August 23, 2021

By Arthur H. Gunther III

One of the qualifications of “progress” is that as new technology replaces the old, or brings it on in the first place, tried and true habits honed by trial, error, ingenuity, make-do and survival are lost.

For example, in this age of air conditioning, a simple concept like hot air circulation is forgotten. Recently, I was in an old New York village on a very warm day attending a gathering in a late-1800s building, three stories high. No AC, and it was stifling with perhaps 100 people there. The windows were open, but they were awning types, so there was no circulation like you get with double-hung windows. Wiping away the sweat, I looked up, and at about three stories there were other windows, all shut but with long chains dangling. It was soon obvious that the chains were meant to open the upper windows so that the heat could escape, replaced by cooler ground-level air.

Once upon a time this building would have had a sexton whose job it was to open those upper windows, or there would have been a fellow who understood the common sense of air circulation and who would have pulled on those chains. An art lost, it seems, in the modern AC age.

You can extend this thinking to other things: When I was younger, there was a neighborhood carpenter who would fix furniture so that you didn’t have to throw it out. Someone brought him a large table, probably 100 years old, most likely made from wood that was 200 years in the growing. The table had split after decades of drying, and it looked lost by today’s standards. But this crafty fellow, after scratching his head a bit, reached into his coveralls’ upper pocket, took out his folding rule, measured in three places along the table’s 8-foot length, went over to an old woodpile, pulled out some oak scraps similar to the table’s stock, hand-cut these pieces into wedge shapes, traced them on the table, cut holes and then glued everything together with huge pipe clamps. He saved the day, and to boot, the clamps were also made from scrap – old plumbing.

That table is still in my friend’s house. Today it would be on the junk pile, replaced by a new one much younger and perhaps less beautiful.

The point of the story is that in a faster-paced world, on the quicker journey, we have forgotten to bring along some of the skills that once allowed us to survive, those efforts that also instilled pride in what we could accomplish.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is adapted from an earlier version.