Sometimes when I watch fictional movies or TV shows set in olden times, I catch myself thinking, “You know, those characters are all dead now....”
As of the day I’m writing this (Thursday, May 22, 2014), the oldest person on Earth is Misao Okawa of Osaka Japan, at 116 years old. She was born March 5, 1898. As far as anyone can verify, the oldest male on Earth is Dr. Alexander Imich of New York City, at 111 years old. He was born Feb. 4, 1903. If that’s true, than there are no more males on Earth who were born in the 1800s. When Misao Okawa dies (and maybe a few additional women not mentioned in the news reports?) there won’t be any human beings left from the 19th century. As far as human life goes, that door will be closed forever. I find that amazing, and surprisingly depressing. As you live your life, you know in an abstract sort of way that everyone born in, say, the 1400s is gone. You don’t think, “Hey, wait a second. Now that I think of it, I’ve never met anyone born before 1430. Whoa!” But the 1800s? Most of us under the age of 20 today have met someone born in the 1800s. Sometimes when I watch fictional movies or TV shows set in olden days, I catch myself thinking, “You know, those characters are all dead now.” Fred Flintsone? Dead. Xena? Dead. Sherlock Holmes? Dead. Jane Eyre? Dead. The Man with No Name from the spaghetti westerns? Dead. Princess Leia? Dead. Chaplin’s Little Tramp? Dead. Hagar the Horrible and B.C., from the comic strips? Dead. It kinda changes your whole perspective, doesn’t it? The numbering of centuries is arbitrary. At some point some historians got together and said, “Okay, for our purposes, that time there is the year 1 A.D. From Jan. 1, 00 A.D. until Dec. 31, 99 A.D. will be the zeroth century. The years 100 A.D. to 199 A.D. will be the second century, etc, and everyone has to just deal.” However, thinking of time in terms of specific numbered centuries does help give you a sense of perspective about where you fit in. Some examples: My mother’s parents were both born in the 1800s. My three step-daughters were all born in the late-1990s. With a bit of luck and care, all three could make it into the 22nd century. That means that lil’ old me could know people who will have lived in four separate centuries: 19th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd. My father’s father was born in North Carolina in 1900. He spent his first three years living in a world in which humans couldn’t fly, yet was within driving distance when the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane on a beach a few miles away. You know those five-generation family photos we occasionally run in the Gazette? Well, on my mom’s side I come from a family that tends to marry and have kids late. As a result, I have a great-great-grandfather on my mom’s side who was born in something like 1799. So no, if you were curious, we won’t be doing a five-generation photo of that side of the family any time soon.