Good old days

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange looks back and remarks on the changes — and the lack of change — during his lifetime.

(LANGE) Dr. Hochstrasser’s dental office was on the basement level of his home. You descended four steps and entered a carpeted waiting room. His surgery was in back. It looked into a small walled garden. A lovely prospect on a spring day. But as a child I dreaded it even more than the monsters under my bed.

I don’t know if the good doctor was up to date for his time, before the Second World War. He hunted for cavities with a grisly tool called an explorer, and leaned on suspicious spots to see if they hurt. He rinsed his work with a turkey baster filled with mint-flavored green liquid, and said, “Shpit in da powl.”

Most of all I dreaded seeing him reach for the drill, which swung on a hook at his shoulder. Inserting a tiny bit, Dr. Hochstrasser lifted his foot and began to pedal. The drill hummed like a bee; the odor of burning tooth filled my nose. When he was all done packing the resulting fire pit with mortar, he patted my head, told me vat a gut poy I vas, took my dollar, and gave me — a lollipop.

Those days were lovely, I suppose. We didn’t have penicillin or xylocaine or Salk vaccine. The telephone looked like a daffodil, with the dial at the base, and was a luxury in a home. But if we weren’t as happy then as we are now, I never knew it.

Ice, bread, milk, and eggs came in horse-drawn delivery wagons. Coal came in a truck, but the driver had to raise the dump bed with an iron crank. Wooden-sided trolley cars ran everywhere, fizzing with blue sparks after dark. At the end of the line, the motorman flipped the wooden seat backs in the opposite direction, walked to the other end of the car, and took off back down the line.

Those memories remind me how far we’ve come in just the last seven decades. The differences between then and now make it hard to believe we can go on much longer at that pace. Surely, like Kansas City, we’ve gone about as far as we can go. But you know we haven’t.

In keeping with our technological advances, we’ve progressed socially, as well. Consider the gap that used to exist between the ruling classes and the ruled. In Rome, the nobility staged lavish banquets, while on the fringes and in the slums of the empire languished the dispossessed.

Only 225 years ago, Marie Antoinette is famously supposed to have said regarding the sans-culottes: Let them eat cake. Nowadays, enlightened as we are, we wouldn’t dream of throwing lavish parties in our own capital while we’re at war, or as long as there are injustice, hunger, and misery anywhere else in the world. Now would we?

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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