J. Russell Coffey, the oldest known surviving U.S. veteran of World War I, has died. The retired teacher, one of only three U.S. veterans from the “war to end all wars,” was 109. More than 4.7 million Americans joined the military from 1917-1918.
Mr. Coffey lived a full, rich, and needless to say long life. If he had his druthers–and he doesn’t–none of us do–he’d be remembered as a father, teacher, and community member, not someone who happened to spend a few months in boot camp in the fall of 1918. But those months made him a WWI veteran, and so he gets remembered.
My father (b. 1920) saw Civil War veterans marching in parades when he was a boy. I often tell my students that we distort history when we insist on dividing it up into decades. Those little slices of time exaggerate difference over continuity, and lead us into silly journalistic conceits such as “What will the nineties be like? Will we reject the greed and conformity of the Reagan era, and return to the dissent and commitment of the 1960s?” Perhaps you recall those musings from the tail end of the eighties.
Instead, we should think in terms of generations (not cohorts, such as “boomers” and “millenials”–another ignorant journalistic conceit that precludes understanding and tries to make news where there is none) and lifetimes. When we do so, time collapses. My father speaks with men who have living memories of Gettysburg and Antietam and the Grant administration, and a new writer named Mark Twain everyone was excited about, and who lived when the idea of human beings flying was just science fiction and for whom the very idea of dropping a bomb from 30,000 feet in the air on a city filled with civilians and old folk and infants suckling and children and their pets would be unimaginable, a sign that the society doing so was in the grip of a barbarism so elemental and disturbing as to escape the limits of description. And my father tells me, and I tell my students, and they, in turn, are merely a couple of lifetimes from the Civil War.
Mr. Coffey was 109 years old when he died in December. He was born in 1898, the year of Teddy Roosevelt’s Cuban escapades. Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, and Adolf Hitler were all unknown in the US. People owned horses. Many had their own cows for milk. There was no such organization as the NAACP, the frontier–or should we say the Indian Wars–had ended that decade. The population of the United States was a little more than 76 million people. Coffey would have known dozens, if not hundreds, of people who had seen Abraham Lincoln, heard him speak, shaken his hand.
Let’s speculate. Imagine that, as Mr. Coffey was being born in 1898, another 109 year old American was passing away somewhere. That American would have been born in 1789. The ratification of the Constitution. George Washington becomes the first president of the new nation. The Mexicans in California, the Sioux on the plains, and countless others go about their business and live their entire lives without giving a thought to the restless, aggressive people even now gathering strength to the East. It is the year of a revolution in France. No one speaks of “terror” yet, at least as an “ism.”
1789. Two lifetimes–long ones, granted–ago.