These old timers have nostalgia all wrong — Column

August 2, 2021 5:10 am

Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, lionized today as an early feminist, was considered a dangerous radical by many during her lifetime. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Years ago, when he was still alive, my grandfather Marvin Johnson showed me a small slip of paper from the drawer of his end table. It was a list of names I did not recognize. As he filled in his crossword puzzle, grandpa told me that these people were buried in unmarked graves on the other side of the freeway. 

They died in 1918 during the flu epidemic. They had no known next of kin, so the village of Keewatin buried the bodies south of town long before the freeway came through. 

Grandpa got the list from the former mayor, Doc Kelly, who was then also dead, though much more recently. He didn’t know if Kelly had given the list to anyone else. Neither Gramps nor the good doctor had been born when these people died, but they had at least heard of them. As far as my grandfather knew at the time, his was the only list, entrusted with him for safekeeping.

I sat looking at these names. Men and women. Boys and girls. All were immigrants whose last words were likely spoken to a person who did not understand them. 

How easily these names could be forgotten forever, tossed away with old issues of TV Guide and grandpa’s petrified hard candies. But then again, how different are the names of people with elaborate tombstones?

“Every generation is handed a world that has been shaped by their predecessors — and then seemingly forgets that fact,” wrote Richard Fisher in a June 24 piece for the BBC. He’s talking about the term “generational amnesia.” 

Just as every generation grows to lament “the kids these days,” we paradoxically learn to forget the world that came before us. We struggle with new technology, thinking that we’re the first ones to do so. “Technology,” Fisher paraphrases from a computer scientist, “should be defined as ‘anything that was invented after you were born.’”

A cigar company advertising postcard of prominent Hibbing men after a grouse hunt in about 1913 or 1914. Photo courtesy of Hibbing Historical Society.

So these old tropes of complaining about Elvis … or Boy George … or Justin Bieber … or whoever comes next, these are just part of the fear of change built into the human experience. Sure, we have good reason to fear change. We’re too scared to even consider how much has already changed. Nor will we ever comfortably accept our own role in destroying and then forgetting what came before.

Fisher describes how easily people forget that positive social change, such as equality for women, were typically advanced by unpopular activists who spent years in the political wilderness branded as radicals. Furthermore, we tend to minimize our ancestors’ roles in damaging society or the environment.

For instance, around the same time those poor people died of the flu, local hunting photographs from the early 1900s depict bountiful game. Usually it’s someone’s grandpa displaying 50-100 grouse in an elaborately macabre formation. 

Bag limits for partridge, or slot limits for walleye, these did not exist. But this is also where nostalgia fails. If today’s hunters and anglers know anything about the past, they know these pictures. They then lament current Department of Natural Resources regulations while celebrating the very acts that require such regulations to exist. The fact is, we are lifetimes from game ever being that plentiful again, if it’s even possible. 

This seems particularly relevant as we struggle to reconcile matters like climate change and racial or gender disparities. If we were a little more afraid of what was done in the past, we might not fear the open possibilities of the future.

Grandpa’s list of flu victims is no longer a secret. In 2006, Keewatin published a centennial book that included the names along with local recipes, remembrances, and the high school sports glories of the dead or dying. Grandma still has a copy somewhere. So do some of my aunts. I suppose this is marginally better than a crumpled note in a drawer.

Perhaps Jeff Tweedy of Wilco had it right when he sang, “Every generation thinks it’s the last, thinks it’s the end of the world.”

The chorus of that song goes, “You never know.”

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.