NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

“Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?” The rock group Chicago burned that chorus into my brain back in 1969, and I’ve been wondering ever since.

Now, as the sunlight lengthens and the dark shrinks back where it belongs, I think I know. The answers, it turns out, are “no” … and “yes.” And once again, they’re getting hot.

Daylight Saving Time. Golfers love it. Farmers hate it. We who are less than digitally gifted merely dread it twice a year, digging out our gadget manuals to align our clocks. Though we invoke the mantra, “spring forward, fall back,” we still have to ask the big question: Why does every thingamajig need its own timepiece in the first place?

Though Groundhog Day is barely behind us, our neighbors to the south have begun to bring the pot to a nice rolling boil. In South Dakota, a state legislator has proposed ditching the semiannual dance and sticking with one time, year-round.

State Sen. Betty Olson of Prairie City, S.D. — two hours due south of Dickinson — has submitted a bill to keep her state on Daylight Saving Time year-round. “We’re darn sick of switching our clocks,” she says. So far, the South Dakota Legislature seems inclined to agree.

They’re not alone. Though 2016 is still a wee babe, already 10 states have begun to debate fiddling with the arrangement of their hours. It’s complicated, though. Half of them want to stick with Standard Time; the others think more sunshine during waking hours is a cause worth fighting. Given the plethora of serious issues balkanizing America, this certainly does seem like a perfect time to get another good fight going.

If the debate drifts northward, ours will be a house divided. I’m a morning person. I love waking up to the sun  no special trick one way or the other in summer, when we’re bathed in sunshine for 16 hours or so. But now, when we’ve only just managed to reclaim 21 minutes of morning light from the long nights of midwinter murk, the prospect of permanently “springing forward” — and thus dwelling in the dark until 9:08 next Christmas morning — seems hideous.

My husband, on the other hand, revels in the later sunsets and bright, shiny evening hours that Daylight Saving Time delivers. More time to garden! To barbecue and fish! To spin the wheel of his beloved John Deere lawn tractor across the fully lit lawn!

Does anybody really know what time it is? Until the railroads got a grip on morning, noon and night between their long steel fingers, America’s answer was clearly “no.” From farms and villages to the cities, clocks and pocket watches kept the hour roughly based on solar time. Noon was when the sun was at its zenith and shadows at their shortest. There were no trains to catch and no Type A bosses eagle-eying the corporate timeclock. TV Guide had yet to dictate the rhythms of our leisure, and “close” was plenty good enough for horseshoes and other pastimes.

As railroads steamed across the continent, though, hours and minutes would make a more drastic difference. Rail lines in North America stopped time on their tracks, so to speak, in 1883. They divided the continent into the four time zones we know today, plus two more for Alaska and the easternmost nose of Canada. Minnesota was squarely within the Central zone, but Dakota Territory was sliced along the Missouri River, creating irritations that perplex western Dakota residents to this day.

The idea of Daylight Saving Time was born in Great Britain in the early 1900s. Though the man who originated it promoted a vision of more well-lit leisure hours at the end of the workday, Parliament eventually bought the plan in 1917 for more warlike motives, both saving fuel with fewer hours of indoor lighting and boosting productivity for the war effort.

Our nation did the same. The first official adjustment, known as War Time, commenced in 1918. At war’s end, though, old ways prevailed. Despite much impassioned support for hanging onto the lengthened daylight, Congress ultimately ended the experiment … persuaded by angry farmers and a contingent of preachers who insisted that “God’s time” be left inviolate.

When the U.S. entered World War II, the same rationale prevailed. FDR instituted Daylight Saving Time nationwide from 1942 until September 1945. However, in a twist that would foreshadow today’s enthusiasm for dropping the twice-yearly time switch, he decreed the clock be altered year-round.

Once again, the shift was lifted in peacetime … but the idea was not lost. States, cities and other locales were free to switch up their clocks as they wished — or not. By now, radio and TV programmers as well as commercial airlines shared the railroads’ frustration with the crazy quilt of local notions. In 1966, Congress finally stepped in to sort out the tangle. The Uniform Time Act not only formalized the four time zones that the railroads had originated 80 years before, but set up DST from the last Sunday in April to the last in October.

Does anybody really care? Oh, yes. Take Arizona and Hawaii: They permanently opted out, sticking with Standard Time — as they do today. The period of daylight time has been tinkered with. A host of regions and cities have petitioned the Department of Transportation (and still occasionally do) to graft themselves onto their neighboring zones. In almost every case, they’ve chosen to join the early risers to their east, a sort of do-it-yourself daylight move.

While the Red River is innocent of creating a local timewarp, others have caused greater mischief. Take the Mississippi. Though time flows smoothly now, in 1965 –one year ahead of the federally mandated DST — Minneapolis and St. Paul chose different dates to “spring ahead.” Their stubborn serendipity caused weeks of irritable confusion, including everything from missed court times to a verbal showdown between their mayors.

In North Dakota, Bismarck and Mandan — where my husband grew up — once fell on opposite sides of the timeline. Bismarckers got up an hour earlier. The Mandan school day ended an hour later. The city of Mandan adopted Central Time in 1960, but the county around it didn’t come along until 2003. And the wrangling lives on in the southwest: Mercer County, home of Beulah and Hazen, happily went Central in 2010 … the same year that 74 percent of Stark and Billings county residents (think Dickinson and Medora) defeated a proposal to leave Mountain Time behind.

Does Daylight Saving Time really save energy, as advocates claimed during the world wars? Perhaps, but it’s surprisingly hard to prove. While more waking daylight hours provided a clear advantage a century ago, it’s become a closer call today. There’s more to consider than those spinning electrical meters. Take gasoline. Long lazy summer evenings inspire far more pleasure drives, while the dials on gas pumps spin.

What’s undeniable, though, is that Daylight Time favors one jackpot winner: golfers! That’s according to Michael Downing, who has written a fascinating book entitled “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.” Chambers of commerce, too, favor the concept of “spring forward.” Giving workers more daylight at the end of the work day means, among other boons, that they’re likelier to stop and shop on their way home.

This is for sure: On March 13, farmers will grumble about turning the hour hands forward. So will folks like me, who’ve never quite figured out the dash clock in the old Pontiac, and parents whose offspring get mighty cranky by the time the fireworks begin on the Fourth. But none of us need worry quite yet that our entire year will slip an hour ahead, no matter what those year-round Daylight Saving Time advocates have in mind.

In its wisdom, Congress created two, and only two, timely options. States, regions and cities may elect to jog ahead in March and hop backward in November, as they do now — or they can hold the line with plain vanilla Standard Time. Twelve months of Daylight Savings Time? Nice idea, but it’s flatly against the law.

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”

  • Katherine Tweed February 3, 2016 at 6:13 pm

    Sunshine for all!


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