Happy Birthday

January 29th, 2006

My great-aunt Erma turned 105 years old today. She was born in 1901, twenty-nine days after the start of the twentieth century, in my hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, where she lived until the year 2002 – the same year I got married. From 1901 to 1913, Erma lived with her parents, Annie and Frank, in a house on East Parker Street The House. During that time, mass production of automobiles first began. The Wright Brothers flew for the first time in 1903. Albert Einstein published “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” in 1905, which described special relativity for the first time. The great San Francisco earthquake killed 3000-6000 people in 1906, IBM entered the world as the Computer-Tabulating-Recording Company in 1911, and the Republic of China came to power in 1912. Concern over the global opium trade led to the International Opium Convention, a treaty signed in 1912 by the United States and a number of other countries. And of course, America was moving steadily toward the prohibition of alcohol.

Indeed, even at Erma’s young age, she may have been directly exposed to the temperance movement. I learned via Wikipedia that a group called the Lincoln-Lee Legion was active during this time promoting a pledge to children and parents alike calling for lifelong abstinence; over five million children signed the pledge by 1925.

In early 1913, Erma’s parents divorced, an event that was quite rare at the time; Erma told my mother how the kids would tease her and her brothers and tell each other not to play with them. Annie moved them into a house on Logan Avenue, won in the divorce settlement, where Erma would live for the next 87 years. The next year, 1914, saw the beginning of World War I. Over nine million people lost their lives in that conflict, and some suggest that a primary contributing factor to the end of the war was the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed 50 to 100 million people in the course of a single year.

National alcohol prohibition went into effect in 1920, and the following year, Erma went to work for the Litchfield Manufacturing Company, after graduating from Gates Business College. Litchfield was an important part of Waterloo’s economy, producing “feed grinders… manure spreaders, end gates, forges and anvils, as well as power grinders.” In 1931, Erma married Fred, who moved into the house on Logan Avenue; at thirty years of age, Erma was not a young bride for that era. Annie lived with them in that house until her death in 1970, at which point Erma became the owner. Due to severe motion sickness, Erma rarely traveled, and never rode on an airplane.

From that house on Logan Avenue, Erma was a distant witness to the major events of the rest of the twentieth century. She undoubtedly heard the golden age of radio, and saw the rise of television. She survived the Great Depression with her house intact. She saw yet another World War, a dramatically bloodier war than the first that claimed the lives of over 50 million people. In the late 1940s, computers were invented and the Cold War began; in the 1950s, Sputnik was launched, Elvis made an impression, and another 3-6 million people were killed in the Korean War. She may have watched man land on the moon from the living room of that house. The hippie revolution of the 1960s no doubt passed Waterloo by, but Erma would certainly have had an opinion about the Vietnam War, which killed another 5 million people.

She was also potentially a witness to the evolution of drug prohibition in America. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act was passed, effectively illegalizing non-medical use of opiates. Prohibition was repealed in 1933, while marijuana was illegalized in 1937. Many years later, Richard Nixon declared his war on drugs outright, and in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed – three years or so after LSD was specifically outlawed. In 1973, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration; in 1986, Nancy Reagan propagated “just say no”; and in 1988, the Office of National Drug Control Policy was formed.

You might not expect Erma to have had much of a view of this war on drugs, but as it turns out, Waterloo changed dramatically while Erma lived her life on Logan Avenue. By the early 1990s, when I was in college nearby, Erma’s neighborhood had become impoverished and heavily segregated from the more affluent west side of the city. I used to visit Erma in those days. One day she described for me in unnerving detail the socioeconomic politics of the house next door, which had become a crack den; from her porch, she watched all manner of transactions and understood with surprising detail the status of those who came and went at all hours of the day or night. On another occasion, we watched together as a feud across the street resulted in gasoline being poured over the trunk of a car and ignited. But while the neighborhood changed, Erma never felt unsafe, and indeed, her advanced age must have generated respect, for she suffered no crime while living in that house.

How does the war on drugs compare to all the other wars and conflicts that Erma lived through? There’s no truly fair way to compare, but according to NIDA, each year around 4500 people die using illegal drugs, about the number of people who died in the San Francisco earthquake. Meanwhile, tobacco and alcohol claim around 520,000 lives each year; after ten years of that, you’ve matched the fatalities of the Vietnam War. POWs in the war on drugs number 86,972 at the federal level as of the latest data from 2003, and 265,000 at the state level as of 2002, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Probably the most interesting number, though, comes from the 2004 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, which reports that around 36,000,000 people in the United States used an illicit drug in the last year. That’s the enemy in this war, and it’s roughly four times the number of people killed in World War I. Admittedly, the war on drugs only proposes incarcerating those people, but it’s a little staggering nonetheless.

Of all the deaths and tragedies of the twentieth century, the one that likely hit closest to home for Erma was the death of her husband Fred in 1983. She lived alone on Logan Avenue until the family moved her into a nursing home in 2000; in 2002, she finally left Waterloo for a nursing home in Atlanta, near my uncle. We moved her because she was slowly, inexorably succumbing to dementia and could not take reliable care of herself alone. It frustrated her terribly at first; she knew, if nothing else, that she was most definitely not in her house. Visiting Erma now, my mother reports, you almost think she’s still there, just unable to communicate; when you touch her hand, it seems like she craves contact, but you really have no idea. She won’t leave much mark on the twenty-first century.

But recently my family was together in Atlanta, and my uncle produced a remarkable artifact, rescued from the house in Waterloo when my uncle and my mother divided up Erma’s possessions. In a battered case, a near mint condition Remington Rand Model 1 portable typewriter gleamed; even the manual was intact. They saved it for me because I’m the writer in the family, and indeed, Erma the first draft of this piece [page 2] was written on that typewriter. I regret not asking her more questions when I had the chance, but 105 years of relative comfort is nothing to scoff at, and that’s a little soothing at least.

Happy birthday, Erma.


[Many thanks to Coe for her help preparing this issue]