From time to time, someone sends me one of those e-mail lists of things once familiar, now long gone. Like fender skirts, whitewall tires, and dimmer switches on the floorboard, up near the firewall.
A recent list set me to thinking not only of things no longer in use, but of the skills they required, skills still in the brain or the muscles, ready to be used but waiting unsummoned.
As a farm kid, I learned small skills so removed from 21st century life that it would take more time and space than we have to explain them all. For instance, I could install the harness almost correctly on a work horse by the time I was nine, but it took longer to acquire that one last, elusive skill, tying the proper knot in the rawhide hame string. (Google "hames" if you care.)
Whether country or city, American kids typically aspire to drive, above all things. In my youth, trucks larger than half-ton pickups had at least four forward "speeds" handled by an unsynchronized transmission. That meant when shifting from lower to higher gears, you had to depress the clutch pedal, shift to neutral, let the clutch pedal out, depress it again, then shift from neutral to the higher gear. This allowed engine speed and both front and rear moving parts in the transmission to "synchronize" at approximately the same speed, thus avoiding a clashing of gears. Downshifting was even trickier. It required depressing the clutch, shifting from the higher gear to neutral, releasing the clutch and simultaneously goosing the gas pedal just the right amount, depressing the clutch, and shifting to the lower gear.
This ballet, which sounds silly but was necessary to protect the clutch and transmission, not to mention hearing and nerves, required a oneness with the vehicle that approached the understanding and affection between owner and best-ever dog. I don't think you could ever do it well unless you had a basic understanding of how the entire drive train worked together, as well as a sensitivity to the personality of the particular vehicle you were driving, because they varied greatly.
With all humility, I must say I was a dazzlingly skillful double-clutcher. And then the manufacturers came out with synchronized transmissions. Double-clutching was no longer needed. And soon synchronized transmissions became old-fashioned, as automatic transmissions took over.
I learned typing in high school, loving the manual dexterity it instilled and becoming proficient at hammering away rapidly on the stiff keys of the heavy steel upright Royals, L.C. Smiths, and Underwoods. I cut many mimeograph stencils with their sharp metal keys, half-dazed by the smell of correction fluid.
Soon, though, electric typewriters would make those old steel dinosaurs semi-obsolete, and I would shift my allegiance to the electrics, even though they required no keyboard double-clutching.
Then one sunny day I came upon a new love, the IBM Correcting Selectric. This sleek, seductive beauty promised rewards I'd never considered before. No more jammed keys. No more tedious erasing of errors with a notched index card held to catch the eraser crumbs. Blinding speed and a sexy hum. I was hooked. Her beauty didn't come cheap, but I would sacrifice for such a lasting relationship.
Just before the dream came to life, the home computer did. Seen anybody using a Correcting Selectric lately?
Progress is wonderful. I love computers and all related modern gadgets. Still, the changes come with frightening and increasing speed. My dad wrote his sentences and his arithmetic problems on a slate, in a one-room school house. I did mine with pencil and paper. Our grandsons find it unremarkable to do their third grade homework on their computer. No doubt their own children will consider today's laptops and tablets as old-fashioned and funny as I did my dad's slate.
Obsolescence is not always predictable, though. It's good to retain the skill to use some supposedly obsolete items. The graphite pencil is still a handy tool. The gasoline engine has outlived its predicted demise by many years.
So I'll be ready if, any day now, somebody asks me to cut a mimeograph stencil or tie a proper knot in a rawhide hame string.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."