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Father's warning: The center might not hold

Her nose was in a book, but my husband kept at it.

“You know how much gas cost when I started driving?”

“Hmmm?” she said.

That would be our granddaughter Taylor, almost 13.

“Twenty-nine cents a gallon,” he pressed on.

“Hmmm,” she said again.

This was in Charleston over the weekend, where rumors of limited amounts of $6-a-gallon gas assailed us. Luckily, about 20 miles north of Charleston, in Summerville, we were able to fill up – no line – at $3.99 a gallon for regular.

But the conversation – or lack thereof – between my husband and granddaughter took me back decades. In his voice, I heard traces of my father's, and a familiar underlying edginess that I now realize is fed by fear.

The unspoken warning: Pay attention, girl. The center does not always hold.

My father was at Georgia Tech in 1929 when the Depression hit.

Growing up, I heard him tell, again and again, how at the first sign of trouble he'd withdrawn his savings from the bank.

His brother, so the story went, paid no attention and lost all of his.

As a kid, I hadn't a clue what to do with this information. I felt sorry for my uncle, but I hadn't any money in the bank. So, “Hmmm,” I said and burrowed into my own book.

Today, my father's message at last is clear: Don't put too much trust in any institution. If the banks can fail, anything can.

Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy. Merrill Lynch bought by Bank of America.

Even a short while ago, we couldn't have fathomed such mighty topplings.

Nor could most of us in journalism have imagined when we were hired – five, 10, 20, 30 years back – that newspapers would be anything but the stalwart institutions we'd always known.

The times they are a-changin'.

And many of the institutions we believed in – built our lives around – are in danger of crumbling.

Think of that 11-mile, 17-foot granite sea wall that protects Galveston, Texas – a wall built in response to the hurricane of 1900, which killed 6,000 there and left 10,000 homeless.

The wall worked well. It worked in 1915 when another major storm assaulted the town. And it kept on working, storm after storm.

But it wasn't infallible, not with Ike's 20-foot surges.

Time passes. People forget. Fear subsides. And then we get whacked upside the head.

Maybe that's what our parents and grandparents have always tried to say when they recall the price of gas in 1960 or the ferocity of the wind in 1989.

If we can't hear our elders, maybe we can hear Dylan:

If your time to you / Is worth savin' / Then you better start swimmin' / Or you'll sink like a stone / For the times they are a-changin'.

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