Woodrow Wilson, of course, he wouldn't remember. Dad was born in 1919, so whatever he knew about the bookish progressive he had to have learned in those few short years he spent down the road in school, after Wilson was gone. Whether or not he ever understood how the man supposedly "made the world safe for democracy," he must have noted, as a kid, that even in rural Iowa there were men in town who came back from "the Great War" with haunted memories.
Apparently, the nation knew Warren G. Harding was ill and tried to keep up with his poor health, but no one imagined he'd die. Dad was so young he almost certainly never understood the sadness most of the nation felt when the new president--he'd only served two years--died of a brain hemorrhage in 1921.
Pretty much all of Dad's grade school friends spoke the Dutch language. It's highly unlikely he ever saw a African-American man or woman when he was a boy, so he probably never thought about Calvin Coolidge's progressive views on racial equality. Most kids didn't think much about national government as they hiked to school, a mile or so away. Coolidge would have liked that anyway--after all, the best government is the least government.
Herbert Hoover was an real Iowan, sort of. I'm guessing my father-in-law's neighbors in northwest Iowa loved our 31st President for his support of prohibition, but farming got really ugly when the stock market fell in 1929. Dad was twelve or so and the oldest boy. He had to know Mom and Dad faced tough times.
I never asked him about FDR, but he had to have an opinion--everyone did. Some thought Roosevelt a savior; some believed him the author of original sin--big government. Dad was 14 when FDR took over, 26 when he died. A day of infamy brought the whole country to war, and, with forty-some men from his little church in a little town, Dad went off, worked in the motor pool behind American troops from Normandy to Berlin. It was like absolutely no other experience in his life.
He was going to be sent to the South Pacific when Harry Truman ordered the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Instead, he went home where he was more than happy to farm like his father. Truman, the small-town boy from the Midwest, was President when Dad married a beautiful young woman who'd been Tulip Queen--and when he became a father.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who commanded Dad's own army in Europe, took his place in the Oval Office when Dad like so many millions of other vets settled into a life that seemed sheer blessedness after the war's carnage. When he bought land and incurred his own father's anger for taking such an awful risk, he did it because he knew he could and should--but it wasn't easy.
With Calvinists all around, he had to know that John F. Kennedy was Roman Catholic, but a vet too, and a hero. He was probably in the shed the day Kennedy was shot, another harvest behind him; but he couldn't have missed the anxiety on his daughter's face when she came home from school, nor the thick fog of grief that spread over the nation.
Richard Milhous Nixon's five years were tough, I'm sure, for a man who'd been to war and never for a moment wished it on anyone. But there we were in a country so small and undiscovered most of the country couldn't find it on a map. And yet kids, even neighbors, boys his daughter's age, were coming back with wounds he understood, even if they never caught a bullet.
Gerald Ford was another short-timer, a man thrust into an office he hadn't sought, a man whose most important task may well have been t0 clean up a mess. Somewhere in those years, Dad stopped trying to be Old MacDonald, got rid of the cows, and held on to the hogs. His daughter brought home a man who didn't know a Hampshire from a Duroc, said she was going to marry him, even though the guy--kind of wild--had never asked him. They were married in Orange City, and he became a Grandpa.
It must have been interesting to him to have a farmer, a peanut guy, Jimmy Carter, for President. Most of the world around him was blue-blood Republican, but Dad kept an open mind about things. The farm was doing well, even though he was at it alone. But the kids were living just down the road now, and his wife made a habit of Sunday dinner for them.
Ronald Reagan had a way of making most everyone smile, except real Democrats--and Dad didn't know many of those. What he knew was that somehow the world was better off with that Berlin wall down, with the Soviet Union falling apart. Besides, Russia was started to invest in American grain. That helped.
He left the farm during the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, quit, he said, because he just didn't want to go through the tension of another harvest--too hard on him. Walking away wasn't easy either, but life in town as a young retiree had its pleasures. He worked here and there and everywhere, because a retired farmer can do most anything. But he took some time to fish too, which he'd never done before.
And so on and so on when Bill Clinton ruled the D. C. roost. His grandkids went to high school and college, the oldest got married to a boy from faraway California--nice kid with a Dutch name.
When George W. Bush was President, his wife for all those years needed to be in a home, so he sold their house and moved to a brand new facility in town. When she became bed-ridden, she grew more and more dependent on his loving care. Then, slowly, and not without pain, she died on a Sunday night while he was in church after being there at her bedside all day. He was alone.
Obama, the African-American, came next, but Dad's hearing kept him from watching much TV, and his age, it seems, limited his ability and desire to understand what was going on in Washington or Des Moines. His greatly loved grandson found himself a wife, but he really couldn't make the trip all the way down to Oklahoma.
Dad is 97 now, and Friday, when President Donald Trump was inaugurated on the steps of the capital, I asked him if he knew anything at all about the new President. He shook his head. Some things don't stay there long anymore, it seems. Other things do.
That afternoon when we were there with him in his room we counted. The numbers are astounding: he's had 18 Presidents. Some, I'm sure, he knew better than others--Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan maybe. He's never been particularly political, and unlike so many of his neighbors and friends he's never held political affiliation as if it were a standard of righteousness.
When you think about all those Presidents in all of those years, somehow each of them seem more human, and somehow therefore diminished. And so we live our lives.
I'm not exactly sure why, but I find all of that both humbling and comforting.