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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: A Lot of History Passed in 79 Years

By Tom Morrow

While some of the days I’ve witnessed over the past 79 years have been cloudy, for the most part it’s been a great ride – so far.

During the middle years of the 20th century, America began to pull out of a Great Depression and World War to become the leader of the world – albeit a war-torn one. Since the days of Teddy Roosevelt and his “big stick” diplomacy, the United States had been pretty much an isolationist country after World War I. In rural America, the average citizen had never traveled more than 50 miles from home. Most rural homes used kerosene lanterns for light — electricity was for city folk. As World War II became the defining years of the 20th century; it moved America from that of agrarian to industrial.

The year 1939, was the year I began to witness history. It was the dawn of another global conflict. Europe was falling victim to military dictatorship, and here at home our nation was climbing out of crushing economic chaos.

The average income in America was $1,729, and you could pay rent for $28 per month, and, if you had the money, a new Ford or Chevy was $700. You could “fill ‘er up” for .10 cents a gallon, watch a movie for .25 cents, mail a letter for .3 cents, or buy a new house for $3,850.

Headlines throughout 1939 were among history’s most dramatic: The New York World’s Fair spotlighted television, with RCA’s first public telecast; Italian dictator Benito Mussolini invaded neighboring Albania, while Francisco Franco’s troops captured Madrid, ending the Spanish Civil War.

That year Germany signed a “non-aggression” treaty with the Soviet Union, giving Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler a pass to invade Poland from the west; the Soviet would attack from the east. On Sept. 1, 1939, World War II began when Hitler, did indeed, invade Poland. That blatant act of aggression, by treaty, brought Great Britain and France into the war.

The dawn of the nuclear age was launched when scientist Enrico Fermi successfully split the atom.

Here at home, the Baseball Hall of Fame was established in Cooperstown, N.Y.; the U.S. proclaimed neutrality from the European conflict; the first local food-stamp program was established in Rochester, N.Y., and following up on Fermi’s splitting of the atom, Albert Einstein informed President Franklin Roosevelt that nuclear chain reactions could create destructive bombs.

Peace advocates like aviator Charles Lindbergh and industrialist Henry Ford warned against any U.S. involvement in the World War. Business-wise, the electronic company of Hewlitt Packard was founded, and for the first time you could buy Lay’s potato chips in grocery stories. While there, you could buy 10 pounds of sugar for just .59 cents, a gallon of milk for .49 cents, coffee was .40 cents a pound, hamburger was .14 cents a pound, and a freshly-baked loaf of bread was .08 cents.

In 1939, the New York Yankees won the World Series of baseball (again), Byron Nelson won the U.S. Open in golf, and Wilbur Shaw raced to an astounding 115 mph to win the Indianapolis 500. The Boston Bruins won hockey’s Stanley Cup, Oregon was the NCAA basketball champions, Texas A&M took the NCAA football crown, and quarterback Nile Kinnick of the State University of Iowa won the Heisman Trophy.

In 1939, that was the year Yankee first baseman Lou Gehrig missed his first baseball game in 15 years. His 1,230 consecutive games-played was a record that stood for 56 years until Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995.

In 1939, the average American lived 59.7 years. “Cactus” Jack Garner was U.S Vice President, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote “The Yearling,” won the Pulitzer Prize, and Patricia Donnelly of Detroit was crowned Miss America.

The combined progress made since 1939 has been the most comprehensive since the beginning of time. Man walked on the Moon during the last 79 years.

So, those of us who have lived 79 years and more have witnessed a great deal of world history, alas, some of it being repeated today. Although, I doubt we’ll ever again be able to buy a gallon of gasoline for a dime.


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