THE BLINK OF AN EYEBy BENNY HORNSBY,
Have you enjoyed that extra hour of sleep this week? I hope so, because “Falling Back” is perhaps the only chance you will ever have to enjoy, even metaphorically, a bonus of that most precious commodity in your life . . . time.
Everyone looks at time from their own point of view: the prisoner sitting in his cell; the sailor at sea; the pensioner watching his money.
When I was young, “time” was just an abstraction, merely a “word” that described something that didn’t really affect me.
Now that I’m old, time is so finite that I sometimes fancy I hear the clock ticking. Even if your Latin vocabulary only consisted of two phrases: “Tempus Fugit” (Time Flies) and “Carpe Diem” (Seize the Day), you would be a wise individual.
The English author, Samuel Johnson, who wanted to make sure he remembered how quickly time flies, had inscribed on his watch the words “Night Cometh,” the salient message from Jesus’ reminder to his disciples not to waste time: “The night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4).
Compare that warning to one of another Samuel, the actor, Samuel L. Jackson, quoting Ezekiel 25:17 in the Quentin Tarantino movie, Pulp Fiction:
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness.”
Although centuries apart and in completely different mediums, each was commenting on the capricious nature and brevity of life.
Many of us have our favorite quotes that we trot out on appropriate occasions, and they often have to do with time and how we use it.
On one of
my early ships, for example, I had a CO who would run around the bridge when we got underway screaming “Time and tide wait for no man!” Sometimes, though, they are mere clichés like “Just a matter of time” or “Only time will tell.”
One should beware clichés, for as the French poet, Gerard de Nerval, famously said, “The first man who compared a woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”
For me, although I never consciously committed it to memory, and just picked it up along the way, my time quote default is this poem from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
What’s done, is done. When England’s Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) lay on her deathbed, her last words, so it is said, were “Time! Time! Give me one more moment of time! I would give my kingdom and all I possess for one more moment of time!”
But it was not to be.
We are affected by time in some interesting ways.
Did you know that you are making your life shorter by sleeping on the second floor of your home?
According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (E=mc2) you are.
Simply put, the phenomenon of gravitational time dilation states that time will tick slower the closer one is to a gravitational force.
Consequently, time will tick faster the further away from a source of gravity it is, as in the higher its altitude.
The invention of atomic clocks validated Einstein’s theory. Someone estimated that for every foot you are above ground, a source of gravity, you would age about 90 billionths of a second faster over a 79-year lifetime.
Einstein said that the reason we have time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.
Although not known for his sense of humor, he once explained “relativity” like this: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes; when you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours. That’s relativity.”
Problems with time also influenced the settlement of the eastern United States. Until the invention of the marine chronometer by Englishman John Harrison in 1728, sailors had no way to determine their exact longitude (east and west of the Prime Meridian; the lines that run north and south on a globe: meridians).
Latitude was easy (north and south of the Equator; the lines that run east and west: parallels): all they had to do was to measure the altitude of the sun at noon with the aid of a table giving the sun’s declination for the day.
For longitude, they had to rely on dead reckoning or guessing how far they had traveled in a period of time. With the chronometer, navigators could now determine the time of “local noon,” which never changes, unlike the times of sunrise and sunset.
If they knew the exact time of their local noon, they could check it against the time at another known location and accurately calculate their longitude relative to the known location.
When the ship, Mayflower, loaded with English Puritans, set out from Plymouth, England, in 1620, they were really headed to the mouth of the Hudson River, about 200 miles south of Cape Cod, and not present-day Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they ended up.
If not for storms and problems of determining longitude, we might be celebrating Thanksgiving in an entirely different way.
Lexicographers tell us that in the 1580’s the phrase “In the nick” began to be used for the “critical” moment, the exact instant at which something has to take place, with the “Nick” being the name of a narrow and precise marker.
It was inevitable that this phrase would be applied to time, and we all have our “in the nick of time stories.”
Here are some of mine.
n On a pitch-black night in Rome, I was seconds away from stepping directly into the path of what must have been the quietest streetcar in the world. But I stopped – in the nick of time...
n Once while being transferred by high line between two ships steaming side by side, one of the ships drifted a little off course slacking the line, and the metal chair that I was strapped into was plunged beneath the waves. I held my breath until the line became taunt again and popped me out of the water – in the nick of time...
n Once, while lining up for a parachute jump, the kid behind me saw something wrong with the packing of my chute and called it to the attention of the jump master – in the nick of time. It probably saving my life.
n Back when I was an enlisted man, I was assigned to the Armed Forces Police in New York City.
One night, we had to cool down a major dust-up between civilians and military personnel at a night club in the Bronx.
Some joker pulled out a gun and shot at me, but I saw what was happening and jumped out of the way – in the nick of time...
n In Vietnam, a rocket propelled grenade exploded about 50 feet from me in the exact spot I had been laying just a few moments earlier.
n In Beirut, when the terrorist drove his explosive-laden truck through the gate and into the Marine barracks and killed 241 Marines and 40 members of the French Foreign Legion, I had just exited the building some 15 minutes earlier.
n When I was in college, I was riding a bull named “Try Me” in a rodeo in Wilmer, Alabama. When he bucked me off, his back hooves landed just a few inches from my head as I lay on the ground.
n In the late 1970s, I was on a ship running plane guard for an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, just off Diego Garcia. As they were launching airplanes in the middle of the night, we got a call that one of their flight deck personnel had been blown over the side.
We immediately slowed down, lit up the search lights, and started to look for him. He was supposedly wearing a life jacket and a beacon that we should have seen, but there was no sign of him.
We, along with another ship and some helicopters, continued to look for him all night and all the next day and through the following night. There was no sign of him. The ocean had swallowed him up.
And then, just after dawn on the second day, the forward lookout up on our starboard bow began to jump up and down and holler, “There he is! There he is!”
Everybody ran to look, and sure enough, there the kid was, about 50 yards off the bow: naked as a jaybird, sun-burned, covered with jellyfish, and treading water like his hair was on fire.
We put a boat in the water; fished him out; brought him back to the ship; and took him down to sick bay where he turned out to be in surprisingly good shape.
After things had calmed down, I went down to sickbay to see him. I asked him, I said, “Son, tell me something. How in the world were you able to tread water for two days? I’m a decent swimmer, but there’s no way I could do that. You lost your life jacket, your clothes; the water was extremely rough; I know you were scared; how did you manage to do it?”
He looked me right in the eye and said, “Sir, it just wasn’t my time.”
The famous French writer, Voltaire, was a dwarf in body but a giant in intellect.
In one of his novels, The Mystery of Fate, which I read long ago, his protagonist, Zadig, is asked, “What of all things in the world, is the longest and the shortest, the swiftest and the slowest, the most divisible and the most extended, the most neglected and the most regretted, without which nothing can be done, which devours all that is little, and enlivens all that is great?”
Zadig’s answer, of course, was “time.”
Guard your time jealously and live it to the fullest.
But, as she said to me when I left Marseille. “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previous columns at: bennyhornsby.com