Guest Columnist

1930s ring a bell as history repeats

Contributed photo from Kurt Ullrich
Contributed photo from Kurt Ullrich

When the late 1930s Western Electric telephone on a table in my bedroom rings, every muscle in my body convulses briefly, figuratively lifting me from my chair or bed. It’s loud, really loud. In the ’30s, homes usually had one telephone for the entire house, thus an attention-getting ring tone was necessary. It works beautifully, as does the late 1930s Truetone floor model radio in my living room. Thanks for asking.

The late 1930s in America was an interesting time. We were slowly emerging from the worst economic depression in our history and the heavy storm clouds of war hung over all of Europe. My mother was about 10 years old and her father, who emigrated from a town near Munich, Germany, in 1913, turned on their radio every day to hear the international news.

In the autumn of 1938 British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was meeting with Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and any other diminutive leader in power in Europe.

At the end of September that year Chamberlain flew to Munich to meet privately with Hitler. That’s correct, privately. At the time Hitler already was planning to annex a good percentage of Europe and then annex everyone else. I love it that we use the warm, innocuous term “annex” when in fact what we’re describing is a military takeover, a conquering.

Anyway, Chamberlain met privately with Hitler and emerged from the meeting declaring, and let me quote here, “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a prime minister has returned from Germany, bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank your from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

When President Donald Trump returned from his meeting with diminutive leader Kim Jong Un of North Korea he tweeted, “Just landed — a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” This is getting spooky.

And after the guy-in-chief’s visit with diminutive leader Vladimir Putin of Russia he tweeted, “While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia.” And the annexation of Crimea? Trump indicated Crimea must be part of Russia because the people speak Russian. Uh, OK.

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I love the look of my 1930s telephone, and I love the heft of the handset. It feels important. Some days I’m hopeless enough to wish I could pick up the handset when the phone rings and talk to my mother, a beautiful, bright woman, a sweet ghost from long, long ago. I could warn her about what was ahead, and tell her how her own life turned out, most of it pretty good.

She’d likely tell me that enjoying remnants of the 1930s is foolish, that one cannot live in the past, particularly when it wasn’t my past. But then I could tell her with some confidence that, despite what history tries to teach us, nothing much really changes.

• Kurt Ullrich lives in rural Jackson County. His book “The Iowa State Fair” is available from the University of Iowa Press.

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