My parents were born in Vinita before 1915 and were a part of the “Greatest Generation.” I was late in their lives. My experiences with them were a blend of old and new.
As a young kid in the ’50s, we drove Route 66 before the interstates came to our small, northeastern Oklahoma town. Family and friends were there. It was a micro view of a changing America: no chains or fast-food stops; old men would sit on benches in front of the courthouse whittling, chewing tobacco and talking of events past. Across the street were the Grand Café, Jeanette’s Book Store and countless local establishments. It was a rural town long before Walmart would offer lower cost goods and gut the essence of the place.
My grandfather sat among the old men. I couldn’t wait to climb up on his lap and see the smiles from lifelong buddies of his. Then I was off to play by the railroad tracks that were mostly silent by then. Where people once crowed the platforms, it was quiet and bare. Airplanes now dominated travel, and 18-wheelers were commanding the roadways of commerce.
Remnants of this time were fading quickly, and the world was passing these scenes by. Among these people, there was a closeness born of toil, handwork, the Great Depression, wars, homes before electricity and a time when cars could barely make 30 mph for Sunday drives. I loved the stories, and I loved the people. They were commonplace of strong stock.
My father told of the cold days of the Great Depression when the sons of families would grab buckets and, in the dark of night, steal down to the railroad station to get what coal they could for heat. When Route 66 first ran down Main Street, there were all-day celebrations and races. Later, there was the lonely whistle of outbound troop trains and inbound cars loaded with prisoners during the war. Brothers volunteered and fought across great oceans. Stars hung in windows, food was rationed and news came via radio, newspapers or daily mail. No cell phones, Internet or television.
Now long past, only images are etched in my memory. The benches are empty. The people are long gone, just like the era. No one takes time to sit and talk. McDonald’s covers the block where the Grand Café once stood, and Main Street is empty and changed forever by distribution selling.
These people from our pasts endured much. Many arrived before statehood in wagons, others by the Trail of Tears and some taking refuge after the Civil War. They homesteaded, built towns, sent sons off to wars and did their best raising families.
This is the legacy of America’s heartland. They didn’t have much by our standards, but they were eternally grateful for each other and what they did have.
Today, we communicate at the speed of light but are really farther apart. We don’t make time for stories. We have all the electricity and essentials we need, yet we want more. Even with all our resources, we argue over petty partisan differences. We fail to remember the sacrifices of those before. We cannot even agree on the simplest of measures. While we suffer economic challenges, state leaders offer few solutions. People are without work, and the poor are still poor. We really have little to complain about, but we do. We are too stubborn to admit we still need each other to forge a future.
We should learn from the legacy of those before. What would they say of us today?
Busey is chairman and CEO of The Busey Group of Companies.