The last time I saw Pete Bedford, he had a joke to tell.
You might not have heard of Jimmy “Pete” Bedford, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s he was pretty well known, especially in the part of the world where I grew up. Born in Columbia, Missouri, he was a well-liked and reputable guy despite his journalism and economics degrees from that city’s University of Missouri. While teaching journalism in Kansas he decided that at age 50 it was probably time to get a real job. So he hitch-hiked back to Columbia, sold most of his possessions, bought a Vespa and a Leica with a few lenses (from Capen’s, on Broadway, if there are any Columbiaphiles reading this), and got $300 in traveler’s checks, for emergencies he said.
He headed east, not to return for two years by which time he had traveled around the world. Upon his arrival home he did an accounting and found that he had $299.95. The book he wrote about his adventure was called “Around the World on a Nickel.” If you find a copy in a used book pile for cheap, get it — you’d have to pay a lot to buy it online. You can get a good taste of it, though, for free here.
There was a time, not too long ago it seems (more about that in a minute), when doing something as crazy as riding a scooter around the world and then writing a book about it was possible. It’s not anymore and even if you pulled it off you probably wouldn’t find anyone to publish it.
Anyway, Pete had a joke. It was a terrible joke, a riddle. Having borne the weight of it for these decades, I’ll now unload it on you:
If April showers bring May flowers, what do Mayflowers bring?
But he was a fine fellow in all other ways that I know of. And now, this year at least, his never-good joke would fall flat for another reason: the May flowers are already blooming around here. The crocuses have come and gone (I think the deer had something to do with the “and gone” part), and the jonquils — the dandelion of flowers planted on purpose — are blooming all over the place. Many bloomed while it was still February, here in Ohio.
We received much of this year’s snowfall, about half an inch, in the last week, but it was pretty much gone by noon.
And 2023 is almost a quarter over. Happy spring!
Thinking about Pete Bedford and that conversation, led me to a place something in spring (besides the abomination of daylight saving time) always leads me, to reconsider the passage of time. I look at it every year and every year it looks a little different from how it looked the year before.
I can tell you everything about that conversation with Pete: where it happened (in the big newsprint storage room at The Columbia Daily Tribune, in its last real building at Seventh and Cherry), where we both were headed (upstairs to the photo lab), how it smelled (gloriously newspapery, with a combination of ink from the pressroom next to us and scorchy smells from the composing room at the top of the stairs). Pete was wearing a red flannel shirt and khakis. I was carrying a Miranda D camera with a 135mm f3.5 Auto Miranda Soligor lens. It’s as clear as (and a lot more interesting than) yesterday.
Only by recounting the things that have happened since then can I reconcile the notion that it was as long ago as it was.
It could be that because I was already thinking about it, or it could be that coincidental discoveries make me think about it even more, but I noticed an illustration of the passage of time that really startled me: Joe Biden’s birth was temporally closer (77 years) to the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln than it was to Biden’s own inauguration (79 years). Doesn’t seem right, but it is.
The other night I watched a short biography of John Hay, the remarkable statesman who was Lincoln’s secretary, ran railroads and other industries, served multiple times as cabinet secretary and ambassador to one country then another, and survived the death by assassination of three close friends: Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. It seemed that Hay lived a long life, but that’s not really true: He died in 1905 at age 66. It turns out — you’d better sit down if you’re not seated — that the time between 1865 and 1905 is exactly the same as the time between 1965 and 2005. Yet it seems so much longer. (Maybe it’s history class that makes it appear so.)
Well. This casts a new light on this passage of time thing, doesn’t it. Let’s play.
The beginning of the Civil War and U.S. participation in World War II are closer to each other than the beginning of World War II is to today. The beginning of the Vietnam War is closer to the beginning of World War I than it is to today.
When McKinley’s assassination thrust Theodore Roosevelt into the presidency, he was 42 years old. John F. Kennedy, who when inaugurated said, “The torch has been passed to a new generation,” was 43 when elected. If a person of Kennedy’s age were elected president in 2024 — next year, God help us — he, she, or it will have been born in 1981, the first year of the Reagan administration, and will have lived more than half of his, her, or its life during this millennium. Kennedy, by the way, was the first president born in the 20th century. Had he lived (which by now he probably wouldn’t have) he would be 106. So he, elected in 1960, was only 26 years older than Biden, the oldest president, elected in 2020, 60 years after Kennedy. No passing of any torches to new generations there.
Let’s look at some industry and technology. The first powered flight, of the rickety and unreliable Wright Flyer, was on December 17, 1903. The McDonnell DC-3 was introduced 32 years later — and scores of them are still in commercial passenger and cargo use.
America’s main strategic bomber, the B-52, was introduced in 1952 and built through 1962. It remains our front-line big bomber — witness an incident just this week — though it is upgraded from time to time. So: 49 years between the first powered flight by anyone and the arrival of the B-52. And 71 years between its introduction and its most recent encounter with hostile forces. Pretty amazing.
Of course, there have been lots of bombers (and airliners) built since the B-52 and DC-3 were rolled out. Ever hear of the B-58? The B-70? (If you go to the latter link, remember that those futuristic pictures are 50 years old!) How about, even, the B-1? The Air Force is obligated to say nice things about the B-1, which went into use(lessness) in 1986, but if you read down a few paragraphs, you find this: “The B-1A was initially developed in the 1970s as a replacement for the B-52.” Mission unaccomplished.
(I suppose we mustn’t forget the Concorde, the supersonic airliner that could whisk passengers from New York to London in three hours. It was expensive to operate and I don’t think it ever made any money, but it regularly flew from 1976 to 2003.)
When the B-52 and the DC-3 were developed, the primary purpose of aircraft companies was to make airplanes. Since then their primary purpose has been to make money. That’s a big change over not all that much time.
Then again, anyone who died before about 1910 probably never saw an airplane at all and almost certainly never flew on one. And until fairly recently, there were people alive who had been born before the first airplane flight. (I remember my grandparents, born long before there were airplanes, taking their first commercial flight, in the late 1960s. They were excited; my grandfather, an avowed believer that airplanes were in most cases excessive, couldn’t stop talking about it.)
The history of the computer is much shorter than that of powered aviation. The device on which you’re reading this contains more computing power than existed in the entire world in 1950. The IBM PC was released in 1981 (at an exorbitant price) and was followed quickly by lesser devices such as the Commodore 64 and the Timex Sinclair 1000. The Apple I had been around for five years, but its user experience kept it out of the mainstream. In 1977 had come the Apple II, Commodore PET and Radio Shack’s TRS-80, all of which quickly became obsolete. Indeed, since that era about 40 years ago there have been a dozen or more generations of personal computers; 40 years ago the internet was a relatively small network that connected, by text-based terminals, various universities and research organizations. When Joe Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972 the internet was three years old; there was no WorldWide Web, there were no home computers, and there were no cellular telephones.
I wrote for a national radio newsroom publication in 1981 about the hope for a new technology called the cellular telephone system, and how reporters calling in with reports might through it be freed from pay phones or the necessity of carrying clunky two-way radios better suited to the fire department.
All that has changed, and all of it in the last 50 years. In scope it’s not unlike the period a century earlier in which electrification and the spread of telephones came to be.
This time four years ago, no one had ever heard of COVID-19. There’s a possibility that four years ago the SARS-CoV-2 virus didn’t even exist.
Weird stuff, time. And nothing to be done about it despite the shockingly large number of people who actually believe that the government can decree how many hours of daylight there are in a day. Weird creatures, humans.
The jonquils are surely laughing. The pilgrims no longer care. Nor, I suppose, does Pete Bedford.