Tempus fugiting faster

March 23, 2008

I think my best interviews – using the term broadly – have been with the very old.

I once talked to an old guy named Samuel, whose daddy picked him up one clear night in 1910 and showed him Halley’s Comet. He lived long enough to see it again, and wept remembering that night so long ago. He also said “I saw the first airplane land in Adams County, and I sat in this chair and watched a man walk on the moon.” Neither one of us could say much after that. After all, what could be said?

Just this past week I wrote about a remarkable woman who had died in a Washington, D.C nursing home at the age of 102. Not exactly an interview, obviously, but fascinating.

Frieda was born the year President Theodore Roosevelt begin his full term as president. He had ascended to the presidency on Sept. 14, 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. The year is regarded as Albert Einstein’s “miracle year.” In 1905, he published four papers. In one of them he developed the theory of special relativity that gave birth to the famous formula E=MC2. It was the year a little town in Nevada named Las Vegas was founded after the auction of 110 acres of desert, and in Paris, infamous exotic dancer and purported spy Mata Hari made her debut.

Frieda’s grandson sent me a photo of her taken in about 1919, when she was 14 and had just finished the eighth grade. It was as far as her schooling would go.

 Shortly after the photo was taken, her father died, and she had to go to work. She worked for 80 years as a bookkeeper before retiring.

What a century to live through, I thought. Born four years before the introduction of the Model T, she lived to see space shuttle flights become commonplace.

On the other hand, tempus fugits faster all the time. I was born 43 years after Frieda, and I hardly recognize the world from back then. I did some quick research. I was born the year the 45 rpm record was introduced. Today, I have an ipod. I’ll wager that if you show a 45 to somebody younger than 30, they would have trouble identifying what it was.

We had a telephone, a black Bakelite thing with a rotary dial. It was on a party line. Neighborhood gossips on the same line could pick up the phone and learn what their neighbors were talking about. Today, I don’t have a “land line,” but a cell phone that has more functions than I’ve probably discovered yet, including the ability to give me directions on the road.

The first two VW beetles were brought to the US that year. They were regarded more as curiosities than viable transportation. “Too small,” people said. The sedan I now drive, a product of the early 21st century, looks like some sort of silver aquatic creature giving birth when I get out of it. Too small, yes, but a necessary evil in these days of long commutes and soaring fuel prices.

A few weeks before I was born, a USAF crew made the first nonstop round-the-world flight, covering about 23,000 miles in a shade more than 94 hours.

The aforementioned space shuttle makes the trip in about 90 minutes.

The Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in August of that year, and whatever innocence might have about how humanity holds its fate in its own hands was gone forever. The USSR is gone, but the specter of nuclear annihilation is still with us. And I can’t help but note, because I live in Gettysburg, that a few months after my birth, the last six surviving veterans of the Civil War met in Indianapolis. That brings into focus the fact that the war was really a recent thing, in historical terms.

That same year Howard Unruh killed 13 neighbors in Camden, New Jersey, using a Luger he had kept as a souvenir from WWII, making him America’s first single-episode mass murderer. There would be more.

In the years since, my country has gone to war a handful of times, with very mixed results. The death count in American lives lost in those conflicts tops 116,000. Just in the latest fracas, we have chalked up nearly 30,000 wounded. Some unofficial sources push the number up to 100,000. And that’s just our soldiers. God knows how many civilians we have wiped out.

So, a very mixed bag. I have been here a tad less than 60 years. There’s no point in engaging in discussions about what was good and what was not. Some of the good and bad was obvious. The jury is still out on the rest. I’m no Luddite, scornful of technology. I confess that when it comes to human nature, I am intuitively a pessimist, which means that all my surprises are happy ones.

I just can’t wait to see what’s next.



© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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