Author: Paul deVere
Washington, DC, December 31, 2007—Author’s Note: I became somewhat obsessed with the concept of time when covering a story in Elgin, Illinois some decades ago. Elgin was then known as the “Home of Time,” because it was the headquarters of the Elgin Watch Company, popular competitor (check out ebay) of brands like Bulova and Timex. While the watch company moved its headquarters to Elgin, South Carolina, in 1964, the “Home of Time” nickname stuck. A local funeral home took advantage of the town’s designation on a billboard that included its name, phone number and the slogan, “Time’s Up!”
I endlessly wrote articles about watches, grandfather clocks and hour glasses, then followed up with a series about time machines and the effect of Daylight Savings Time on the circadian rhythm of airline pilots (my advice: never fly on the day the time changes).
My obsession diminished over time (yes, a terrible pun). Then, today, while researching a feature at the U.S. Naval Observatory about the possibility of a large meteor crashing into the Florida Keys sometime in January, 2008 (we had planned to go there on vacation), I noticed an extremely old man hobble into what I thought was a restroom. It looked like he was about to fall, so I rushed up to grab him when, with surprising strength, he yanked me through the door he held open.
“This way, son,” he said in a feeble voice. We were in a long, dimly lighted corridor. We walked down to the end to an office. On the nameplate were the initials “F.T.” With a very light touch of the elderly gentleman’s gnarled fingers, the door swung open. There was an old desk, two chairs and at least 100 old clocks of all shapes and sizes.
“Have a seat son, I won’t be a minute,” he chuckled, then looked at the watch on my wrist. “If you want to talk to me, take that blasted digital watch off and put it in your pocket. Hate the things. So literal. No imagination!” he said and disappeared into another room. I did as he asked, wondering what this was all about.
He returned in less than a minute with an ancient looking hour glass. He placed it on desk and sat down. “Back when you were doing that piece in Elgin, you told a friend of yours you’d give your right arm if you could interview Father Time. Well, buddy boy, I was in the neighborhood checking on those atomic clock do-hickeys they got here at the observatory and figured I’d give you a shot. You’ve got 15 minutes,” he said, pointing at the sand dribbling through the narrow glass neck. “Fire away.”—which is how I got this interview with someone who described himself as “older than dirt.”
CH2: How did you know about Elgin?
FT: Son, there’s not much I miss when it comes to time. After all, I’ve got all the time in the word. Get it? (Laughs.)
CH2: How long has time existed?
FT: That’s kind of a tricky question and I’m assuming you’re talking about this particular universe. Time started with a big bang, so to speak, about 13.7 billion years ago. That’s what the physicists tell me. I was kind of a neophyte back then, didn’t know too much.
CH2: Do you know when it will end?
FT: Nice try. That is one big secret.
CH2: When did man first start telling time?
FT: When he had to. Started by sticking a pole in the ground and watched the shadow move. Take the place over in England, Stonehenge. Those folks were starting to get the idea about 8,000 BC. But they were a pretty wild group. There’s also the teenage theory that parents invented different ways of telling time just so they could yell at their kids and say, “You’re late!” (Laughs.)
CH2: Any highlights you’d like to share?
FT: That would be a bit tough. I don’t have all day! (Laughs.) Sometimes I just can’t help myself. There was the time I first saw Mother Nature. Sweet thing. You just don’t want her to get mad. And no, the stuff about us being an “item” is just so much balderdash. We’re just friends. You know all about the bad times so I prefer to focus on the good times. Like when that Egyptian pharos turned to this guy and asked him, “Have you got the time?” Of course the guy didn’t, so he went out and invented the sundial. Or eons before that, when a hairy little kid turned to his mom and said, “Mama, look, I walking!” Then there was that fellow on the moon. I could go on. Time runs together for me.
CH2: What’s your take on New Year’s Eve celebrations?
FT: I love a good party! And your world has been partying in the New Year almost as far back as I can remember. No matter when or what part of the world, it’s always like folks feel like they can get a fresh start on life. You know, something like, “This time around I’m going to get it right.” Wish I could do that. I’d change some things.
CH2: Do you have any favorite phrases?
FT: Well, sure. “Time out” in football. I love that. Making believe you can suspend time by stopping the clock. That’s great. The one I don’t particularly like is when a teacher says, “Time” at the end of a test. I never was much good at tests.
CH2: What about literature?
FT: Well, an al- time favorite is Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8. You know, “There is a season …” Then there was Captain Jean-Luc Picard in a Star Trek episode … you like Star Trek? Anyway, I remember him saying, “Time is a companion that goes with us on a journey. It reminds us to cherish each moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived.” Makes me look pretty darn good.
CH2: One last question … (I notice the last grains of sand have fallen. So does he.)
FT: Sorry, son, time’s up! Or how about, “Times a-wasting!” (Laughs.) And remember, “time flies when you’re having fun!”
And he did. Right through the door as if nothing was there. I did detect, however, the faint aroma of Johnson’s baby powder.