and the people who produce it, alive.

Technologically, we’ve come a long way since my Lord Peter book was published in the United States in 1932. I think of my parents, children in a time before World War II, and I try to imagine what it would be like to grow up without the knowledge of that cataclysmic war in our consciousness from birth. Good changes have come–advances in medicine and adaptive technology and education, surges forward in understanding and acceptance of differences, whatever they may be–but it seems to me that something fundamental, something more openly acknowledged in 1930, is still alive within us.

On early Saturday mornings, when I don’t have to work, I head to the farmers’ market at the fairgrounds. I finger the dollar bills in the pocket of my jeans, and I carefully circuit the stalls before committing–green beans, tiny waxy white onions, little red-skinned potatoes with the morning’s dirt still clinging. I cannot resist a clutch of sunflowers. I see a fellow club member; we stop and examine each other’s purchase, and we talk about recipes and relative merits of boiling, broasting, and grilling.

Then I get in the car and check my phone, roll up the windows, and crank up the AC. My sunflowers rest on the seat beside me as I peel away, back to my 2014 reality. But the respite, the window, the time spent contemplating the fruits of the earth, connect me to those earlier days and to something fundamental. I suspect those who lived through the 1930’s would not particularly call that time a decade of innocence, but it was the last time, maybe, that those fundamentals were an ordinary part of life.

Today, we search them out.


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