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Nichols: Art of conversation is rare, but not lost

POSTED: July 19, 2010 1:00 a.m.

On the eve of World War II, I journeyed with my maternal grandparents on a train ride from central Florida to Virginia. We made the trip in late July so to be at the Hoskins family reunion in early August.

We would be staying in the farm homes of several of my grandmother's sisters. When I learned that more than half the farm homes we were scheduled to visit had no electricity, I panicked.

How can I exist without my nightly radio programs like "I Love a Mystery," "Texaco Star Theater," "Jack Benny" and all the other programs that I listened to every night?

My grandmother explained that her sisters had battery-powered radios that they used to hear the news about the moves of Hitler and growing tensions in Europe and Asia. They did not listen to entertainment because battery life was short.

When I got to the farm homes, I discovered that people actually got up at sunrise or even a little before, and went to bed soon after sunset.

After supper and before bedtime, we sat on the front porch and talked.

People listened to what others had to say. Everybody contributed some thoughts to the general discussion. I was pleased that I had such interesting relatives and we all had fun in the conversations that sometimes lasted till the kerosene lamps were lit as daylight faded.

After Pearl Harbor, we were at war for four years. Our family reunions returned and continue to this day. However, they are not the same.

Today, all homes have electricity and most have big-screen TVs. The front porch conversations still happen but with fewer relatives. Parents become chauffeurs for the kids off to band practice, football, basketball or baseball.

Fewer people converse. Fewer people even have front porches that have been replaced by air-conditioned family rooms inside the house.

But all conversation is not dead. A few weeks ago, I was invited to dinner by the first couple that I met and became friends with when I retired to Gainesville in 2000. I arrived in a rain storm about 5 p.m. and departed four hours later. For the whole time, we watched no TV news or other program that we might have watched if no evening conversation occurred.

Though I had known the couple for 10 years, I did not know that my host had been a chaplain in a prison for two decades.

We talked about the race for governor of Georgia. How can one candidate believe he can get the government off our backs or out of our pocketbooks? How can anybody with access to what we know about the water needs of Georgia, Alabama and Florida believe that any governor can "fix" the water problem of shrinking water supply and increasing demand in the three states?

How can we continue the educational programs which cost more than our tax base provides? If we abolish the state income tax how would our state officials provide more not less of the essential services that they make?

To be fair to the candidates they all have different options of what to do if elected. But the reality of postelection crises will probably cause whoever is elected to withdraw from some of the promises made to the voters before the election.

The voter today is being given a difficult choice between candidates claiming different advantages, from leadership experience to analytical skills. Which candidate has the best qualifications to guide our state government through the difficult days that are certain to unfold after the election?

I cannot answer these questions. All I can do is raise more questions as the election nears.

As I drove home, I felt a glow of friendship. Our four hours spent together were filled with conversation about problems, values, leadership skills and the future of democracy in a world of socialist dependence on government. All over the world governments are being asked to provide more entitlements that must be paid for by higher taxes. Governments at the same time are being asked to reduce the national debt and make interest payments which can smother initiative in the marketplace.

That evening was the most exciting one I have had in a long time. I was reminded of the conversations that happened among my great aunts and other relatives on farmhouse front porches in the late 1930s.

In the techno world of our young people all with cell phones and almost constant texting, blogging, and twittering, is face to face conversation going to become a lost art?

I hope not.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly on Mondays and on gainesvilletimes.com.


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