The good old days . . .

March 15, 1995|By Janet Heller

WERE HE ALIVE, my father would turn 100 years old this year. Born in an obscure village in the Ukraine without electricity or a paved road, he did not see an orange or a banana or taste chocolate until he landed in the United States as an immigrant in 1911.

His dreams of an education and a profession were realized in this country, and he died not owing anyone anything at 94. Today his grandchildren eat strawberries in December and communicate by fax and electronic mail.

As we approach the 21st century, it is intriguing to look back on some of the events that took place in the year he was born -- 1895.

* Tires for the early automobiles were first manufactured in France by Michelin, and the first auto race in this country took place on Thanksgiving Day 1895 between Milwaukee and Chicago; the average speed was 5.25 miles per hour.

* Guglielmo Marconi, at age 21, transmitted a message to his brother who was waiting for it out of sight behind a nearby hill. A year later he received the first patent for his invention, the radio.

* Sears Roebuck had sales totaling $750,000, twice what it had two years before, but a tiny sum by today's measure.

* The word calorie was applied to food for the first time by Wesleyan Professor Wilbur Olin Atwater. Today millions of people count calories, numerous books are written on the

subject and a diet industry centered around good and bad calories has made some folks rich. In other parts of the world, however, people who never heard of the word are dying of starvation.

* Utah was admitted to the union as the 45th state after the Mormons agreed to give up polygamous marriages.

* Stephen Crane's memorable book "The Red Badge of Courage" was published.

* Black educator Booker T. Washington delivered his famous speech, "The Atlanta Compromise," at the Cotton States International Exposition in Atlanta, agreeing to the withdrawal of blacks from politics in return for a guarantee of education and technical training. His remarks were not received happily in many quarters.

* Encouraged by the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, 108,000 Russians emigrated with most going to Siberia. This was a fate forced upon countless unfortunates during the Stalin era. If Siberia had any charms then or now, we have yet to hear about them.

* Railroad heir George Washington Vanderbilt, grandson of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, built the world's largest private house in Ashville, N.C. Known as The Biltmore, the grandiose structure was constructed on 119,000 acres at a cost of $4.1 million; a mind-boggling sum at the time.

A few years after World War II ended, my father (an heir to nothing but his own ambition) built a colonial style, four-bedroom house, which he put on sale for $10,000. He often recalled how worried he was that no one would buy it and he'd go broke. Luckily it sold, as did others, and he was able to send his children to college and leave his grandchildren a modest inheritance. Not bad for a "greenhorn" whose life spanned an era of incredible technological advance, but saw only marginal progress in the ability of human beings to get along with each other.

Janet Heller writes from Baltimore.

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