The skills of our forefathers
April 28, 2014
by Ivan Raconteur

We like to think we are pretty advanced today, but based on the historical evidence provided by Hollywood, people in the past had skills beyond anything we can do.

Today, our accomplishments usually come from our ability to use technology.

People in the past apparently did some impressive things, and they did them the old-fashioned way.

A simple example involves the elementary transaction of making a sale. In the old days, shopkeepers knew their products and prices. They could add up a purchase in their heads while carrying on a conversation, and they could make change the same way.

Come to think of it, customers always seemed to know the prices in the old west, too.

A guy may have been riding a horse across the dusty plains for days, but when he arrived in a new town and bellied up to the bar in the saloon for his obligatory shot of whisky, he always knew the price without having to ask, and was able to slap the money on the bar convincingly.

Today, it seems people who work as cashiers are completely lost if the power goes out.

It is true there are far more products available today, and it would be unreasonable to expect a cashier to know all the prices. Also, inventory is often computerized, so products must be scanned when they are sold.

However, the basic math skills for adding prices, calculating tax, and making change seem to be fading away.

The old-timers had all kinds of skills.

In the old west, for example, there were no emergency medical technicians, but EMTs weren’t necessary back then. Everyone was an expert.

Anyone who has ever seen a movie of the western genre has observed this (and if it happened in the movies, it must be true).

Any time someone got shot or otherwise injured in the old west, the first person to come along could instantly diagnose the nature and extent of the victim’s injuries.

The most they ever had to do was unbutton a shirt to get a closer look at the wound, and, presto! They knew immediately what the problem was.

Not only could they make a spot diagnosis, but most of the time they could issue a statement on the prognosis, as well. Based on 10 seconds of observation, they could determine if the patient was going to live or die.

They didn’t mess around checking blood pressure or any other vital signs; they just knew, most of them without any medical training.

If the patient was going to die, even laymen could pinpoint how long he had to live.

Doctors in the old west were minimalists. They were able to carry everything they needed in a single black bag.

They made house calls, and they were happy to diagnose people on the street if necessary.

Doctors charged less back then, too. They sometimes took baked goods, vegetables, or maybe a chicken in payment for their services. Try offering a chicken as payment today and see where it gets you.

In a pinch, many people in the old west could perform impromptu surgery.

If a bullet needed to be removed, they could do it with minimal requirements. Hot water and rags were standard tools of the trade. A guy’s hunting knife made a fine substitute for a scalpel. Anesthesia, if they bothered with it at all, was accomplished with whisky.

Today, surgery requires a team of specialists, is governed by volumes of regulations, and costs about five years’ salary for each procedure.

I’m not suggesting we go back to the old way. I am merely pointing out how things have changed.

People in the old west could perform other medical procedures, as well, such as setting broken bones. It’s not clear if they knew this stuff instinctively, or had picked it up by watching someone else do it once.

I imagine people were more self-sufficient back then, because they couldn’t count on finding a doctor or other specialist when they needed one.

It seems probable that part of the reason people were such expert diagnosticians was because their vision was so much better than ours.

These were the same guys who could follow a cold trail over rocky terrain in the dark while sitting atop a horse, and never lose their quarry.

By looking at a broken branch or a track in the sand, they could tell how long it had been since their quarry had passed a place.

That seems remarkable by today’s standards.

We have GPS tracking devices, night vision goggles, and thermal imaging cameras, not to mention surveillance cameras on every corner and satellites spying on us from the sky, and the bad guys still seem able to elude the authorities, at least temporarily.

It is entertaining to watch movies and television programs highlighting the amazing skills of the those early residents of this land, perhaps because we wish we could do the things they were able to accomplish.

It seems unlikely that will happen, though. The pioneers spent their days actively engaged in the battle for survival, while today, we spend too much of our time sitting in front of computer or television screens, and this does not provide the same kind of experience.

Advertise in over
250+ MN newspapers