About Time

If I’ve counted correctly, this is the 100th of these high-tech scribblings, a fact which makes the present moment a fitting time to talk about time.

I’m an unabashed sucker for time-travel movies.  I’ve seldom met one I didn’t like.  It’s an irresistible idea, the possibility of going back and getting a second chance at righting a wrong, averting an assassination,  warning people about a coming catastrophe, or investing in Apple at $5 a share.

The American West was a perfect spot for getting second chances, sometimes even third and fourth helpings, all without benefit of a time machine.  That may be what first drew me to Thomas Lovewell’s story and has kept me on his trail for so long.  He was given almost miraculous second chances at all of the most important things, marriage, fatherhood, making his fortune, enjoying life, and he took full advantage of his opportunities.  I’ve speculated that he probably did not join the stampede to California in 1849, remaining on his farm in western Illinois to weather the recession that followed the panic of 1847.  The sorry fact about the 1800’s was that the economy fell into regular cycles of implosion, repeated almost exactly, decade after decade.  The money-lenders panicked, banks called in their loans and sometimes nailed the doors shut, capital dried up, and workers lost their jobs.  Then someone found a shiny nugget, probably because there were so many new places to look for them, and people were motivated to look a bit harder.  Upon hearing news of the discovery, desperate, jobless men began migrating to the scene.

After witnessing the panic of 1857, Thomas recognized the signs, heading to Pikes Peak in 1859, then on to Virginia City in 1860.  We don’t know exactly when he started spending his summers prospecting in Wyoming, but it may have been in the early 1890’s.*  That decade suffered three economic spasms, one in 1890, another in 1893, and a final shudder in 1896, one that sent thousands, including an elderly Thomas Lovewell, to a new frontier in Alaska where fabulous riches awaited a lucky few.

It may seem a far-off time, but it wasn’t.  It was barely yesterday.

I’m fortunate to have children who’ve broadened my horizons, and one of the happy discoveries I owe to my daughter is English comedian Eddie Izzard.  He’s not for all tastes.  He overuses a certain forbidden expletive.  Yes, the one you’re thinking of right now.  It puts some people off, as does his habit of dressing in attire some of us associate with the hostess of a swank Chinese restaurant.  One of the puckish Mr. Izzard’s favorite topics is how deplorably little Americans know of their own history.  I once spent an unpleasant breakfast in Normandy with a group of American teenagers, while the manager of a visiting English rugby team loudly proclaimed his disdain for the callowness of American schoolchildren.  I might have offered a rebuttal, if he hadn’t been right on the mark on a few points.  Fortunately, one of his own lads finally interrupted, “Give ‘em a break, Freddie.  The yanks saved our bacon a couple of times.”

Eddie Izzard, on the other hand, can hold American ignorance up to ridicule while making Americans laugh about it.  In one of his routines, an American husband agrees to let a Frenchman make love to his wife, “Because of the debt of honor to General Lafayette!”  There is scattered laughter.  “You know your own history, yeah?”  Even more widely-scattered, confused laughter, which begins to build as he glances slyly around the auditorium.  “You don’t know who he is, do ya?  Spanish-American War?  French-Banana War?”  A wave of laughter engulfs the crowd.  He’s right.  We don’t know.  Eddie also bemoans the ideas Americans harbor about time and antiquity. “I grew up in Europe, where the history comes from.  You tear your history down, man! ’30 years old, let’s smash it to the floor and put a car park here!’  … in Miami they were saying, ‘We’ve redecorated this building to how it looked over 50 years ago!’ And people were going, ’No, surely not, no.  No one was alive then!’”

Fortunately, I grew up in an environment that came with some historical perspective.  I used to visit a senior citizen in my hometown, an old friend of the family.  My mother would bake a few extra cookies and have me deliver them to his house, and we’d spend several minutes chatting.  “How old do you suppose Bill is,” she asked me one day after I got back to the house.  “Oh, 65.”  “He’s 90,” my mother said.  After I moved away from home, I’d look him up when I returned for a visit.  He was in a nursing home in Superior for a while, then went to live with some of his family at Mankato, where he could spend some idle hours tending a garden.  I went to a party for him when he turned 100.

I think of him whenever I look at the picture of G.A.R. members on Daniel Davis’s porch at Langdon, Kansas.  I usually refer to it as a Civil War reunion, and most of the men in the picture probably did serve in it.  But the picture was taken only twenty years after that war ended, and judging from the looks of some of the attendees, their last active military service may have been in the War with Mexico, the conflict that gained the United States the whole of what is now the American Southwest.  I might be tempted to call the picture an historic relic, except that, when it was taken, my old friend Bill was already a teenager.  Another of my former neighbors, Ollie, would have been four years old at the time.  She was born the day President Garfield was shot.  My hometown, if you hadn’t guessed, was a retirement community, and entering many of the houses, even in the mid-1960’s, was like stepping into Mr. Peabody's WABAC Machine.

Our own house was a small one with air-conditioning, which we were not allowed to switch on, because my mother would be able to hear the wheels of the electric meter going around and around.  We also had indoor plumbing, hot water, a gas furnace, and an old Zenith TV which my father had purchased used, in 1952.  It was in many respects a typical 20th-century dwelling, even though the house itself had been built in the 1870’s and hauled to its present location by oxen.  However, I could stroll across the street and drop in on a previous century, a world of outhouses and chamber pots, hand-pumps, wood-burning stoves and wind-up Victrolas.  Every house did have electric lights, often a bare lightbulb dangling from the ceiling by a braided cord, and sometimes a radio.  It was a great place to visit, especially because I could always get home in time to watch “Zorro.”

Outside of science fiction books and movies, visiting older people is probably the closest we can get to traveling in time.  Physicist Stephen Hawking assures us that actual time-travel is improbable, although he went to the trouble of conducting an experiment a few years ago, one which he considers solid proof that it doesn’t exist and never will. 

"I gave a party for time-travelers,” he said, "but I didn't send out the invitations until after the party.  I sat there a long time, but no one came.”  Hawking does admit that he wouldn’t take a bet against the existence of time travel, fearing that his opponent could be from the future and trying to cheat him.

* Long after writing this entry I learned that he began making trips to Wyoming in the early 1900’s, after his disappointing voyage to Cape Nome.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com