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Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 1999 /20 Tishrei 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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While you fret, something is sneaking up on you --
ALL THE THINGS you're worrying about as the 21st Century approaches? All the things -- beginning with Y2K -- you are convinced may be the most vexing problems as we head into the new century?

Here's a hint: Relax.

Yes, terrible troubles will abound in the next century.

But they won't be the ones you're thinking about now.

Evidence of this -- an object lesson, as it were -- occurred on a street corner in New York City the other day.

At the intersection of 74th Street and Central Park West, a ceremony was held to commemorate an event that happened 100 years before, to the week.

On a September day in 1899, a man named Henry Hale Bliss -- a 68-year-old fellow who was getting out of a trolley -- paused to help a woman passenger get out of the same trolley, and was struck by an automobile and killed.

Why take note of Henry Bliss' death, all these years later? Was he some incandescently famous and successful person, some star of his era whose passing still stirs memories in the land?

No. Mr. Bliss sold real estate for a living.

The reason the small ceremony was held in New York last week was that the death of Henry Bliss on that New York street corner a century ago was a first:

The first fatal automobile accident in U.S. history.

It was an electric-powered auto that hit Mr. Bliss; before that day, there had never been a recorded incident of a person being killed in an automobile accident.

America was just months away from a new century on that day; chances are that, whatever factors in society were making citizens nervous in those last months of the 19th Century, the thought that automobiles would soon become routine purveyors of death was not among them. What was there to be jittery about? Certainly not fatal car accidents -- there had never been one.

In the century that would follow, car crashes would lead to death and injury on a staggering scale. Precise figures are difficult to come by -- but the best numbers available suggest that, in the century since Mr. Bliss tried to be a gentleman by helping his fellow passenger from the trolley, and paid for his politeness with his life, more than 3.1 million Americans have been the victims of motor-vehicle-related fatalities.

That is far greater than the number of Americans who have given their lives in all wars combined. The population of the United States in 1900 was approximately 76 million. If someone had asked Americans to take a look around them that year, and to consider the fact that a number equal to one out of every 25 of them would die from auto accidents before the century was over, it might have given them pause.

But no one could have expected them to care all that much, because (before Mr. Bliss stepped off the trolley) there was no precedent for such a catastrophe. The 19th Century had been marred by all kinds of awful events -- but what happened to Mr. Bliss (until it did happen to Mr. Bliss) was not one of them.

Thus -- as we wring our hands about what could possibly go wrong in the 21st Century -- the best piece of advice would seem to be: Pay attention to history.

Or, rather, to anti-history -- to the Henry Hale Bliss Theory of man's time on Earth, which, roughly translated, comes down to:

The things that are going to bite you are probably not the things that have bitten you before. The things that you ought to be worried about are almost certainly not the things you have been worrying about. The world may very well be as spooky a place as you've always feared it to be -- but the spooks to be wary of are not the ones you've sweated about in the dead of night. The scariest spooks are unthought of by you right now -- you don't even know they're there.

This is not meant to depress you -- in a way, it's almost invigorating. Forget about your lifelong worries -- after all, whatever Mr. Bliss was worrying about that day in 1899, it most likely wasn't the thought of a car that might be passing by his trolley.

Nothing stays the same -- not life's good things, and not life's bad things.

(Although it is more than a little bittersweet to realize that, for all of our striving for elevation and progress as a people, the 20th Century is ending to the once-again-wildly-popular sounds of quiz shows and wrestling matches.)

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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