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Woster: Change so fast it's beyond our comprehension

John Milton talked of how one person living a long life could see things only imagined as a youngster become reality.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

Ever since I spoke with a literature professor drafting an unorthodox history of South Dakota for the nation’s bicentennial, I’ve been fascinated with the incredible changes that can occur in a lifetime.

John Milton wrote the book, “South Dakota: A Bicentennial History,’’ published in 1977. I call it unorthodox because Milton strayed far from the traditional chronological listing of key events. His concern, he wrote, was “with the portrait, with the spirit of the place and the people.’’

I interviewed Milton as he was writing the book. He spoke of how he had been struck by the “youngness’’ of South Dakota. He talked of how one person living a long life could see things only imagined as a youngster become reality. In the published book, he observed that “never before in history has man stood with one foot in his primitive origins and the other poised on the moon.’’

It’s been going on 46 or 47 years since that interview. I continue to be struck by the image of a human being standing — somewhat like the Colossus of Rhodes, I suppose — with a well-worn work boot planted in a field of corn, a gleaming astronaut boot half-hidden in moon dust.

I recalled that image, and Milton, when I helped draft an obituary for my wife’s mother, Lorene Gust. She lived nearly to 101. Born in 1917, she lived through the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and World War II, the development of the atomic bomb, the assassination of JFK, the moon landing and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Just a farm girl who lived her whole life in South Dakota, she saw the world change completely and dramatically.

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Remembering Milton’s observation and reviewing the changes during my mother-in-law’s life probably prompted me to include the concept of a person straddling the past and future in a history I compiled recently of the West River/Lyman-Jones Rural Water System.

West River/Lyman-Jones is the rural water dream that became reality in western South Dakota. Missouri River water is piped from just below Oahe Dam to farms and ranches and towns and reservations west of the river. My dad and my Uncle Frank Woster and countless other dreamers longed to pump river water to their crops, their livestock and their homes. Dad died too young to see it. Uncle Frank spent more than half his adult life advocating for it.

In the forward to the project’s history, I wrote that in my lifetime, I had seen man walk on the moon and send a rover to Mars. I didn’t add this, but I remember being awed by the transition from propeller-driven fighter planes like the P-51 Mustang to F-86 Sabre jets to rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles. I remember living in Sioux Falls early in my newspaper life and getting home from a photo assignment at a golf course in time to see the first step on the moon. The feat itself stunned me. So did the fact that Nancy and I could witness it on a cheap television set in our rented house on North Conklin.

I also wrote in that foreword about being alive as communications technology evolved from a black rotary phone in a farm kitchen to a “can’t-live-without’’ computing marvel that fits in the hip pockets of just about everyone. I came late to hand-held phones, but I got there. I remember seeing a Commodore (64?) on a desk in one of my children’s classrooms in Pierre. I remember talking at length with Gov. Bill Janklow about school technology, trying to understand his plan to wire every school in the state for computers and internet access. I fear he thought I being deliberately obtuse. I was trying to understand. It was change beyond my level of comprehension.

Growing up on a farm with an artesian well, the reality of rural water systems that give service at the turn of a tap still is nearly beyond my comprehension.

It occurs to me I should pause now and then to reflect on the changes that have come about in my relatively short lifetime. Perspective can be a steadying thing.

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