BOSTON — Few historians know that a janitor named Eddie Pliff first triggered the modern-day interest in the third millennium. He did it in 1958, a year when few memorable events happened in the United States except for the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to Los Angeles.
Mr. Pliff, pushing a broom in the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., swept around the scientists working late at night. It should be noted that Pliff had a "misp," which meant that many of his conversational words were pronounced with an attached "m."
Consequently, when he said softly to one of the astronomers, "I'm sweeping toward the linoleum," it came out, "Man is moving toward the millennium."
The scientist was thunderstruck. He realized that 2000 was only a scant 52 years away, and 2001 was 53 years away. Everyone had forgotten. Work stopped. The scientist and his colleagues immediately began arguing over the approaching millennium. Who really owns time, they argued, the Gregorians, the Julians, the Chinese, or is time ownerless and atomic? And when does the third millennium begin?
Pliff, thinking he had egregiously misbroomed the floor, quietly left the observatory, hoping he wouldn't be fired, or mired, as he later told his wife, Mona.
But from this misp mishap has grown the increasingly heated debate over exactly when the Western world should officially begin the third millennium, and what on earth is time? Some experts say the starting point for measuring time has to be a zero year, thus making the completion of the year zero the first year of the first millennium. Zero is a numeral now, but not 1,300 years ago.
Therefore, with the zero thrown in, the first millennium was complete on Jan. 1, AD 1000, and so consequently Jan. 1, 2000 is absolutely the start of the third millennium.
"Bah, mumbug," said Pliff, who was found recently living in obscurity in a rusty trailer in Islamorada, Fla. Retired for years, and seldom "misping" anymore, Pliff is surrounded now by hundreds of cuckoo clocks and brooms collected from around the world.
He runs a tawny hand through scruffy white hair, leans forward and whispers, "Remember, it was Charles de Gaulle who said, how can you govern a nation that has 246 kinds of cheese? You can't have 246 kinds of time either. So, time is...." He pauses, looking at his watch. "Time is...." His voice trails off. "For now, it's 11:45."
"When does the third millennium start?" he is asked.
"That's easier," he says, standing up and absentmindedly sweeping the floor. "When a 6th-century abbot named Dionysius Exiguss, or Little Dennis, created a calendar of time for Pope St. John I, the concept of zero didn't exist. Even though no one knows when Jesus was actually born, Dionysius calculated it was 531 years before based on biblical passages, thereby establishing a base year of AD 1, and creating the phrase, anno Domini, which means 'in the year of our Lord.' "
Pliff leans down and sweeps a little pile of sand into a dust pan.
"So that means in the Christian world," he says, "that our calendar began with the year 1, and the year was completed on the last day of the year. So, by this logic, the first millennium ended on the last day of AD 1000, and the second millennium ends on Dec. 31, 2000."
He flings the sand out the front door. "There's your answer," he says, brightly, looking at his watch. "The third millennium begins exactly on Jan. 1, 2001."
"Not on Jan. 1, 2000?"
"Nope. That's just mass marketing. You know, it's been said that nothing makes you more tolerant of a neighbor's noisy party than being there." Pliff taps his watch. "Seems to have stopped," he says.
"What is time?" he is asked again.
"Only waiters know," he says.
"Sure. They say, do you need more time? I always say I do, and they give it to me."