The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Ralph Couey

December 11, 2010

RALPH COUEY | Appreciation for progress

— I like to read other columnists. I do this for two reasons:  

(1) It makes me a better writer; and (2) they’re fun to read.

One of my favorites is 83-years-young Bernice Couey Bishop, who writes for the Rome, Ga., News-Tribune.

I have to admit it was the name thing that initially got my attention, but it is the quality of her work that keeps me coming back.

In her latest effort*, she wrote about the one thing for which she was most grateful: Indoor plumbing.

Bernice’s father worked for the railroad. As a benefit, the families lived in houses built by the company.  Without electricity, heat or running water, and lit at night by the dim yellow glow of kerosene lamps, it was merely shelter. But for a Depression-era family, it was palatial.

Life was hard, hauling water from the well to the house for drinking, cooking and washing; the weekly bath where only the first bather got clean water. 

When the Georgia heat inspired thirst, instead of a clean glass from the cupboard, everyone used the same dipper.

A trip to the outhouse was made dangerous by snakes, spiders and polecats (skunks). 

Since a night visit was hazardous (her grandmother once fell and broke her leg), they kept … um … alternative choices in the house, called “slop jars.”  Her job was to empty them in the morning.

 Can you imagine any 21st century teenager doing that willingly?

It was a wonderful piece of writing, making me realize how “spoiled” we are today. 

Of course, every generation has “hard life” stories to relate, but I know that the worst of mine would have been considered “livin’ in tall cotton” to Bernice’s family. 

I was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom. My first reliable memories kick in around 1960, like astronaut Alan Shepard, Mickey Mantle, Mickey Rooney, Mickey Mouse and Romper Room. 

It was a time of great adventure. America had hit her post-war stride.  We were going into space and shooting for the moon. It seemed that the sky was the limit and we could accomplish just about anything we wanted. 

Technology was beginning to influence our lives; incredible developments were rolling out of the labs and into our homes. 

Televisions got smaller and acquired color. Radios went from a huge piece of furniture to a something the size of a  pack of cigarettes.

Typewriters were electrified, mimeograph became the teacher's best friend (remember that ink smell?). 

Microwaves were still 10 years off, but frozen pre-packaged meals appeared in our freezer. 

They were a treat; Mom’s night off. Usually on Saturday nights, we would eat those TV dinners on rickety TV trays in front of the TV. Mom, I’m sure, felt guilty.

I thought it was great.

However, I will be the first to admit that I led a sheltered life. 

It wasn’t until I began listening to Dr. Martin Luther King and watching the protests and riots on TV that I discovered that life was not so idyllic for some. 

Today, I complain about only having three television stations to watch back then, or not getting air conditioning until I was almost 10, but I suspect people like Bernice would only roll their eyes in exasperation; and with good reason.

I do wish, though, that I hadn’t grown up so fast. 

Childhood is, after all, a time of innocence; a time to be introduced slowly to life’s harshness.

Bernice’s world was full of hard work and privation, to be sure.  But I’m guessing the first dead human she saw was in a funeral home, not lying in the street, covered in blood.

And without the never-blinking eye of television, she didn’t grow up watching a war in living color.

So, when our kids and grandkids grow up, what tales of hard times will they tell?

Surfing the Internet with only a 19k dial-up modem on a computer with a 6-mhz processor and no on-board memory?   

No smart phones or iPods, or e-mail or texting?  Going to school hauling a backpack stuffed with 30 pounds of books, instead of a 6-ounce digital reader?  Actually having to write by hand with a pen and paper?

Yes, they will have their own hard life stories to tell.

And some of them may actually be true.

*You can read Bernice’s story at: full_story/10292350/article-Thankful-for-indoor-plumbing?

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.

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