The Illusion of Time

Norman Lloyd turns 100 in a few days.  He must get tired of being interviewed, what seems like every Halloween since 1938, about the Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, the best Halloween prank ever.  On the other hand, it might be a seasonal ritual he looks forward to all year.  Lloyd was one of the original Mercury Players, had a long and distinguished career on the stage and on film, and may be best remembered for his role on the TV medical drama “St. Elsewhere."  The 100th anniversary of Welles’ own birth will be celebrated next year, and Welles would have been delighted to see one of his old troupe reaching the century mark while still upright.

Orson Welles had a lovely way of encapsulating the past two millennia of human history.  He told a dinner companion to imagine twenty very-old men and women holding hands across time.  Each one, on his or her hundredth birthday, would visit a house where a child had just been born.  That child would one day celebrate a one-hundredth birthday, and on that day would, in turn, drop in on some new arrival, who would also live to be a hundred, and so on.  It’s a concept which invites us to imagine an unbroken chain of human interaction bridging two thousand years, yet one that involves only twenty people.

I’ve made Orson’s story more inclusive by including women in the human chain, and I also like to extend the concept by imagining that each elderly visitor gives the new child a gift, an autobiography, a lifetime of memories distilled into a pamphlet.  Collect all twenty, and you have a first-person narrative summarizing history from the birth of Christ till now, light reading one might skim through over a lazy weekend.  Orson’s little thought-experiment can suddenly make the distant past seem like the day before yesterday.

There’s a much simpler workout to tone and firm your sense of time, a mini-routine rooted in your personal history, and one that works across a much more manageable span.  Calculate the birth year of the oldest person you’ve known, preferably one who had some marked influence on your life, then note the birth years of some of the people that person knew well, those who would have had a major influence on him or her.  That’s one measure of your personal reach across the landscape of time.  

My own reach goes back about 190 years, which I used to consider pretty impressive.  Here’s the way the math works:  Between the ages of five and fourteen I hung around my grandmother’s simple cottage nearly as much as my parents’ split-level.  My grandmother was born in Portland in 1887, and spent part of her formative years on the farm of Thomas Lovewell, born in 1825 or so at Nelsonville, Ohio.  Thomas’s great-grandson Dave Lovewell, a frequent contributor to this site (All the funny stuff is his), has at least a decade on me in the reaching-across-the-centuries sweepstakes.  His connection with Thomas Lovewell is much tighter than mine, since Dave grew up in the household of Thomas’s son Stephen (Born in 1874), and also had a slight acquaintance with Stephen’s brother Grant (Born in 1869).

Dave's extra decade comes from the fact that Thomas Lovewell’s sons grew up around their maternal grandmother, Julana Scott, the widow of Vinson Perry Davis.  She was born Julana White in New York State a few months before the Battle of New Orleans, the last major engagement of the War of 1812.  From then until now seems like quite a reach, although, owing to the vagaries of human generations, Thomas Lovewell’s mother-in-law was only about ten years older than he was.

I used to work with a very nice, intelligent young lady who was a grandmother at 34.  For all I know, she is at this moment a great-grandmother while only in her 50’s.  Although there is something to be said for having contact with multiple generations, it must give younger family members a warped sense of history, or at least one that would seem warped to Dave and me.  A current co-worker, one I’ve worked alongside for going-on two decades, once proudly told me that his great-grandfather had fought in World War II.  Of my own great-grandfathers, at least one was old enough to have fought in the Civil War, provided he fibbed slightly about his age as the conflict drew to a close.  I don’t think he did, but he could have.

Was World War II waged such a very long time ago?  My somewhat younger co-worker probably thinks so.  What about the Civil War?  When I was little it seemed like ancient history, but I’ve acquired a  wider perspective since then.  Just as I’ve known many people who endured the Second World War on the battlefield and on the home front, I’ve become acquainted with a few who felt the aftershocks of the Civil War.  My very oldest family friend was born only ten years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

Like that T-rex in the rear-view mirror of a Ford Explorer, the past is really much closer to us than it appears.  The reason it can look so far away is a mere illusion of time, and knowing someone Norman Lloyd’s age can help clear the fog off the mirror.

© Dale Switzer 2023