So many years, so little time


January 04, 1991|By DAN RODRICKS

It's 1991. It's 10 years since 1981. It's 20 years since 1971. It's 30 years since 1961!

Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Stop everything!


As time comes screeching to a halt, the writer reaches for an instructive book by Paul Dickson, entitled "Timelines."

With this book, Mr. Dickson has performed a tremendous public service for those of us who feel time has been so swift, events so numerous, trends and celebrities so ephemeral that we've become lost in the swamp of human experience. We've lost our bearings. Even persons who consider themselves "good with dates" have lost their places.

Too much. Too fast. Life in America.

Hit the brakes!

Dickson's book is a "crammer," filled with "all the major events and turning points from the end of World War II to the present." And it allows Dickson, or anyone really, to "put the important dates of my life into the context of events and thus turn the crammer into a personal outline of lived history."

Well, well. If that's your aim, fine.

Here, in the first week of 1991, Dickson's book provides a fix on the passage of time. Here's a way to get it under control, in perspective, in context. We're racing toward the 21st century and the roadside is cluttered with cultural and historic trash -- the Stuff of Experience that most of us haven't even had a chance to look at closely.

We need to sort things out.

We need to know what happened when.

We need to know where we were in life when the Postal Service went to a 6-cent stamp.

If you're a Baby Boomer, for instance, and you need a fix on 30 years -- how much time that really represents -- "Timelines" lists the big events (Kennedy's inauguration, for instance) and the small developments (a new General Mills cereal called Total went on the market) to make the connection.

Thirty years, then, is some black-and-white image of Roger Maris being showered with champagne after hitting his 61st home run. It's an obituary of Ernest Hemingway. It's hearing news of the first airline hijacking to Havana. It's a Life magazine photograph of Rudolf Nureyev after he defected from the Soviet Union.

Be careful here. I don't mean image in the conventional sense. Many people -- including those who were not born at the time -- have seen images of Roger Maris in newsreel. They have seen that Life magazine photograph of Nureyev. Thirty years can be real only if time and memory allow you to travel back to the event itself. John Kennedy's death in 1963 has fixed that date -- Nov. 22 -- in everyone's mind in a very personal way. It helps our senses measure off 27 years.

But think of all else that has happened since.

It overwhelms the senses.

So I like Dickson's book. It condenses a year into, for instance, a list of 10 people most likely to make a cover of a magazine. In 1961, they were: Marilyn Monroe, Sam Rayburn, Oscar Robertson, Chubby Checker, JFK, Alan Shepard, Maris, Robert S. McNamara, Yuri Gagarin and J.D. Salinger. Does that help? Do you get a feel for 30 years? Do you remember Shepard in the silvery astronaut suit waving to live TV cameras? Can you see Chubby Checker on the Ed Sullivan Show? Can you see Oscar Roberston on the cover of Sports Illustrated in your dentist's office?

Let's go back 20 years.

I can't decide if 20 years is a long time or a short time. Was the South Vietnamese-U.S. incursion into Laos a long time ago, or does it seem like yesterday, or last year? "All In The Family" went on the air that year. "The French Connection" was a box office smash. In 1971, the hot words, names and phrases were: exorcist, "dare to be great," Jesus freak, junk food, Haldeman, Erlichman, Ellsberg, Pentagon Papers, Jasper Johns and Billie Jean King.

Nineteen-eighty-one was just 10 years ago.

Do you have a feel for 10 years?

In 1981, Ronald Reagan became president and American

hostages were released from Iran. John Hinckley wounded Reagan, White House press secretary James Brady, a policeman and a Secret Service agent. Space Shuttle Columbia made its maiden voyage. There was a midseason baseball strike. The air-traffic controllers went on strike. The hot names, words and phrases were: Falwell, superfund, gridlock, Lady Di, "Save an alligator, eat a preppie," and Rubik's Cube.

Does that help any?

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