When I Was Young

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch, has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the October/November 1998 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Editor’s Note: If this article were written today, smartphones, the internet and social media would be added to the list of addictions.

My grandfather was born in 1889. He saw his first horseless carriage in Buffalo in 1896, when he was seven. It was steam-powered and panicked the traffic around it, which consisted of horses.

My father was five when he heard a radio broadcast for the first time in 1926. I was the same age when I first saw a television screen light up in 1949 — a nine-inch-diagonal screen set into a massive piece of wooden console furniture. The image was a test pattern, and we watched it, transfixed, for ten or fifteen minutes before Kate Smith came on, singing her lovely “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain” theme song.

Those days, summer evenings were different than they are now. After dinner, people would go out and walk around their neighborhoods in the long, lingering evening light. They weren´t especially going anywhere, just strolling. People would greet each other as they passed on the busy sidewalks or along the lanes. Sometimes I rode my tricycle out ahead of my parents, adventuring forth into an open, friendly world.

In those days, even though the automobile was ubiquitous, there was still something novel about the machines. Going for a drive was a special, but not infrequent, event. We’d drive slowly through neighborhoods; my parents were great admirers of smooth, weedless lawns.

Television ate the heart out of all that — the evening strolls, the lazy drives, the casual familiarity of the neighborhood. By the 1950s, people stayed inside to watch their shows. If you were outside, you wandered the streets and sidewalks almost alone. A blue fire burned in the hearth of each occupied living room. Neighbors walked electronic sidewalks. Energy escaped the community field through a thousand rectangular glass portholes as society willingly sacrificed its hard-won relationships for an addiction to this new shadowbox drug of artificial light.

After that, automobiles became the steel masks that hid our addictions. They facilitated our separation from one another as we hurried here and there. You couldn´t just stop and chat anymore. When you ran into someone, it was an accident, and the police came.

Alienation is no mystery. This is not rocket science. We’re addicted to our isolation and the comfort that isolation brings. It´s no wonder our kids are out there wandering the streets, aimless and alone and bitter. Their parents and grandparents are a bunch of addicts — to TV, cars and all the other stuff of processed living. If they´re supposed to live by our example, the cultural situation is hopeless.

The solution is to go outside and join them.
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Drew Kampion was publisher/editor of the Island Independent, a once popular, now defunct, Whidbey Island weekly newspaper.

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