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Where on Earth are we Headed?

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The Charleston Gazette

Look back over your life and count the amazing changes.

There was no electricity in the Appalachian farm town where I was born in 1932. We had gaslights with fragile mantles that crumbled at a touch, and gas stoves hooked up with rubber hoses. Families outside of town, beyond the gas lines, lived with smelly kerosene lamps and wood stoves.

People used gasoline-powered Maytag washers that sounded like machine guns and had long exhaust hoses to carry off fumes. Some hilltop families had windmill chargers for their battery radios.

My family was the white-collar elite - father a postmaster, mother a schoolteacher - and we enjoyed the finer things: a Model-A coupe, an Oliver No. 9 typewriter that hammered like a gandy-dancer crew, a Ludwig upright piano that weighed a ton, running water from a gas-powered neighborhood pumping system.

Hollow folks had handle pumps, washbasins, thundermugs, outdoor privies. Horse-drawn wagons were their chief transport. The local highway was gravel that clanked against fenders and running-boards. Some other roads were just mud. Horses were as common in the streets as cars. A passing airplane caused everyone to stop and stare.

When electricity came, wires were tacked across our ceilings. My father kept the gaslights too, because he distrusted novelties.

Plastic was unknown. A few things were made of "hard rubber" or Bakelite.

Streamlined cars finally appeared and my family got a racy 1937 Ford. The price was outrageous: $800.

When World War II arrived, all the young men left and I, age 10, was the only farmhand available to my family. My old uncle's farm two miles up Big Fishing Creek was horse-operated, little changed from a century earlier. We plowed and mowed by team, milked and hoed by hand, killed copperheads in the hayfields, found Indian arrowheads in the corn furrows. Frugality was supreme; every bent nail was saved and carefully straightened.

After the war, change stirred. Jet planes and nuclear bombs were in the news. Dial telephones came - except for ridgetops, which still had hand-crankers on the wall. A state prison camp moved to town and convicts built the first asphalt road.

I came to Charleston, West Virginia, in 1949 to live with an aunt and uncle, and they had the new miracle: a massive wooden television set with a tiny black-and-white screen. We stared for hours at wrestling matches and the Kukla, Fran & Ollie puppet show. (Is today's programming really any better?)

The pace quickened: Long-playing records replaced clunking stacks of 78-rpm disks. The first ballpoint pens skipped and scraped. Tubeless tires arrived. So did wire recorders and heavy tape recorders. Autogiros evolved into helicopters.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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