My parents were in their 40s when I was born in 1961, so they were of a different generation than the parents of most of my friends. In addition, my mother came from a small town, my father from a farm, so they had not grown up in our urban/suburban wastelands. My father especially did not have much as a child — newspapers, but no radio and no luxuries. His days were spent working on the farm and driving the two mules; I think he told me he went to school through eighth grade, but his sisters said that he often didn’t go at all so he did not have a steady education although I know he would have wanted one. My mother left school in 11th grade. I don’t know what all she did, but I do know she spent some time working as a maid for people who treated the dog better than they did her.
It’s interesting to think how the world changed in such a short time for people of my parents’ generation. By my friends’ standards, we were poor; by my parents’s standards, my dad’s job at Ford Motor Company had made them more affluent than they had ever been, even living in a mobile home as they did. By 1961, when I was born, they could even afford to buy a new, bigger mobile home. They had things they could never have imagined — refrigerator, camera (a $3 black-and-white Kodak), black-and-white television, radio (kept on the kitchen counter and often listened to during storms and blackouts), vacuum cleaner, and so forth. The day we got a telephone was exciting — my mother was so amazed that I memorized the number immediately — but not nearly as much as the day the color television arrived. (As an aside, I was heartbroken over getting rid of the black-and-white TV, and to be honest I never warmed up to the colour one. To this day, I don’t like colour movies or television nearly as much as black and white, and the overexposed sunniness of an Ingmar Bergman black-and-white film or the surreal black-and-white Mrs. Peel Avengers episodes still evoke a kind of joy in me that I can’t explain — perhaps it does have to do with them feeling like they take place in a different world that I feel closer to.)
My parents (and, I think, their generation) loved gadgets and all the newfangled time-saving devices. My mother in particular always wanted to go shopping (something she normally didn’t like) if she thought she was going to end up with, say, an electric can opener.
It’s hard to say about her because she passed away relatively young (64), but at some point technology outstripped my dad’s ability to understand it. I tried to explain computers to him and even showed him my notebook, but he could never quite understand how the words got to the screen or how they got on paper, or how my brother and I could send messages back and forth instantly, or how I could get the news online. It confused him since he didn’t witness it every day, although I think that he, like many older people today, would have embraced it given the opportunity. At a certain point, though, he did learn some of the capabilities, and he would occasionally say, “Can you email your brother such and such?” His younger sister has a better grasp since her son got a computer and she sees him and his wife working on it.
I could talk about how the country has changed since my dad was born (1913), including the population explosion. But what this was all really leading up to is . . . the caboose. Isn’t that a wonderful word? Ca-boose. Say it. Savour it. Listen to its improbability as a word.
I grew up with cabooses. When at a railway crossing, you always tried to count the cars, and you always tried to be the first to spot the caboose. I think there were even some caboose games with rules, although I no longer remember what they are. I remember most cabooses I saw in New York and Pennsylvania being brick red or a green. Sometimes you could see a man or two hanging out the windows and wave to them.
The caboose is now long gone, having been replaced by safer (it is claimed, anyway) technology. The railroaders protested, the old-timers protested, but it was, like the demise of my black-and-white television, inevitable. It occurred to me one day that I wasn’t seeing as many cabooses and that more and more trains looked “naked” without an end in sight. This was going to be a battle that the railroaders wouldn’t win. I later read in the news it was the end of the line for the caboose.
I was thinking about cabooses the other day for some reason, and then I realised that this is the kind of thing that makes one feel “old” or at least out of place. People 15 years younger than I may never have seen a caboose, except perhaps mentioned in a book or at a museum. People my own age may remember them but not feel the emotional appeal that a memory from youth can have. And, as with my parents, people my age may be the first to wish to discard the old and embrace the new. I doubt there are any 10-year-olds now collecting train sets who insist on a caboose.
Savour that word. In my 40th year of life, it — and I — are anachronisms.