A photo I saw on the New York Times website the other day sent me on a trip back to 1956. I was ten years old. On Sunday, the paperboy, with whom I was in love from afar (he was in high school), had delivered the papers. He had a huge wagon on iron wheels that he pushed through the streets, full of the Boston and New York papers, which on Sundays were almost too large to hold with one hand.
After church and Sunday dinner, my parents always sat down to read the papers. It was a time of relative quiet in our house full of six children. As the oldest, I had taken to reading the paper with my parents. Sprawled out on the floor of the living room, I read the comics (we called them the funny papers) and the magazine section, which was full of photographs.
This particular Sunday, in the centerfold of the New York Times magazine was a two-page black and white photo of a North Dakota farmer, dressed in overalls, a hat on his head, standing in a farm field. The field was crackled from drought, huge fissures, wider than his dusty work shoes were long, spread over the landscape as far as the eye could see. Another photo showed only the farmer’s hands, roughened from work, filled with dust and clods of earth. But to me back then, it all seemed very far away from my suburban town in Massachusetts, where there were no farmers.
For many years this was my vision of North Dakota—hardpacked dirt rent by fissures. It wasn’t until I saw the state for the first time when we drove back to Winona from Seattle that I changed that mental picture. It’s actually quite beautiful, with a vast, Great Plains vista that made me think of being in the middle of a rolling ocean.
Today, the color photo on the New York Times website is of a farmer in Ashley, Illinois, standing next to a severely dried up pond that he had been using to feed livestock, but which is now fissured from drought. He is dressed in overalls, a seed corn cap on his head. Contemplating disaster.
This time, it doesn’t seem so far away. My world has become smaller. Things that happen half a world away now affect me. This photo was close to home, and every day without significant rain reminds us that we, too, are on precarious ground.
But 1956, with its terrible events here and around the world—the drought, the Suez Crisis, the Red Army invasion of Hungary—and its triumphs—Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Ike, Fidel Castro—is now the past. Time travels forward, no matter what. We are merely hitchhikers, going along for the ride.
When time travels far enough, we tend to forget the past with its troubles and sadness, and are caught off-guard when a thing such as this current drought develops. It is human nature to think that no one has traveled this route before, but as much as we like to think we are the center of the world, in fact, the world goes on no matter who is living on it. There is always hope in the future.