Out With the Old

Posted on July 21, 2013

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The recent removal of the Kilgore House, built by a riverboat captain in 1890, from the University of Alabama campus is a sign of the times: Out with the old, and in with the new.

And, in the same time frame, in Lima, Peru a 5,000-year-old pyramid complex was destroyed in part by two building companies. This complex is one of the oldest structures built in the Americas, and its loss was irreparable for the culture and history of Peru, not to speak of humankind in general in the western hemisphere.

So, the question arises: Why keep and defend these old buildings and pyramids? The easy answer, of course, is that they reflect a part of our history, and so their existence serves to keep that memory alive and constitutes a vital part of what makes us what we are. On the other hand, not everything old is worth preserving, although remembering is important.

Take modern medicines for example. Who would want to go back several hundred years when people sickened and died from so many diseases when ailments are now cured or prevented, such as small pox, polio and the flu?

In medicine, new is generally good and old is, well, old. Chicken soup and rest can certainly help ameliorate a bad cold, but drugs off the shelves can actually keep you at work.

That, in and of itself, may actually not be an improvement. Staying at home in bed, and so missing school or work, and being fussed over by a concerned mom or spouse should not be dismissed contemptuously as hopelessly old fashioned and most inefficient. An antiseptic doctor’s office where you are moved along like cattle on the slaughter line is not very comforting.

Those of you in today’s generation know that just about everything you have is obsolete almost from the moment you buy it. The old is ancient and out of fashion or out of touch or too slow or woefully inadequate compared to the newest item that flashes on the Internet, luring you in like a fish going for a juicy worm.

But that worm satisfies you only for a few seconds. Your hunger — for the new and the latest — returns almost immediately. It is a never-ending pursuit, like a puppy chasing its tail.

That hardly seems like an improvement over the old. How many times have I settled comfortably into some software before some idiot comes up with a new, improved version and I have to relearn it all? Try learning a new language every few years. How about Chinese or Arabic for starters, not something easy like Spanish or German?

And, like in medicine, aviation is a paean to the new. Who wants to fly like Jimmy Doolittle in the 1920s, from one wreck to another, lost in the fog and clouds, daredevils whose survivability into middle age was nearly zero. Doolittle lived into his 90s due largely to his decision to stop flying at an earlier age when he lost the “right stuff.” Smart guy. His autobiography, by the way, was spot on, “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.”

If all these new things are good, why look behind us to old buildings like ancient Peruvian pyramids and a 19th century home on the UA campus? The answer is not complicated. It has something to do with memory.

Without memory, we are lost. Look at the poor souls with dementia, Alzheimer’s or other memory-loss ailments.

Historians are fond of quoting an aphorism attributed to the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952), who noted that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is largely in reference to the lessons from history about the awful events of the past, like war.

But, remembering the past should also draw from the deep well of good experiences and memories. We often, for example, remember the legacy of our Founding Fathers, and they are largely positive memories dealing as they do with liberty and equality for starters.

More personally, we remember perhaps a grandparent, a mentor, a coach, a good read. Lots of things go into the box of memories, squirreled away in our brain, which we can draw upon like a big bank account. If that bank account is depleted, like memory loss, then we don’t know who we are, and we are lost.

There are millions of memories that connect us with the past, from a scent that may recall for us a happy place in our memory to the Bible which serves to remind us of what is eternal and true and good.

When we destroy an old home, or an old pyramid, or an old anything, we need to think about the memory we are destroying.

And we need to ask ourselves, is it worth preserving?

Is an old Civil War battlefield, now in the midst of a struggle between new mall makers and history buffs, worth preserving?

Is the memory of the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, worth remembering? Do you know that there are many today who claim the Holocaust is really a hoax created by Zionists looking to smear the German nation?

Our little battles right here in Tuscaloosa County on what to preserve and what to send to the garbage heap perhaps pale in magnitude to how the Civil War contributed to our life as a free people.

But we need to be careful what memories we expunge from our history, whether represented by old homes and pyramids, old books, old truths, everything in the historical record that in fact nourishes and informs us as to who we are, both as individuals and as a people.

For, once you have expunged or destroyed it, it is gone.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 21, 2013