That headline sounds a bit like the kind of judgmental cliche you hear from your cranky old grandpa, like, “Why back in my day, we didn’t have your fancy-schmancy devices, and we liked it!”
But actually, this is about a realization I’ve come to over time regarding the way things were in a time before my time, based on physical evidence I’ve encountered.
Over the weekend, my wife and I drove our twin granddaughters to their summer camp in Warm Springs, Ga. That place name is redolent with history, so we weren’t going to go all that way without seeing the “Little White House,” where FDR stayed when he went there for the waters, and where he set up institutions for helping people with all sorts of handicaps.
I highly recommend going to see it, and the nice little museum the state of Georgia has put next to it, with all sorts of artifacts such as a couple of FDR’s modified cars, a special wheelchair to use at the pool, hats, canes, cigarette holders, and lots of stories not only about the Roosevelts, but of regular folks who lived through those extraordinary times.
Of course I went into grandfather mode, pointing out things that I hoped would help our little girls understand that time. At one point, I called them over to a photograph of Roosevelt seated at a dinner next to a young boy (possibly another polio victim) and flashing him that great FDR grin. And I told the girls this was what FDR did for the whole country — he rose above all the setbacks and suffering of his own life, and put extraordinary energy into keeping everyone else’s spirits up. (If only I had a small fraction of that strength of character!)
Another exhibit helped me drive that point home — a small kitchen set up with period appliances (I explained to them what an icebox was), including a modest little radio that was playing one of the president’s Fireside Chats.
Anyway, once again, I recommend it.
But I wanted to share an impression I personally gained from what I saw. It was in the truly tiny “Little White House” itself. I couldn’t help thinking, This was the favored retreat of this great, patrician man who held the fate of the world in his hands? Few upper-middle-class types today, much less someone with the stature of a Roosevelt (were there any such people today) would be satisfied with this as a second home, based on what I see down on our coast.
The point was driven home when I saw the room, and the bed, in which he died. The room could barely contain the tiny single bed in which he lay. There was hardly enough space to walk past it. The bed itself reminds me of the twin beds that my brother and I slept in when I was about 8.
And this was not an anomaly. Since Hobcaw Barony is a client of ADCO’s, I’ve had occasion to visit Bernard Baruch’s house there, preserved much as it was when he lived there. It has its nods to grandeur, to be sure, some of the rooms containing some very fine things. But I was struck by the smallness, the dumpiness even, of the beds and rooms where FDR and Winston Churchill slept when they were visiting the great man.
Yes, these were vacation homes, and those who owned and visited them were no doubt deliberately embracing a certain ethic of “roughing it.”
But it still strikes me as amazing, when I consider the kinds of accommodations that so many people expect as the norm today.
And it made me think even better of the people who went before us, and shaped the world in which we live…