History's Eyewitness

Leonard Dawson

© Copyright 2018 by Leonard Dawson

Old poster for Buffalo Bill's wild west show.

 What do Wyatt Earp and Neil Armstrong have in common? Born in 1881, the year the Earp brothers faced the Clantons in a gunfight at the O. K. Corral, my great-grandmother Alice Sapp lived to see Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969.
Although her life spanned the industrial, nuclear, and space ages, itís not the number of years she lived that made her life special, but the range and depth of the changes her generation experienced. People can argue that change is dizzyingly rapid these days, but her generation saw more people, events, discoveries and inventions than any other did.
Alice grew up in a house with no plumbing, no electricity and no telephone. To talk to a friend she had to saddle up a horse, hitch up the buckboard, or walk. Long distance overland travel meant taking a steam train or stagecoach.
A bible was the only book most families owned in 1881, the year she was born, and coincidently the same year Billy the Kid died. People sat near a wood fire or coal stove to keep warm, and used a candle, a gas light, or a whale oil lamp to read by. As a young girl, Alice could have met a cowboy fresh off a cattle drive, or gone to see Annie Oakley or Buffalo Bill perform in his Wild West Show.
She told me that as a teenager she read dime novels about outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James and newspaper accounts of men like Butch Cassidy. She was in her late teens when San Francisco was destroyed by an earthquake, and still in her teens when Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill during our war with Spain in Cuba.
In her twenties Alice married a widower twenty plus years her senior who had run away when he was twelve to be a drummer boy in the Civil War. She was just entering her thirties when the Titanic struck an iceberg. A few years later the Panama Canal opened. Living through the second decade of the new century, one of humanityís darkest; she had witnessed the outbreak of World War I, the Influenza Pandemic, and the Russian Revolution.
In her forties she lived through the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Newspapers, movie shorts, and radio broadcasts followed the exploits of gangsters like Al Capone and criminals like Bonnie and Clyde.
Alice was approaching fifty when Wall Street crashed in 1929, ushering in another dark period in our past. In the next six years she lived through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, and the advent of the nuclear age.
Women didnít have the right to vote until 1920 when Alice turned thirty-nine. She lived through the Civil Rights movement in her late eighties. She saw the enactment of Social Security, and the creation of the FBI, the CIA, NATO and the United Nations. Nearly all of the vaccines and antibiotics that we take for granted were discovered during Aliceís lifetime. For better or worse, she also saw the advent of mail order catalogues, fast food, shopping malls, and chain stores.
When Alice was born, twelve of our fifty states hadnít been admitted to the union yet, and Israel wouldnít exist as an independent state for another 67 years. The Brooklyn Bridge was considered an engineering marvel. Skyscrapers were a new phenomenon made possible by the invention of the elevator, and exploration meant conquering the North and South poles.
When Alice was a young girl people communicated by letter or telegraph, cooked with wood or coal, cleaned house with a broom, and washed clothes with a hand operated wringer washer. If they were lucky, they preserved their food in an icebox that had a real block of ice in it.
There were a few experimental cars around when she was growing up, but no airplanes, helicopters, jets, rockets, refrigerators, washer-dryers, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, cameras, radios, televisions, VCRs, stereos, electric fans, air conditioners, or computers.
The list of people who influenced her generation for better or worse, included (in no particular order): Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Madam Curie, Charles Lindberg, Albert Einstein, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, Frank Lloyd Wright, Babe Ruth, Mohammed Ali, Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa. And thatís just a few of them.
On a sad note, presidents James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy were all assassinated during her lifetime, as were Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Entertainment as an industry didnít exist when Alice was born. Twenty years later she could listen to records by turning the crank on a Victrola. She saw the advent of silent films, assuming she had the five cents for admission. Alice may have seen Gone with the Wind, the Wizard of OZ, or the first Disney cartoon, when they came out in theaters. She could have read To Kill a Mockingbird the year it was published.
Born when Impressionism was popular, she lived to see Art Deco, Op art, and Modern art. She may have danced the Charleston to the music of a Big Band. She would have heard the birth of every American music genre on the radio, including Swing, American Folk, Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll. As a Southerner, she may have been one of the first people to hear Elvis Presley on the radio, and was alive when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.
With her rugged, independent, American spirit, Alice was the embodiment of her generation. After her husband died she lived alone on a modest rural homestead, remaining self-sufficient by raising her own chickens and growing her own vegetables until she passed away in 1972 at the age of ninety-one.

I spent 27 years working as a computer analyst and have a degree in history.

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