Counting backward

There is a little game with which I amuse myself in which I take my age, or that of other people, and figure out what was going on in the world the same number of years before I, or the other person, was born. The same exercise can be applied to any milestone, such as high school graduation or marriage or the release of a major motion picture.

I’m 60, for example, and 60 years before my birth was 1901. In this case and invariably, the span of time before the starting point feels much, much longer than that between the starting point and current day.

In 1901, President McKinley was assassinated. Twain and Tolstoy had almost a decade of life left. Verdi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg and Puccini were alive. The first antibiotic was almost 30 years off. One way to look at it is that I’m half as old as stuff that happened in 1901, but I feel far younger than that.

If I do the same math for my dad, who was born in 1928 and is still going strong, things get really interesting. We’d be looking at 1834, when Texas was still part of Mexico. James Madison was still kicking and Tchaikovsky hadn’t been born yet. South Dakota, where Daddy was born, had only been a state for 39 years at the time of his birth.

A lot can happen in a lifetime, aside from birth and kids and jobs and marriage and death and taxes. And all those events make fodder for my parlor game.

Sometimes I go backward from my birth and think about major events, and I’m always struck by how close they seem. For example:

  • Gone With the Wind (the movie) came out only 22 years before I was born.
  • D-Day was 17 years before my birth.
  • Wings, the first movie to win a Best Picture Academy Award, was only 33 years before me. (The same year my dad was born.) Talkies appeared around the same time.

We can also look at things occurring within my lifetime that seem remarkable. For example, Herbert Hoover shared my era with me. So did:

  • Dimitrios Loundras, the last-surviving competitor at the 1896 Olympic Games.
  • Peter Mills, the last-surviving American who was born into legal slavery.
  • Danny Ryan, the last member of the Tipperary hurling team that won the first All-Ireland Championship (1888).

Time is relative, of course. A middle-schooler might think a year is an eternity, but for me it’s a mere moment. Individual years of my own life are like sentences in a story. They might be interesting as single pieces, but the tapestry comes from all of them together.

Just to keep things stimulating, we can compound the counting-backward. If we add my age and my dad’s, for instance, we get 154 years. Going back that far from my birth we’re in 1807. Fourteen of our first 16 presidents were alive. It was the year of Robert Fulton’s steamboat. Robert E. Lee and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were born.

It’s a pretty fun game.