...And this is now

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2010

Well, fall has officially begun. Summer was a little spotty (not to mention wet) this year but finally everyone is back to school and Beloit has published their Mindset of the Class of 2014 list. After reading it, I thought I would try to examine what Alaska's incoming college freshmen don't know. These kids were born about 1992. Grandchild age for some of us, children, either first or last, for others and for everyone, future decisions makers and story tellers. In 50 years, these people will be the institutional memory of this place and time: the sourdoughs, so to speak.

In 1992, Mount Spurr erupted and interrupted air traffic for a few days. Christopher McCandless died in an old bus and fumbled his way into Alaskan folklore, the Alaska Highway celebrated its 50th anniversary, as did Denali National Park, and Martin Buser won the Iditarod for the first time.

For these kids, the Central Peninsula has always had four high schools, and the Renee C. Henderson auditorium has always been attached to KCHS. The road to Captain Cook Park has always been paved, Nanwalek was never English Bay, and there has always been dipnetting at the mouth of the Kenai River. In Alaska generally, you could always drive to Deadhorse; they aren't sure who Bill Sheffield is; they never rode the train to Whittier; Exxon has always been a dirty word; and Portage Glacier has always been a boat ride away.

According to Beloit, most of this year's incoming class probably don't know how to write in cursive, and many can't read it either. They don't wear a wrist watch because their cell phones have the time on them so they don't understand that pointing at your wrist means you are asking for the time. E-mail is too slow (they text or "instant message") and they don't use snail mail.

Those are probably the most significant of this year's differences in terms of life style changes and those differences alone set them way apart from my generation, and even my kids'.

Politically, these kids were born when Ross Perot was talking about a loud sucking sound and "It's the economy, stupid" made its debut (is this dj vu all over again?). Czechoslovakia has never existed and they have never worried about a Russian missile strike on the U.S. In fact, Russia and the U.S. have always lived and worked together on the International Space Station. Women have always sat on the Supreme Court and have also always been priests in the Anglican Church.

A really different mindset includes knowing Clint Eastwood as a sensitive, award winning director and not Dirty Harry, or for that matter the High Plans Drifter (or Rowdy Yates?). Honda has always been involved with the Indianapolis 500 and cars made in Korea are commonplace on the highways.

They have hundreds of TV channels available and watch only a handful. (Remember when there were three channels and the programs were at least a day late?) "Viewer discretion" has always been a warning on TV shows (I remember the time when it wasn't necessary) and Barney Google and Barney Fife have been replaced by a purple dinosaur. Beethoven has always been a dog's name.

The Beloit list was first compiled in 1998 to remind the professors that the incoming freshmen didn't necessarily live in the same world as they did. (Are we surprised?) It has become an annual catalogue, used to measure subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in social interchange. The authors, Tom McBride and Ron Neif, both of Beloit College in Wisconsin, blend their names to ROM, (Really Old Men) and have written a book to be published next year that looks at Americans since 1880 and "demonstrating how the events of history have altered the perspective of each successive generation."

We (meaning us Golden Agers) tend to forget what has changed or disappeared in our lives. Sometimes we lament the loss: how long has it been since the snow geese came to the flats? Other things, we hardly remember when it wasn't so: Do you remember when the Warren Ames Bridge wasn't there and you had to drive to Soldotna to get across the river? Or when there were no traffic lights in Kenai and Soldotna? Or when the theater was in the mall and the post office in Old Town?

Not particularly life altering changes, but significant over the long run producing a very different view of our world for those who came after the change.

Kids born this year -- the class of 2032 -- will never know Wally Hickle or Uncle Ted or the Eagle Lady. People will have always walked around with a blue gadget sticking in their ear and talking to themselves; they will still be arguing over fish allocation; and BP may be the new dirty word.

When I write this column, in September 2028, I'll be sure to mention that Wal-mart has not always been in Kenai. Men didn't always wear earrings, and the year they were born was the summer of record breaking continuous rain.

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai.

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