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32° Good Afternoon
OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: The unceasing march of time

The Somme American Cemetery on March 28, 2014

The Somme American Cemetery on March 28, 2014 in Bony, France. Credit: Getty Images / Peter Macdiarmid

My older brother and I share an obsession with time.

Every now and then, we email each other some interesting nugget about our relative position to it, such as: the end of World War II at our births, timewise, was what 9/11 will be to people born in the next few years (he was born in 1961; I in '63). Or, Spanish-American War veterans, when we were little, were a decade younger than most surviving World War II veterans are today.

Wars and assassinations are easy benchmarks by which to measure time. The President Kennedy assassination, for example, happened three months after I was born, making the 1912 assassination attempt on Teddy Roosevelt a more recent event at my birth than Kennedy's killing is to newborns today. I don't know why we find these exercises so interesting, but we do.

Saturday marks the tidy centennial both of an assassination and of the launch of one of mankind's most terrible conflicts. It was on June 28, 1914 that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was famously gunned down in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, leading to a chain of events the world was supposed to never forget.

World War I is still remembered, of course, but it doesn't seem to be felt anymore. When I was little, fathers were World War II veterans and grandfathers had served in the "Great One." Mentions of Verdun or the Somme were met with long stares and awkward pauses. Speak of World War I today, and you're likely to hear rote talking points about entangled alliances and mechanized warfare -- in a tone not too different from what you'd hear if you asked about the Boxer Rebellion or the Peloponnesian War.

I've been fiddling at my desk this week with a worn Brass No. 5 cigarette lighter that I bought at an auction about 30 years ago. It belonged to a World War I doughboy who carried it throughout the war, or so the seller swore. It's badly discolored now, but the monogram is clear: JSF. Was that Joseph S. Fredrickson? James S. Franco? Jeffrey S. Freedlander? Was it a gift from his wife on the eve of his departure? Did it light French Gauloises cigarettes in those awful, rat-filled trenches? Was it on the battles of Saint Mihiel or Belleau Wood?

There's no way to know. But I do know it was carried by someone who once reflexively reached for it in his pocket, when, for him, then was now.

The History Channel has a terrific print advertising campaign running. It's called "Know where you are." It transposes modern photos over historical ones to, well, remind us where we are. A particularly striking example depicts a modern couple lazily reading newspapers on a wall overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Transposed into the shot is a photo taken by German photographer Heinrich Hoffman in June 1940 of Adolf Hitler posed in the very same spot. Know where you are, indeed.

I took my daughter to Mass a month ago to The Church of St. Thomas More on East 89th Street in Manhattan. It was my church as a boy and I hadn't attended Mass there since 1972, when my family moved out of the city. We sat in our old family pew, and I found myself gazing up at the very same hanging lamp I constantly looked up at as a boy. The lamp and the smell of the church triggered a like-yesterday memory of Msgr. James Wilders, a long-serving pastor at the church who died 16 years ago, announcing the departure of one of his priests to a place called South Vietnam. That must have been 1967 or '68. I told my daughter about the lamp and she asked, "What did it look like then, Daddy?"

"It looked like that," I said, pointing back at the fixture. "It looked exactly like that."

I wonder how the lighter felt in his hand.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.