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The ability to perceive the constancy of human nature is generally rated as a virtue. For instance, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik is praising Philip K. Dick when he notes in the August 20 issue that the “central idea” of one of Dick’s sci-fi novels is this: “The future will be like the past, in the sense that, no matter how amazing or technologically advanced a society becomes, the basic human rhythm of petty malevolence, sordid moneygrubbing, and official violence illuminated by occasional bursts of loyalty or desire or tenderness, will go on.”
Driving across northern Ohio the other day, my wife and I broke for breakfast and the Bob Evans hostess seated us right outside the toilets, which may account for my aggressive meditation on the framed photos on the walls. This was the rust belt, and the pictures recalled a time when the rust was steel and life was good. One offered a view of the 1946 Soap Box Derby finals, three little race cars tearing down a long Akron hill before tens of thousands of spectators. Another was labeled
Junior Baseball Champions
Here was a cluster of dapper young men in suits and ties standing on a baseball field, no doubt the one where they’d prevailed. A grandstand rose in tiers behind them. One youth had been instructed to shake the hand of an older fellow in a baseball uniform, a big C on his jersey. Who was he? I put the kids at about 17 to 20 years of age. Nine years later they’d still be in their 20s, plenty young enough to be drafted after Pearl Harbor. A few would survive first the Depression and then World War II and afterward the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, and finally these stragglers would be anointed the “greatest generation,” with all the privileges and consolations that pertain thereto.
Who were they? They looked self-confident and at ease in a way that isn’t quite ours but close enough, and somewhat older than someone of the same age looks today. In short, they didn’t seem very different. But did these kids in 1932 think as we think about money, and clothing, and careers? Did anyone have a career back then, or did they merely have, if they were lucky, work? Did they think like us about America’s place in the world and about America’s enemies? Surely they brought very different assumptions to what I was doing just then — traveling a long distance by car. What did they see through the windshield? Did they see an “environment”? When someone said — oh, I don’t know — “Italians” to them, what came to mind? What was their idea of good music?
What diseases frightened them? What did they expect from medicine? What assumptions did they make about their own existence? I was coming home from a wedding on a remote hilltop in Vermont; it was catered, under a tent, by a Lebanese restaurant from another town. How did they imagine their own?
I was pretty sure these young athletes did not think anything like we think. The monetary inflation that would confound them if they visited our times would merely betoken, and perhaps inadequately, the bewildering differences between their cast of mind and our own. I wondered what, if anything, we’d have in common. Well, they were junior baseball champions. They knew the same pleasures of swinging a bat, throwing a ball, rounding third for home.