In the 1970s my father, mother, sister and I moved from Boston to Los Angeles. Our mode of transportation was a Ford Country Squire station wagon that, if it had seatbelts, were not used. Hopefully it goes without saying that there were no car seats even though I was three and my sister six. The real problem wasn’t the lack of safety features in the car, but that it had no air conditioning. And we drove west in the summer.
The relatively primitive standard of living in the 1970s is a regular driver of conversation with my six-year old daughter and three-year old son today, simply because they have no idea. The world they’ve entered into is another century in the literal sense, but it’s similarly other in the figurative sense.
The conversations with my kids came to mind a great deal while reading Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle’s excellent new book, The Book of Charlie: Wisdom From the Remarkable American Life Of a 109-Year Old Man. Though people of all ages have and will enjoy the book (it’s selling very well), Von Drehle wrote this slim accounting of an amazing life, one “bereft of wizards, crime-solving orphans, time travel, or empathetic talking spiders,” for his kids. While it’s “not the book they asked for” as evidenced by what’s not in it, “it is a book they will need.” By knowing a little about the life of Charles Herbert White, Von Drehle’s kids will know better how to approach the inevitable highs and lows of the human existence that can’t be wished away or made to vanish via technology. Von Drehle gave his kids, kids in general, and people in general a how-to on life, and an important look back to the way life used to be. Hopefully it will alert them to how good they have it now. And is life ever good now. Read The Book of Charlie to see why.
Von Drehle writes that “An American born in the early 1900s who managed to live into the 2000s would have one foot planted in the age of draft and diphtheria – a time when only 6 percent of Americans graduated from high school – and the other planted in the age of space stations and robotic surgery.” In short, Charlie White’s life reveals. It’s about so much more than Charlie. Interested as I was in his life as recalled through the entertaining writing of Von Drehle, I was more interested in the contrasts between then and now. So, while I read The Book of Charlie to learn about a man who lived to the age of 109, I found the anecdotes about the way things used to be even more interesting. Put another way, I’ll be quoting Von Drehle’s book long after this review as a way of bringing to life the economic ideas that my opinion pieces most often aim to elucidate. But first, it’s important to write about Charlie White.
Von Drehle and his wife were part of the D.C.’s reportorial/editorial elite, but for a variety of reasons moved to Kansas City in 2007. That’s when and where they met Charlie.
Von Drehle’s accounting of Charlie grabs you early. He first encountered him as a 102-year old, who “was bare chested, dressed only in a pair of swim trunks” as he washed his girlfriend’s car. Readers know this, but it’s worth stressing how rare such an encounter was. Von Drehle reports that “fewer than half of 1 percent make it to 102.” As for those who make it to 102 while washing cars for girlfriends, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the number is too small to calculate.
Why did Charlie live so long? Thankfully the medical doctor in Charlie wasn’t too self-serious, nor was Von Drehle. By this I mean that there was no detailed diet regimen written out, or exercise routine. According to Von Drehle, when people would ask Charlie the secret to his longevity, he would reply with “There’s no secret, just luck.” Amen.
To be clear, Von Drehle’s discussion of Charlie’s life isn’t about good thing after good thing. Remember, he’s written a book that will hopefully cause readers to approach life’s inevitable lows with a stoic countenance as he feels Charlie did. In Charlie’s case, it wasn’t just that he was born at a time when “horse-drawn carriages far outnumbered automobiles,” that flight was still in the future, air conditioning was decades away, and that diarrhea was a leading cause of death. Life itself invariably intrudes on day-to-day struggles. Sometimes cruelly.
Stated bluntly, The Book of Charlie is brutal reading at times. When Charlie was merely 8, his beloved father was quite literally crushed to death in an elevator. What makes it even more agonizing is Von Drehle’s not unreasonable speculation that if Charlie’s minister/insurance salesman father had just gone to the elevator five minutes earlier or later (he was going to pick up a payment on a policy), he wouldn’t have died. But the “carelessness of fate” killed Charlie’s father in the worst of ways, and “Charlie’s grief was so great he could hardly eat.” Charlie’s mother was left with five children, no income, plus one of them was in a sense starving himself so wrecked was he by the loss.
Somehow amid all this Charlie’s mother managed to get back on her feet. She went to work for a missionary group that managed mission trips, plus she took in borders to the house purchased by her late husband. But there was still Charlie. What to do? His mother ultimately found him a summer camp down in the Ozarks that was largely populated with older kids. Organized by the son of a well-to-do family in Kansas City, it read to me as a way for Charlie to relieve himself even somewhat of the horrors suffered back home. What a nice thing for his mother to do.
At the same time, the camp story was for me the least compelling of Von Drehle’s analyses of Charlie’s life. While the author acknowledges that “Attitudes about nudity were different in those days,” it’s notable that the proprietor of Boy Crusaders right away took away the clothes of the campers who essentially lived for a month in the nude. The obvious, and not unreasonable speculation is that the proprietor was a pedophile. No arguing with Von Drehle there.
Where there’s a little bit of skepticism is in Von Drehle’s extrapolation from two anecdotes (Charlie saying he grew “really tough” at camp, plus much later in life he apparently was a little blase about the severity of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes at Penn State) that Charlie was likely molested at camp by the proprietor, and perhaps the other campers more broadly. It quite simply read as Von Drehle searching for more trauma that would enable him to make his bigger case to readers about the importance of resilience in life itself. None of this is to suggest that the proprietor wasn’t a pedophile, but it is to suggest that one reason we recoil at molestation is because it’s thankfully so rare. Camp attendance toughens lots of people for lots of reasons, and particularly would have over 100 years ago.
From there, let’s not forget what happened to Charlie when he was 8. My point here is that at his age and beyond, there were all manner of horrors I would have gladly endured over losing my father. Has Von Drehle read about life at British boarding schools to this day? Awful as Sandusky’s crimes were, the view here is that most kids would be willing to suffer myriad horrors of the Sandusky variety to avoid the much bigger one of losing a parent. Who knows, but this may explain Charlie’s seeming equanimity about Sandusky more than Von Drehle’s even light insinuation that he was perhaps violated by proprietor and older campers alike.
The good news is that once back in Kansas City, Charlie was so smart that he skipped two grades, plus he managed his way through childhood as a popular, well-adjusted kid. Von Drehle writes of anger Charlie felt at times when seeing kids with their fathers, but the conclusion seems to be that the awful trauma brought out a mature side of him.
At the end of high school, Charlie and two friends took a Model T out on the road, with California their planned final destination. As readers can hopefully imagine, this trip in no way resembled the kind that fun-loving teen males would enjoy today. If we forget that merely starting a Model T carried with it the very real risk of a broken wrist, Von Drehle reports that in the U.S. of 1922, “there were really no roads, no maps,” at which point the drive west was 1,700 miles dense with wrong turns, unpaved roads, and dead ends.
Where it becomes important is in terms of how Charlie et al got out there financially. While the owner of the car had parents of substantial real estate means, Charlie and the other teen earned their way across the country. As Charlie relayed to Von Drehle, they “became expert in a few days” when it came to farm work, “like high school kids will.” Yes! This is important, and crucially Von Drehle thinks it’s important. They needed money to make it to California, only for them to learn what they needed to in order to earn as they drove.
This is to me a retort to members of the American Right who increasingly find victims of the American public schools wherever they look. As a member of that Right, I find their whining disappointing. Charlie’s story is a reminder that learning is a choice more than anything. Those who care to know things, those who care to adapt, do just that.
As the book makes clear, Charlie’s life is defined by adapting to the rapidly changing times. As he put it to Von Drehle, “When you don’t have an income, you create. You find a job.” Yes, once again. People who care, people who want to get ahead, figure it out. Charlie did. Eventually he learned saxophone not because he had access to a good musical education, but because he carefully listened to the radio with saxophone in hand. The self-taught skill earned him money in college and graduate school. Education is once again a choice, while good and bad schools are far more defined by the conscientious ways of those attending them.
Which brings us to the Junior College of Kansas City that Charlie attended before the University of Missouri. In his recollection, this was the most challenging school of all that he attended, and Charlie’s education included Northwestern Medical School. It arguably speaks to how the federalization of education finance has harmed it. While the Right well overstates the impact of federal loans on tuition costs, the Left well overstates the importance of federal funds to the process. With Charlie going to college long before federal involvement, the value of a degree or “education” wasn’t so much about what was learned (more on this with regard to medical school), or where it was learned, as the value was rooted in difficulty of completion. By arming kids with endless funds, the Left has arguably cheapened education by turning colleges and universities into servants of those with large amounts of taxpayer dollars in their hands. Graduation is now a given, and that’s too bad.
Von Drehle’s commentary on medicine through the prism of Charlie is more than worth the cost of the book alone. Keep in mind that Charlie went to medical school in the 1920s. These weren’t your father’s medical schools. This is something I write about a lot in When Politicians Panicked, my book about the tragic coronavirus lockdowns. The medical schools of old didn’t instruct on healing those who were ill simply because there for the most part weren’t cures. That’s why cancer and heart disease weren’t major killers. Those diseases got older people, and for most of human history, life was “brutish and short.” Awful as both diseases are now, that they’re top killers in the present paradoxically speaks to progress. As Von Drehle notes via a prominent Kansas City doctor of old (Arthur Hertzler), the primary contribution of doctors when Charlie went into practice was “demeanor.”
Much time is spent on this in consideration of the choice among doctors, politicians and experts more broadly to fight the spreading coronavirus with economic contraction. Historians will marvel at the abject stupidity of the approach, and The Book of Charlie will inform this view. As Von Drehle writes 2/3rds of the way through, “Charlie didn’t cure disease – no doctors cured diseases before the age of antibiotics.” Precisely. What requires stress is that what very much changed medical schools and medicine itself was economic growth. In his lifetime alone, John D. Rockefeller gave away $530 million, and $450 million of it was for medical research. Railroad investor Johns Hopkins similarly directed enormous sums to medical research. Charlie, though educated in the “medicine” of old, adapted to this new world. He learned anesthesiology well out of medical school, only to become a prominent anesthesiologist. Education is once again a choice, and it frequently happens when we’re not in school. Just as Charlie learned farming techniques “as high school kids will,” so did he learn medical techniques. As humans we adapt, and he did. This is yet again another call for people to cease blaming schools for lousy outcomes. Quoting Charlie again from earlier, “When you don’t have an income, you create. You find a job.” Both Left and Right will prosper from this book simply because both want to blame others when things don’t go right. Charlie’s life rejects all the victimhood spewed from both sides.
Beyond Charlie’s very interesting life that there’s so much more about in the book, there’s just information. And it’s great. The view here is that both sides search for danger or “crisis” everywhere they look. Lefties at Von Drehle’s newspaper keep telling us that a warming earth is going to get us in some kind of apocalyptic way even as the biggest, most information-pregnant market of all (that would be the world’s population) continues to move to the very coastal cities around the world that warming alarmists tell us will soon enough be under water. Members of the Right who claim to love choice are convinced that people freely choosing not to have as many babies are setting their countries up for gradual “demographic” decline. It’s global warming for conservatives. Von Drehle doesn’t address the conservative alarmists as much as he wisely and calmly points out that reduced birthrates are a sign of progress, that “fewer children meant longer lives and time to think,” and lives in which those born have been better fed while enduring “less drudgery.” The simple truth is that a child being born today will be the productive equivalent of hundreds and thousands of those born in the past thanks to relentless technological advance that happily frees us of so much needless work. Which is why I wish I could live until 2123 to see the advances that will make the abundant present seem positively primitive by comparison. What largely unheard of diseases in the present will kill us then? Again, progress. The crisis narrative that the dominant ideologies embrace is so tired, and spoiled.
Still, from Von Drehle’s book there’s perhaps a clue about where it emerges from. Charlie was born in 1905, only to live through a thoroughly tragic century. As Von Drehle describes it, it was a century of “unprecedented violence and dislocation – the Great War giving way to the Russian Revolution and the Armenian genocide, followed by the Great Depression, the communist purges, the starving of Ukraine, and the Rape of Nanjing, bleeding in World War II, the Holocaust, and violent struggles for colonial independence.” The world is thankfully so much calmer today, which once again may explain the endless search among the deep in thought for problems. Surprisingly, even Von Drehle descends into this line of thinking as he writes that “My kids, just like Charlie, have come of age in a period of disillusionment and pessimism.” Oh come on! Von Drehle knows better. What Charlie witnessed individually and globally makes the present seem like the most rose-strewn of rose-strewn walks in the park. The view here yet again is that our wise minds can’t realistically find anything to be terribly pessimistic or alarmed about, hence they invent major scares. Think the coronavirus yet again. Rest assured there wouldn’t have been lockdowns in 1920, let alone 2000. Too many people would have lost their jobs, including elite people.
Another interesting anecdote among so many was Von Drehle’s mention of “news articles” from the 1920s that had all sorts of “quack” medicinal ideas. This stood out given the desire among the deep in thought to limit the internet, AI and other advances for fear that “misinformation” will be spread. Oh come on, it’s not serious. We learn in The Book of Charlie what’s obvious, that misinformation is as old as information. You don’t limit free speech to fight misinformation, you instead protect free speech. This book is quite simply a great antidote to all the fear-mongering promoted by the whiny ideologies. They think they’ve happened on new problems. They haven’t. All they’ve revealed is how little they know history, and worse, how unoriginal their thinking is.
I could go on for a very long time about all the interesting reading in The Book of Charlie. Needless to say, I’ll once again be quoting this excellent book for as long as I’m writing economics op-eds. David Von Drehle set out to tell a great story, and with Charlie White as his subject, he did just that. Only to achieve so much more.