Society is divided, it seems, between people who are chronically on time and people who are late.
As I have said, I think it's in our training--I learned punctuality in the Marine Corps and the newspaper business, neither of which permits tardiness.
Robert Main Ross of Westminster recalls the dramatic story of his conditioning as a destroyer commander in the '50s.
His division of four destroyers was based at Long Beach, and when they returned to port they berthed alongside one another, the commodore's flagship being first alongside the pier and the junior skipper's ship (that was Ross) being outboard.
"Come Monday morning," he recalls, "things were reversed, and getting underway on time was, perforce, my job. If the commodore ordered an 0800 getaway he meant 0800, and he was armed--a stop watch, two beady eyes, and, it was said, my fitness report.
"Now getting a destroyer underway on the second requires lots of luck and 300 men in splendid coordination, all marching to the same drummer; but what the commodore wanted the commodore got . . . on the second.
"We never missed. In fact, failure was impossible. With no orders from me, simultaneously at exactly 0800 the whistle blew, the engine room enunciators flipped to back two-thirds, lines were cast off, and heavy black smoke poured from the stacks. The show was spectacular. . . ."
Frank Coghlan, long with the Port of Los Angeles, also learned the importance of promptness in the military. "I served 23 years on active duty in the Navy," he writes, "where I also learned that tardiness is unpardonable, but I also learned that there are times when being early is even a bigger no-no."
Coghlan was on the staff of the chief of Naval Air Reserve Training, and it was the admiral's practice to inspect each of the 28 stations in his command each year.
"We would plan our arrivals to land and taxi slowly to reach the red carpet area at the exact minute we were expected. . . . Anyone who has stood an annual military inspection knows how hectic things are, right up to the final moment, and to drop in on them before the appointed time is unthinkably unfair."
The Air Force made a punctual man of Budd Picketts of Newport Beach: "I, too, am a weirdo regarding punctuality," he writes. "Mine stems from being a lead navigator in B-24s where I dealt in seconds, and a missed rendezvous with the fighter escort or other bomber groups was a life-and-death matter."
Scholer Bangs, a former colleague, writes of arriving exactly 1 hour and 43 minutes late for a 5 p.m. appointment with a lawyer in Glendale. Bangs left his West Covina office in time to be 15 minutes early, he thought; but he became confused by the snake pit of freeways around Glendale, took the wrong off-ramp, got completely turned around, went the wrong way, and arrived finally at the attorney's office just as his secretary was leaving for the day. The man had gone home.
"I have long suffered the malady of promptitude," writes TV writer Alvin Sapinsley, "to a degree as great, if not greater, than your own. When my wife was alive she solved the problem exactly as your wife now does: She simply would not be ready to go when it was time to go, thus sparing herself embarrassment and causing me dyspepsia.
"After she died there was no brake to be applied to my congenital promptness and I would frequently find myself sitting in deserted living rooms waiting for host and/or hostess to finish dressing, applying makeup, putting bits of toilet paper on razor cuts, and coming down. After a few years of this, I decided to practice being late, which I tried to do conscientiously. It didn't work."
One of his recent attempts at being late was a spectacular failure, Sapinsley recalls. Having been offered a ticket to a theater on Wilshire Boulevard between San Vicente and La Cienega, he allowed himself only a half-hour to get there at 7:30 (to pick up the ticket half an hour early) from his house in Sherman Oaks. (I would have allowed at least 45 minutes.)
But he turned east on Wilshire, instead of west, and it was only after he had passed the Tar Pits, Hancock Park, Western and Vermont, and saw the cylindrical mirrored towers of the Bonaventure looming before him that Sapinsley realized he was going the wrong way.
"I made a panicky U-turn, probably a felony, and headed back along Wilshire, passing in the opposite direction all the landmarks I had passed previously, and being stopped by a red light at every intersection the whole way. I crossed San Vicente, saw the theater a block up the street, saw the sign directing me to underground parking in the adjacent bank building, drove down five ramps to the fifth level, parked, walked up five flights of stairs, crossed the street to the theater lobby, went to the box office to pick up my ticket--and what time was it? Seven twenty-nine .
"I was still a minute early. Evidently it doesn't even help to go the wrong way."
Sapinsley suggests that perhaps the only solution for people like him and me is to set our clocks 10 minutes late, as the pubs in England set their clocks five minutes early, so they can clear the places before the legal closing time. "The trouble is," he laments sensibly, "you and I--and all the people in the pub-- know it's not that time."
It's a burden.