As I recently noted here, I am obsessed with being on time, a virtue that is not always seen as one by my wife or by those I am trying to be on time for.
I learned punctuality as a small boy, along with such other outmoded habits as honesty, modesty and good manners.
This weakness, which indeed it is in present society, is shared by Susan Strang of Laguna Niguel:
"Even if I plan to be late to make an entrance," she writes, "I wind up arriving at least five minutes early. I find that I am truly tired of arriving at 7 p.m. as suggested by my host/hostess, to be greeted by him/her still in a bathrobe dripping from the shower with an incredulous look on his/her face that anyone would dare to be on time.
"In fact, my husband has suggested that it might be grounds for divorce if we are again the first to arrive at a party. Am I the only one out there who gets sweaty palms and heart palpitations as the clock approaches the appointed hour, only to find that 7:00 to me means 8:00 to everyone else?"
I don't know how common our affliction is, but I know that Mrs. Strang has described it accurately. I am surprised to find it in a woman, though, because it seems to me that women are to blame for the decline of punctuality. Not only does a hostess know, when she says a party will begin at 7 o'clock, that no one will arrive until 7:30 (no one but me and Mrs. Strang, that is), but her women guests know that they will not be expected until 7:30. I will risk the accusation of sexism by saying I think that, in general, men are more likely to mean what they say and to be on time.
I have actually rung the doorbell at the appointed hour, only to have the door opened by a woman in a slip, with the look of incredulity that Mrs. Strang describes.
With me it is very simple. If the invitation reads "From 7 to 9 p.m.," then you ought to arrive at 7 and leave at 9.
Obviously if all her guests arrived promptly at 7, the hostess would have a problem; but someone has to be there at the appointed hour, to get things started, and it's usually me.
As for leaving at 9, the hour indicated on the invitation, that is the most ignored of civilities. If the bar is open, and there is any food left on the buffet, almost nobody will leave a party at 9 o'clock. The only way the hostess can get people to go home is to remove the hors d'oeuvres from the buffet and close the bar. Anyone who stays beyond that point may have to be removed bodily.
The obvious problem in setting a precise time for a party to begin has led to that atrocious word sevenish. I don't know what sevenish means. I don't know whether to arrive at 7, at a quarter to 7, or at 7:15.
My wife seems to understand these niceties, and she manages to keep me from embarrassing her with an on-time arrival by never being ready to start in time to make it. There are such last-minute procedures as drying her hair and putting on her lipstick, while I stand in the hallway, glaring at her in her bathroom through the bedroom, and glancing pointedly at my watch.
I always used to set the starting time, and make it early enough that, even though traffic was heavier than usual, we would make it on time. Consequently we were usually 10 to 15 minutes early, which meant that we had to drive around the block or park and sit in the car.
But I am beginning to relax. We are rarely exactly on time for parties anymore, mostly because I have learned, by experience, that the hostess will not be ready. Even so, I still feel guilty when we arrive half an hour late and find the party already in full swing.
My sense of punctuality was permanently fixed by my service in the Marine Corps. When the drill sergeant yelled that he wanted us out of our barracks, in formation, in one minute, he didn't mean one minute and 10 seconds.
When Gen. H. M. (Howlin' Mad) Smith decreed that his Marines would land on Blue Beach One at 0900, he did not mean 0901. For one thing, the Navy warships off the island would be laying down a barrage in advance of the landing, and it was supposed to move off the beach ahead of us exactly at 0900. The timing had to be perfect.
Years after the war, when Gen. Smith had retired and was living in a rose-covered cottage at La Jolla, I was sent down with photographer Bruce Cox to interview him. We had an appointment for 1000 hours. I warned Cox that when Gen. Smith said 1000 hours he didn't mean 1001. We got to the cottage on time, but Cox used up a minute or two getting his gear out of the trunk and I told him, "I'm going on. I don't want to be late."
I rang the doorbell. Gen. Smith himself opened the door.
"Good morning, general," I said. "I hope I'm not late."
The general looked at his watch and then gave me a remonstrative look:
"Well," he said, "only a minute."
Why can't hostesses be like that?