kottke.org posts about The Great Span
Richard Overton fought in the South Pacific in World War II, is 109 years old, still drives, sometimes drinks whiskey with breakfast, smokes 12 cigars a day (but doesn’t inhale), and still lives in the house he built himself in 1945. In this video from National Geographic, Overton talks about his military service, his faith, his long life, and soup. Overton’s short summary of World War II:
It wasn’t good, but we had to go.
I don’t really care to live to 100, but if I had Overton’s spirit and attitude, perhaps I’d consider it.
Update: Ryan Holiday recently visited with Overton and learned a thing or two about life.
The most animated Richard ever got was when he told me a story about the enormous pecan tree in his front yard. It seemed like an ordinary tree to me, until he told me his dog planted it seventy years ago. They had a pecan tree in the back, and the dog would grab the nuts and bury them in the front yard. With glee, Richard told me how eventually the tree grew and now it’s so big it’s nearly pushing up the foundation of his house. He loved the absurdity of it — a dog planting a tree! He was laughing at it still, seven decades later.
And then there’s this, about another instance of The Great Span:
It’s fascinating to think that when Richard was born Theodore Roosevelt was president. Overton is the oldest living American veteran now, but when he was born, Henry L. Riggs was still alive. Riggs was a veteran of the Black Hawk War (1832) and he was born in 1812…and Conrad Heyer, the Revolutionary War veteran and the oldest and earliest person to be photographed (born in 1749) was still alive when Riggs was born. Three overlapping lives, that’s all it took to get back to before even the idea of founding the United States. Richard’s brother fought in the first World War. He told me he remembered seeing Civil War veterans around when he was a kid. Not many, but they were there. It was Texas — those men fought to keep his mother in slavery. How long ago all that horribleness seems. How recent it is at the same time.
Another fine example of the Great Span: Vin Scully is retiring after 67 seasons as the play-by-play announcer for the LA Dodgers. Scully started the job in 1950, when the Dodgers still hailed from Brooklyn and Connie Mack still managed the A’s:
It is amazing to contemplate that he joined the Dodgers only three years after Jackie Robinson did, and was in the booth for the first ballgame Mickey Mantle ever played in New York. It is startling to realize the on-air audition he had — and didn’t pass — to become John Madden’s TV partner was 35 years ago this month. It is mind-bending to consider that he has not just been on 22 of the 94 annual radio and television World Series broadcasts ever, but been alive for 87 of them. It is goose-bumpy to recognize that the season he began broadcasting major league games, Connie Mack was still the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics (Mack had become A’s manager in 1901 and we’ve just passed the 130th anniversary of Mack’s debut as a major league catcher).
Mack was born during the Civil War, played his first game in 1886, competed against the likes of Cap Anson and Cy Young, and had been a retired player & full-time manager for four years before an 18-year-old Ty Cobb made his major league debut. (via df)
Private Mose Triplett was 19 when the Civil War ended in 1865. Later in life, he married a woman 50 years younger than him and, in 1930, they had a daughter Irene. Irene Triplett is now in her mid-eighties and gets a monthly benefit check from US Department of Veterans Affairs for her father’s service so many years before.
Eric Shinseki, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, often cites President Abraham Lincoln’s call, in his second inaugural address, for Americans “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”
“The promises of President Abraham Lincoln are being delivered, 150 years later, by President Barack Obama, ” Secretary Shinseki said in a speech last fall. “And the same will be true 100 years from now-the promises of this president will be delivered by a future president, as yet unborn.”
A declaration of war sets in motion expenditures that can span centuries, whether the veterans themselves were heroes, cowards or something in between.
This story is from 2014, but I looked for Triplett’s obituary and found nothing, so I’m assuming she’s still alive and collecting that pension. See also The Great Span. (via @mikekarlesky)
What a completely delightful video of 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin visiting the White House and meeting President and Mrs. Obama. This is the Webster’s definition of pure joy.
I don’t know much about McLaurin’s life story — she’s originally from South Carolina, first married at 14 — but when she was 10, the Civil War had ended only 55 years earlier. As a child, she likely knew and talked with people who were former slaves. And now she’s dancing with a black President in the White House. The Great Span continues to work its magic.
From Petapixel, a list of photographic firsts, including the first photograph (1826), the first digital photograph (1957), the first photo of the Sun (1845), and the first photograph of a US President (1843).
John Quincy Adams, the sixth President of the United States, was the first president to have his photograph taken. The daguerreotype was shot in 1843, a good number of years after Adams left office in 1829. The first to have his picture taken in office was James Polk, the 11th President, who was photographed in 1849.
Adams was born in 1767, which got me thinking about a long-standing interest of mine: who was the earliest born person ever photographed? The Maine Historical Society believes Revolutionary War vet Conrad Heyer was the earliest born. Born in 1749, he crossed the Delaware with Washington before sitting for this portrait in 1852.
But according to the Susquehanna County Historical Society, John Adams (no apparent relation to the above Adams) was born in 1745 and was photographed at some point before he died in 1849. Other contenders with unverified ages include Revolutionary War vet Baltus Stone (born somewhere between 1744 and 1754 according to various sources) and a former slave named Caesar, photographed in 1851 at the alleged age of 114, which would mean he was born around 1737.
Still, that’s photographs of at least two people who were born in the 1740s, at least five years before the start of the French and Indian War. As children, it’s possible they could have interacted with people who lived through England’s Glorious Revolution in 1688 or even the English Civil War (1642-1651). The Great Span lives on.
Ran across one of my favorite little pieces of writing the other day: Sixty Men from Ur by Mark Sumner. It’s about how short recorded human history really is. The piece starts out by asking you to imagine if you view the history of life as the Empire State Building, all of human history is a dime on top.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., one the United States’ great historians, is less than two lifetimes removed from a world where the United States did not exist. Through Mr. Schlesinger, you’re no more than three away yourself. That’s how short the history of our nation really is.
Not impressed? It’s only two more life spans to William Shakespeare. Two more beyond that, and the only Europeans to see America are those who sailed from Greenland. You’re ten lifetimes from the occupation of Damietta during the fifth crusade. Twenty from the founding of Great Zimbabwe and the Visigoth sack of Rome. Make it forty, and Theseus, king of Athens, is held captive on Crete by King Minos, the Olmecs are building the first cities in Mexico, and the New Kingdom collapses in Egypt.
Sixty life times ago, a man named Abram left Ur of the Chaldees and took his family into Canaan. Abram is claimed as the founder of three great religions. A few lifetimes before that, and you’ve come out the bottom of that dime. You’re that close to it.
See also human wormholes and the Great Span, unlikely simultaneous historical events, and timeline twins.
Update: From Wired last year, Sam Arbesman writes about Kevin Kelly’s concept of touch generations.
I was recently listening to a lecture by Kevin Kelly where he introduces the concept of touch generations, the idea of a list of people based on when one person died and when the next was born: one person is in the next touch generation of someone else if they were born when the other person died. So Galileo and Newton, while unrelated, are in successive touch generations because Newton was born the year that Galileo died. Essentially, it’s a way of connecting lifetimes across the years.
That’s the subtitle of a book released in 2010 called The Last Leaf by Stuart Lutz. In the book are dozens of interviews with “last survivors or final eyewitness of historically important events”, including the last living pitcher to give up a home run to Babe Ruth in 1927, the last man alive to work with Thomas Edison, and the last American WWI soldier.
When we read about famous historical events, we may wonder about the firsthand experiences of the people directly involved. What insights could be gained if we could talk to someone who remembered the Civil War, or the battle to win the vote for women, or Thomas Edison’s struggles to create the first electric light bulb? Amazingly, many of these experiences are still preserved in living memory by the final survivors of important, world-changing events. In this unique oral history book, author and historic document specialist Stuart Lutz records the stories told to him personally by people who witnessed many of history’s most famous events.
See also human wormholes and the Great Span.
At the end of last week’s post about John Tyler’s grandsons still being alive (and indeed, NY Mag did an interview with one of them), I provided a couple of other examples of living persons bridging distant historical periods and asked:
Someone needs to come up with a term for this sort of thing (history bridges? no.)
On Twitter, David Galbraith suggested “timebenders”. After more thought, I came up with “human wormholes” but that’s not quite right either. Tony Hiss, in a book about his father Alger (the accused Soviet spy), said that Alger had a term for stories kind of like these: the Great Span.
My father himself even had a name for a kind of ongoing closeness between people in which death is sometimes only an irrelevance. He called it “the Great Span,” a sort of bucket brigade or relay race across time, a way for adjacent generations to let ideas and goals move intact from one mind to another across a couple of hundred years or more.
Hiss cites a pair of stories involving Alger (who died in 1996) and Oliver Wendell Holmes, who Alger clerked for and also figured in one of my earlier examples. In one story, Holmes told Alger about his experience fighting in the Civil War. The other story reaches back even further:
In the Holmes story Alger treasured above all others, the Justice told him that when he had been very young, his grandmother, a woman he revered, had shared her memories of the day at the beginning of the American Revolution when she was five and had stood in her father’s front window on Beacon Hill in Boston and watched rank after rank of Redcoats marching through town.
Another instance of the Great Span are the three Civil War widows (Maudie Hopkins, Alberta Martin, and Gertrude Janeway) who lived into the 2000s, two of them collecting their husbands’ pensions until their deaths. (thx, mike & @ithinkihaveacat)
That’s right, two exclamation points because this blows my mind. John Tyler was the 10th President of the United States. He was born in 1790 and took office in 1841. His son, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, was born in 1853, when Tyler was 63 years old1. Lyon had six children with two different wives2, two of whom were Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born 1924 when Lyon Sr. was 71) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born 1928 when Lyon Sr. was 75). They are reportedly both still living in their 80s.
Someone needs to come up with a term for this sort of thing (history bridges? no.). There’s also this 1956 game show appearance of a Lincoln assassination eyewitness and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) shaking hands during his lifetime with both John Quincy Adams (b 1767) and John F Kennedy (d 1963), one man spanning 200 years of American history. (via ★mattbucher)
 Tyler actually had two children after Lyon…Robert was born when he was 65 and Pearl followed at 70. ↩
 Lyon’s second wife was 36 years his junior and actually younger than each of his three previous children. ↩
In 1956, 96-year-old Samuel Seymour appeared on a game show called I’ve Got A Secret…his secret was that he saw Lincoln’s assassination when he was five years old.
That blew my mind. (via devour)
Update: That same year, Seymour gave an interview about witnessing the assassination to the Milwaukee Sentinel. His father was an overseer on a Maryland estate and his boss, Mr. Goldsboro needed to travel to Washington to check on “the legal status of their 150 slaves”. Seymour got to go along.
It was going on toward supper time — on Good Friday, April 14, 1865 — when we finally pulled up in front of the biggest house I ever had seen. It looked to me like a thousand farmhouses all pushed together, but my father said it was a hotel.
[…] When I finally had been rushed upstairs, shushed and scrubbed and put into fresh clothes, Mrs. Goldsboro said she had a wonderful surprise.
“Sammy, you and Sarah and I are going to a play tonight,” she explained. “A real play — and President Abraham Lincoln will be there.”
After Lincoln was shot, Seymour saw Booth fall from the balcony and run off.