The Weekly checks in with area seniors to ask them what’s on their minds in the year 2000.
It’s the 21st century, and things don’t seem quite right. We want some community, and we want some wisdom. But sometimes it feels like the world is divided into 6 billion tiny pieces. So we’ve spoken to a few of the area’s senior citizens, just to ask them what’s on their minds in the year 2000. And as we face the not entirely improbable prospect of a massive market crash of our own, it might not be such a bad idea to listen to some people who have already lived through a major American economic depression — and banded together to beat it. True, all that closeness resulted in some post-war conformity that a younger generation fought, proudly, to bring down. But unless you believe the soda and auto ads, the spirit of the 1960s has been pretty much co-opted, and where we are now is starting to feel very cold. We asked some seniors to tell us about their early memories, and to cast their votes for the 20th century’s greatest innovations. We also asked for advice.
Katherine R. Dutton, 94
Shortly after Katie Dutton arrived in the United States from Austro-Hungary in 1913 with her family, her father sought out the man to whom he’d lent a large sum of money. Mrs. Dutton’s father had run a hotel in Vienna; he gave the loan to someone he’d considered a close friend for an oil venture. That friend did in fact strike it rich. But when her father confronted him, Mrs. Dutton remembers, “the man said he never knew who my father was.” There had been no contracts, no agreements on paper. Mrs. Dutton’s family had to start all over again. It was a harsh lesson in a changing world.
“In those days, a handshake was your bond,” Mrs. Dutton says from her apartment in Darien’s Stony Brook. “And when you shook my father’s hand, that was enough for him.”
She sits on a stiff-backed wooden chair, directly in front of a high desk with built-in glass cabinets. Pictures of her great-grand-nieces and nephews are framed all around her; she faces the enormous 1940s couch, neatly dressed in royal blue, a barrette clasping her white hair.
She was 8 years old when she first started school in New York City. Because she couldn’t speak English, she was placed in kindergarten. She struggled at first, tall and gawky, hurt by the other children’s teasing. One day she asked her teacher, who was also Hungarian, why she couldn’t be taught in her original tongue. “She said, ‘My dear child, you are now an American, and in America, we speak English. And you have to learn it,’ ” Dutton says. “And I did…And whatever I learned in school, I brought home and taught my mother and father.”
Mrs. Dutton eventually moved to White Plains, where she was married in 1930. Her husband, Bill, was a civil engineer who lost his job six months after their wedding. He would later find work with the New Deal, but during the first years of the Depression, Mrs. Dutton had to take on two bookkeeping jobs while he took part in Hoover’s version of the later, more extensive WPA programs. “Every third week, you’d work a week,” Mrs. Dutton says, “and you’d get $13 a week. And if it happened to rain on your week, you were out of luck. Digging ditches, cleaning gutters, whatever. The hardest thing my husband ever had to do was draw a straight line. Now he was digging ditches, cleaning out culverts and so forth. And he never forgot it.”
That memory is reflected in her advice to the 21st century, as it is with every soul who lived through the Depression. “You have to save,” she says. “You have to do with less. And you can.” It’s precisely the kind of sensible words that are increasingly hard to hear from underneath the piles of bills and the salesmen’s barking. Mrs. Dutton, who had to start work straight from high school, also stresses schooling. “Study,” she says. “Learn all that you can. And listen, and observe. Because there are so many things that you can learn just by that. I couldn’t even begin to name it all.”
The century’s greatest innovation? “The advances in medicine, for one thing,” she says. “All of the research and cures. They took care of influenza. And I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have all my medications. I think by the grace of God, I feel fine. He’s not ready for me yet. The family calls me ‘Bionic Woman.’ ”
Werner F. Auerbacher, 90
Werner Auerbacher was born in Germany, near the French border, and lived in French-occupied Germany as a boy. “I saw the Germans go into France, and I saw them come back a few years later,” he says. “In school, too, we were told how great the Germans are. We were told the Rhine was a German stream, not Germany’s border.”
Energetic and thoughtful — days, he still works for a Westchester electronics firm — he tells stories of movement and speed. “My father bought his first car around 1920,” he says. “That was a Fiat. And I remember, we had a chauffeur, because my father didn’t know how to drive. The chauffeur’s dream was to drive a hundred kilometers an hour. And we managed it once,” he adds with a laugh, “on a very straight road, with enough wind behind us.” He remembers, too, flying in a two-seat leftover navy bomber in 1921, open to the sky.
“But these things really didn’t determine my life,” he says. “What determined my life was when I was in high school, and somebody told me that you could hear something without wires. I didn’t believe it. It was about 1923. Then I started to play around with it. Friends came to my house, and they heard the sounds and music without wires. They wanted to buy it for their parents, but you couldn’t buy that stuff yet. So I started to build it for them.”
Mr. Auerbacher set up a lottery, selling tickets to his family. He bought parts with his cut of the profits. He built his own sets in the pre-vacuum tube era, which naturally led to his first job with Phillips in Holland. From there, he moved to America in 1936 to continue his work — for 45 cents an hour, the minimum wage.
“My parents were very opposed to my becoming what in those days was called a radio engineer,” he says. “Everybody thought there was no future in it. And in 1939, when I was in a social gathering in New York City, somebody said, ‘What do you do for a living, young man?’ And I said, ‘I’m a radio engineer.’ He said, ‘You poor guy.’ I said, ‘Why am I a poor guy?’ He said, ‘We have 40 million families in the United States, and up to this point, we’ve made 28 and a half million radios. There’s 11 and a half more million radios to go, and then who needs a radio?’ So then I said, ‘I don’t agree with you.’ I said, ‘The next thing is picture-radio.’ ”
Mr. Auerbacher went on to become one of the engineers who helped come up with the early schematics for television. It’s no wonder that he sees radio as the biggest innovation of the 1900s. “Today, in the United States, the electronics industry is the biggest industry of all of them,” he says. “And it’s going to be more so. Not that we knew this back then, don’t get me wrong.”
Elizabeth Norman, 90
Elizabeth Norman grew up in Colorado, Idaho, and Utah when the West really was still wild. Utah had only been admitted to the Union 10 years before she was born. She remembers driving through Yellowstone Park in a Ford coupe, “with two girls sitting in the rumble seat.” She remembers President Coolidge coming out to visit the Black Hills of South Dakota. She rode horses — once, 40 miles in a single day — and remembers the same cowboys that have become infixed in American folklore forever. And she remembers flying.
“For two dollars,” she says, “you could fly in someone’s plane. My brother was a pilot. I was in the back, and he was in the front. I wasn’t even afraid, and I should have been. He was doing loops, and all of a sudden, I looked up at the sky, and it wasn’t sky, it was the earth. Oh, it was terrible. But we landed all right.”
She also remembers a feeling that has since been all but lost in this country: one of isolation. Though there were the railroads and phone lines, the western states remained relatively bustle-free, and that led to a distinctly regional character. She says Westerners had to be more outgoing, if they didn’t want to be lonely. And as communication systems have grown, so has a more homogenous America. Telephones and other instantaneous means of moving information are her choice for the 20th century’s most important innovation.
“We had telephones,” she says, “but we didn’t have the communication. Everything happened first on the East Coast. Even the Depression in the ’30s, didn’t hit us as fast as it did in the East Coast. But now, with television and radio and computers, everybody’s doing everything at the same time, from the East Coast to the Pacific Ocean…And I think change is happening too fast.” She gestures toward a few computers on the rear wall of the room at the Osborn Retirement Community. “I fear for the children with these things. I don’t think they’re reading enough. I’ve heard some awful things recently. I don’t know anything about it, and I don’t want to. I’m just too old to.”
Her advice is for young people to come speak with older people. “We’ve seen a lot more than people in the 1800s did,” she says. “We have a lot of things to say.”
C. Edwin Linville, 90
C. Edwin Linville, now dressed smartly in a sport coat and flowered-pattern tie, spent his boyhood in Pennsylvania and New Jersey before becoming a member of Princeton’s class of 1930. He remembers furiously debating against Republican children on the first-grade playground when America was called to join World War I. He even remembers that the political climate was still greatly influenced by the not-forgotten victory of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Or maybe Mr. Linville is only throwing that in for poetic license: He became a history teacher in New York City, finishing his career as a principal, and, finally, superintendent of Manhattan’s ninth school district.
That path only came through later, though. Linville wonders what might have happened if he had kept his first job. After looking everywhere for work — 1930 was a bad year to graduate from college — he finally found a string-pulling uncle and a position at an insurance company in Youngstown, Ohio. “I was paid $21 a week,” he recalls, “which was very high wages for that particular time. I was very, very fortunate. Unfortunately, the job was very difficult. I had a group of 20 girls, and we were cutting up cards. I later found out that this was the beginning of computers. If I had stayed with that job, I probably would have become a computer expert, and it might have led to big things. But to me, it was very boring. We used long sticks to make holes in these cards. Punch-cards. Some of these girls were very efficient. Others were not. They would make mistakes, and then I would have to find the mistakes they made.”
Linville remembers his first commercial airplane flight — a 1929 jaunt across the English Channel — and believes advances in transportation, particularly the automobile, were the greatest innovation of the century. But if a shiny red Maxwell, like his father’s first car, can embody a nation’s changing material desires, the Great Depression will always stand in Mr. Linville’s mind as the ultimate turning point for America’s soul.
“The Depression changed everybody’s idea of everything,” he says. “I remember Roosevelt’s inaugural address: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ That was really engraved upon my mind, always.”
Mr. Linville’s advice reflects the cautiousness he learned while dealing with those tough times. “I would encourage kids not to be too adventurous,” he says. “Everyone should just slow their lives down and do things with more intelligence and thought, and less showiness.”
Antoinette De Paolo, 93
“I met my husband at a dance,” Antoinette DePaolo says. She’s seated at a table at Stamford’s Almost Family/Caretenders, sporting a cap and scarf with matching leopard-print patterns. “I was 20 years old. Mention some of the big band players. Tommy Dorsey? Ted Lewis? You just mention them, I danced with every one of them. I used to go out dancing four nights a week. I used to love to dance. And I used to teach Charleston, myself, in high school.”
Raised in New Jersey and later transplanted to North Stamford, where she and her husband brought up their family, Mrs. DePaolo worked on United Electronics’ submarine line during the war. “I was the forelady there,” she says. “I had a hundred girls under me. I had a medal from President Roosevelt, and a personal letter from him. We were in competition with another factory, and I got a thousand-dollar check at the end, when I quit. For being the best.”
But that’s not even the most memorable part of quitting. “When the second war was over, all those people running out in the street, everybody hugging each other,” she remembers, “whether you knew them or not. Children out in the street. Everyone. I think that was the greatest thing I’ll remember all my life. It was beautiful.”
Now, of course, echoing a few similar sentiments among the seniors, the idea of children out in the street isn’t quite as appealing. “The children today are very different from years ago,” Mrs. DePaolo says. “You know why? We had discipline. There’s not enough of it today. You know why? The parents are afraid to hurt their kids’ feelings. They give in to them and let them do what they feel like. Anything that’s going on, starts at home. I think you should be able to tell kids what’s right and wrong.”
A brief sampling of some of the right and wrong that might be told: “No smoking. Behave when you go out at night. You know what I’m referring to. Boys and girls getting together? There’s too much of that going on. There’s so much of it. First they have the child, then they get married. That’s the new style today, and I think it’s terrible. And just be nice, and love people. And take advice from your parents.”
Tea at the New Canaan Inn
Seated in front of the fire at the New Canaan Inn on Oenoke Ridge was a circle of 12 ladies taking afternoon tea. It would not do to disclose their ages; let them merely stand, here, as the chorus. Over the course of an hour’s conversation, they debated matters of parenting and immigration, feminism and credit cards. One said, afterward, that she wasn’t accustomed to the round-table format: Matters of public discord haven’t always been considered ideal conversation for tea-time. Discussion groups are kind of ’70s, when you think about it.
The greatest innovation of the 20th century?
“Someone who drops out of school.”
“Einstein’s theory of relativity.”
“Appliances. Edison’s electric.”
Are people different today?
“Yes, they are. They’re very impolite. They have no manners. We had manners when we were young.”
“Did we? Not everybody.”
“Why are the children the way they are today? The mothers work. We were home.”
“I don’t think they’re different. I don’t see it.”
“There’s a higher cost of living.”
“There’s a greater influx of immigrants.”
“I wonder. I don’t see how it could be.”
“We’re all immigrants…We can’t say that any family didn’t come over, because they did.”
“Oh, yes we can.”
“No. They all came. They went through Ellis Island.”
“People are people. And I don’t think they’re different.””There’s an action and a reaction. You gain in one way, but you lose in another. For example, you gain more money, more prestige. Women have more to say, but what is the reaction? Less home life, less morality. Less bringing up children.”
What advice would you give for the 21st century?
“Don’t get in debt.”
“If you get married, for heaven’s sake, stay married.”
“Get the best education you can.”
“Assess your own gifts, and don’t go into a round peg when you’re suited for a square one.”
“What rhymes with ‘buy?’ ‘Cry.'”
“You are responsible for whatever you do. If you buy something, you must pay for it.”
“Follow your heart.”
“Don’t flirt with the other girls.”
“Don’t spend more than you earn.”
“Be patient. Don’t get discouraged. And exercise.”
Bill Malta, 95
Bill Malta grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and came over to the United States on a visit in 1928. “I come over here for visit, and I say, I like it,” he says. “I stay over here. I say, this is my place to stay. It can’t be any more better than this, over here. Live very nice, over here. So I come over here, and I like it.” This, along with his warm smile, is Mr. Malta’s refrain. No matter the question, he turns it back into a plug for America.
“You see no more horses, no more wagons. Nothing but the trucks and cars. It’s better yet. I like it. I always say, ‘United States the best place to live.’ And nobody’s going to tell me different.” Or, “I was working on the railroad. Fifteen, 20 people, and the boss. Shoveling up coal. Over here in Stamford. For everybody, not only me, for everybody, it’s the best place to live.”
But all along, you know there’s much more to it: The immigrant’s rough adjustment, the hard work, the family. After our interview, he lingered in the doorway. It seemed as though there was something he wanted to say, but he couldn’t quite find the words. After a minute of silence, he finally smiled and said, “OK, then. Thank you very much,” and started to walk out.
“Bye, Bill,” I said. “Hasta luego.”
He stopped. “Hasta — oh, you speak Spanish, too?”
“Un poco,” I said, my usual response. I held up my fingers as if measuring a pinch of salt. “Un poquito.”
He brightened. “Oh, that’s all right! That’s very good! It’s very good, you go to Mexico, you can talk with somebody else. That’s good!”
“I can say, ‘Quiero una cerveza.‘”
He laughed for a long time at that, then turned away again. “OK, thank you very much, then.”
“OK,” I said. “Adios, amigo.” I started gathering my things. On the table, the tape recorder was still running.
Bill came back into the room. Smiling, he met my eyes. He said, “Oh, you speak Spanish, too?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. I was a little confused, and not entirely sure I wanted to have the same conversation all over again.
“That’s all right, that’s the way we learn!” he said enthusiastically. “When I come over to the United States, I don’t even know one word of English. It’s not hard to learn. It’s not hard if you’re willing to. There’s nothing that’s impossible for a man to learn, if they have the courage. Some people are too shy. That’s not right. You got to learn by yourself. Enjoy your life, too. That’s the way it’s got to be. You can’t be over there” — at this, he huffed up his chest, stuck out his lips, and swaggered a little — “some kind of big man. The best is to get along. A lot of people, they don’t want to mix it up with some people. But the best place is to be among the people over there, enjoy yourself. It passes by. The time pass for you, too. A lot of people, before you know it, start fighting each other like cats and dogs. No, the best policy is to get along to everybody. I guess it’s my opinion, too.”
“It’s true,” I said. “You’re right.”
“Enjoy your life like that! What use to start fighting for nothing? I don’t like it like that, myself. I like all kind of people talking nice all the time. But no, some people, they don’t even want a conversation with anybody. They are like — grown up in the woods or something. No, the best policy is to get along with everybody. That’s the best for me.”
“It’s easy,” I said, “and it’s hard.” I don’t really know what I meant by that.
Bill laughed anyway. “Yeah! Right! Well, nice to see, to be over here. And thank you very much.”
“Thank you. Thank you.”
“Thank you,” he said again, and this time he almost made it to the activity room.
But then I said “Gracias.” It just slipped out. Or maybe I didn’t want him to leave.
“Gracias,” he said from the hall. “OK.”
I picked up my coat. When I turned around again, he was back. Brightly, he asked, “Oh, you speak Spanish?”
“Un poco,” I said.
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said. “That’s the way you — ”
“You know, if you converse with the people like that, to talk Spanish, you learn everything. It’s not hard to learn a language if you have the will to. But if you don’t have no will, you no learn nothing. I used to work with some people over there, Polish people. I used to know a lot of words in Polish. When I get out of that job, I lost it. When you learn some kind of language over there, you learn a lot of bad words.” He was laughing hard now. “I’m telling you, any kind of language over there, what you’re going to learn is the bad words! It’s no good!” He turned back out of the room, still laughing. His back to me, he said, “Well, take it easy.”
“Take it easy,” I said. I almost added “Suave,” but I knew he had places to be.