The other day, as I drove my fourteen-year-old grandson, Nate, to a local theater-in-the-round to watch a live performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, he stopped texting a friend for just long enough to learn that not only had I seen the play before, but I had also read the book and watched the movie.
“Why not just watch the movie?” Nate asked.
“Each format has certain advantages,” I explained.
“I’m not sure what that means,” Nate responded.
“Well, for instance, you just chose to text a friend rather than talk with me—even though I’m sitting right next to you.”
“But I had to take care of something before it got worse,” Nate explained.
“I’m not saying that you made the wrong communication choice, just that you made a choice and it came with advantages and disadvantages.”
“Is this due to the invention of the smart phone?” Nate asked.
“Partly,” I explained, “but having to choose between communication tools and venues has been a part of daily life for centuries. I learned this for the first time over fifty years ago when I was just about your age.”
“How’s that?” Nate asked.
And so, I spent the remainder of our car ride recounting to Nate about the time when I learned who my grandfather really was.
It all started at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in 1962 when I sat (as I had done more than 200 times before) in the room behind my grandfather’s grocery store and watched TV. Grandpa Noonan had just returned from shopping at the wholesale house and playing poker with his cronies. I had just completed an eight-hour shift where I waited on customers at Grandpa’s store while he was away.
Normally, as my Saturday job came to an end and I waited a half hour for the city bus to roll up, I watched the Wide World of Sports. I loved that program as much as anything on television. While Grandpa puttered around the store, I gave my undivided attention to Jim McKay as he hosted every sport imaginablefrom jai alai to wrist wrestling. Grandpa and I shared the same space, but we said little to each other—after all, a wrist wrestling competition was underway.
But not on this Saturday. As I turned to see what Wide World was airing, a news alert announced a shooting in Seattle. I asked Grandpa if he’d ever witnessed a similar crime. Born in 1880, my mother’s father was a contemporary of some of the Wild West characters I had seen in the movies; maybe he had been privy to a gunfight.
“As a matter of fact,” Grandpa answered, “I once saw a man gunned down in cold blood. I was riding in a boxcar as I made my way across the country to a job I had arranged for in Raymond, Washington. On this particular trip, I was traveling with Walter, an acquaintance I made when he boarded the train somewhere around Kansas City. A dodgy-looking character wearing jackboots joined us a couple days later, and that evening, a sad fellow clothed in rags climbed into the car. “Around midnight,” Gramps continued, “as I settled into a deep sleep, a loud shot rang through the boxcar. Walter and I awoke to find the man in jackboots standing over the dead body of the man in rags. He had shot the poor fellow in the chest and was beginning to rifle through his meager belongings. Fearing for our own lives, Walter and I tackled the shooter, wrestled away his gun, and constrained him until the train came to a stop early the next morning. Eventually, we waved down a railroad employee, and together we hauled the criminal to the local authorities while someone cared for the victim’s body.
“Now here’s where it gets interesting,” Grandpa continued (as if wrestling with a murderer had been boring). “We had been eye witnesses to a murder and the local law enforcement officials needed us to stick around for the trial. The crime happened in the middle of nowhere, and the whistle-stop where the train paused to take on cargo had no place to board us, so the sheriff put us up in the only free room in town—a jail cell. The cell worked out okay because we only used it for sleeping. The rest of the time, we shot pool and played cards at the nearby bar where we were served delicious meals cooked by the sheriff’s wife.”
Being eyewitnesses to a murder had turned gramps and Walter into persons of interest in a town where the arrival of the mail was a cause célèbre. As the trial unfolded, people from all around the county came to talk with the exotic out-of-towners.
Sometime, a few minutes into my Grandpa’s tragic tale, I turned off the television and listened intently as he vividly described a trial where, among other things, the accused (still in jackboots) tried to leap over a table and choke Grandpa to death for “squealing!”
That was the last time I turned on Jim McKay and his sports anthology. From that day on, while I waited for my Saturday-afternoon bus, I talked to Grandpa about the jobs he held before he met grandma and settled down. It turns out; he had worked as a professional gambler, a trapper, a butcher, and a dozen or so other occupations. This made Grandpa a veritable library of stories. As I look back, I cherish those Saturday-afternoon conversations and I don’t regret for a second having given up ABC’s premier sports program as the price of admission.
“Wow!” my grandson Nate responded as we pulled up to the theater and I brought Grandpa’s story to a close. “So you’re saying that talking to someone in person is better than watching a TV show or texting a message?”
“Actually, I’m not.” I responded.
Having recently been promoted from early baby boomer to old coot, I’m reluctant to say that old forms of communicating are inherently better than new ones.
“So what are you recommending?” Nate asked, a bit puzzled. “I’m saying that there is no single communication tool that’s perfectly suited for every form of interaction. We have to weigh the pros and cons of each tool and make good choices.”
And my response was not just lip service in order to stay in the good graces of my tech-loving grandson. Each year, the latest and greatest device will be introduced, and it, like all its predecessors in the form of devices, methods, and channels, will come with costs and benefits. So, spend time experimenting with a variety of tools and venues—both old and new. Be critical of the costs and welcoming of the benefits. Find ways to use these tools for good and see them as tools to make important personal and interpersonal connections.
And, should you, by chance, choose to talk face-to-face to an aging raconteur, you may discover (as I once did) that a TV broadcast of the Wide World of Sports isn’t always more interesting than a story told in the backroom of the Wide World of Noonan’s Grocery.
“But a TV broadcast could be more interesting than someone telling a story,” Nate added to my soap box.
“Not if Grandpa Noonan is doing the telling,” I responded.
“Or maybe you, Grandpa,” Nate added.
“Or maybe me.”