The birthday

I just got off the phone wishing — or, more accurately, trying to wish — my nephew Ian a happy 20th birthday. He’s a junior at the College of William and Mary and, as usual, he wasn’t in his dorm room. He’ll get the voice mail — eventually.

But I got to thinking about some of the other 20th birthdays in our family, and how the world has changed in just a couple of generations. In particular, I got to thinking about my grandfather, Ian’s great grandfather, Clay Rex Cottrell, and how different HIS 20th birthday must have been.

Clay was born in Iowa Park, Texas, on April 20, 1898. His parents separated while he was still in grade school; he lost his mother to kidney disease just after he turned 14. He was just barely 18 and working for his brother-in-law Morris Gottlieb (his sister Maude’s husband) in a jewelry store in Frederick, Oklahoma, when the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in his life came into the store. Opal Robertson’s mother did NOT approve of him; he and Opal ran away together a few months later and were married in Wichita County, TX, on October 19, 1916.

So by the time Clay turned 20, he had been married for a year and a half… and had already buried his first child. Ruth Marie was born on August 12, 1917, and died on February 22, 1918. And he’d also had to register for the draft in early 1918 (he was called to active service in August).

It’s easy to think that our 20-year-old boys today have it easier and they do, in some respects. Our 20-year-olds are usually not husbands and fathers; they usually have not lost a child; at least today they don’t face imminent conscription into a foreign war. But their world is a more complex one than that of their great grandfathers. It’s a world of terrorism, of 9/11, of roadside snipers, of information availability and technology their great grandfathers couldn’t have dreamed of.

It’s hard to say, offhand, who history will say really had it easier: today’s 20-year-old Ian or his then 20-year-old great grandfather Clay.

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