Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Time is our most precious possession – invisible, intangible, unpredictable, fleeting time. Though fragile and flimsy, it is the material of which our lives are woven. Each of us is issued a lifetime supply, but with no definite promises or guarantees.

My first acquaintance with this most important ingredient of life came by way of a mantel clock in the kitchen of my childhood home on the farm. The sturdy, dependable timepiece loudly ticked away each second and signaled every passing hour. From its dial, I learned to “tell time,” and where the “big hand” and the “little hand” had to be for mealtimes and for bedtime. And later, which positions they held when it was time to go to school.

My first personal timepiece was a Mickey Mouse pocket watch – a gift from Santa Claus. Colorful and attractive, it had a smiling Mickey pointing to the proper minute and hour with his cute little white-gloved hands. An old-timer admired the watch and commented, “That’s quite a stem-winder.” When asked what “stem-winder” meant, he explained, “When I was your age, a lot of old fellows still carried watches that had to be wound with a key, much like your mother’s kitchen clock.”

Back then, some gentlemen owned dainty gold “Sunday” pocket watches, each with a gold chain and a front cover that snapped shut to protect the fragile glass crystal. But the most popular pocket timepiece was the “dollar watch,” the working man’s favorite. Purchased for that price (or slightly more or less), these could usually be counted on to do a good job for a year or two. To replace such a watch was usually cheaper than taking it to a jeweler for cleaning or repair. Often a “sick” dollar watch could be restored to proper running condition by prying off the back cover and administering a tiny bit of kerosene to the more important bearing areas.

Some fellows invested in more expensive pocket watches with “jeweled movements,” some with as many as seventeen or twenty-one tiny bearings made of precious gems. Compared to metal bearings, the smooth, long-lasting “jewels” operated with less friction, usually resulting in much greater accuracy. Railroad workers required watches that were extremely accurate. The label “railroad watch,” was almost a guarantee of accuracy and reliability. Many of the very best watch movements came from Switzerland.

Pocket watches were “tethered” to the owner’s clothing with a small chain, strap, or string. Braided leather watch straps could be purchased for a reasonable price, but many working men and farmers settled for a length of used shoe or boot lace. Tied in a loop, this could easily be “lassoed” to the metal ring on the watch’s stem and onto a belt loop. This tether prevented the timepiece from being lost, also from falling out of the pocket and being broken by falling on a hard floor.

In those days gone by, every pair of men’s pants had a special “watch pocket” that was just the right size to hold a pocket watch. Belted dress pants usually had that pocket on the right front, near the belt line. Work pants often had the watch pocket located just inside the top of the right front pocket.
Overalls usually had a number of handy “bib pockets,” including a narrow pencil pocket and a watch pocket. Many had a special “buttonhole” near the top edge of the bib, solely for the purpose of accommodating a watch chain or tether.

Working men were slow to accept the “newfangled wristwatch.” At first these were considered uncomfortable, in the way, and too fragile to stand up to rough conditions. Eventually a few workers tried them, mostly as “Sunday watches” for “dress up” purposes. And they quickly began to catch on.

The first wristwatches had leather watchbands with metal buckles. Soon various flexible metal expansion and non-expansion bands appeared and became popular. For awhile, a cheap nylon band with a metal buckle was available. Unlike the others, it was made in one piece and when it became dirty, could be easily removed, washed clean. To replace it, one simply slipped the plain end of the band down between the body of the watch and one of the spring pins, across the back of the watch, and back up between the watch body and the other pin. If rough use caused one of the pins to fail, the watch did not fall off the wrist because the remaining spring-pin kept it fastened to the one-piece watchband.

As time went by, we saw the evolution of the “shock proof” watch, with works that had built-in cushioning to prevent breakage of jewels and other fragile parts if accidentally dropped or given a severe jar or jolt.

Another important development was the “waterproof watch.” This made the wristwatch all the more practical and desirable. Anyone accidentally immersing his wristwatch in a liquid did not immediately destroy the delicate instrument. If the wearer washed his or her hands and arms or took a shower without remembering to remove the timepiece, no harm was done.

Many mechanically-minded people marveled at the invention of the “self winding” watch. Someone came up with the novel idea that a tiny weight, or pendulum, inside the watch case would be activated by the movement of the wearer’s arm, and the weight’s motion could be harnessed to wind the watch’s mainspring. As the mechanism was perfected, wearers no longer had to remember to wind their wristwatches. As could be expected, some pessimists grumbled, “I hope the day never comes when I am too lazy to wind my own watch.”

For many years, electricity has been used to power clocks, and later, watches. One of the greatest developments in timekeeping was the invention and perfection of the battery-powered quartz movement. This made possible clocks and watches that require no oscillating balance wheels. Timed by a quartz crystal that vibrates when activated by electrical energy furnished by a tiny battery, they are capable of delivering uniform, almost perfect timekeeping. The only moving parts are the gears that move the hands, with the digital versions having no moving parts whatsoever.

A more recent development in timepiece technology marries the quartz movement to the older self-winding mechanism. Instead of winding a mainspring, the pendulum, or weight, drives a mini-generator that sends electrical power to a tiny conducer, for storage and use by the quartz movement. This eliminates forever the inconvenience of battery failure and replacement.

I understand that some timepieces can now boast perfect accuracy. By receiving a constant signal from a distant satellite, they automatically keep set to the perfect time. That sort of technology is a bit too deep for me. I come from an age when, if the kitchen clock stopped because someone forgot to wind it, and no one had a watch, we called the local telephone central office. The operator there was always ready and willing to tell us the correct time. In those
pre-television days, many families did not have a radio and, if they did not have a telephone, about all they could do was re-set a stopped clock by guess, and go along with that until someone came by with a watch that was running and told the correct time.

Starting with my Mickey Mouse pocket watch, I graduated to a number of the cheap dollar watches. At one point my father gave me an old pocket watch he’d purchased from a door-to-door peddler for five dollars. It had a fine jeweled movement and kept excellent time. The first time I took it to our local jeweler for repairs, he smiled. His records showed that, down through the years, he had cleaned and repaired it a number of times, and for a number of different owners who all lived in the surrounding area. I carried the watch to work for eleven years. When its case eventually began to wear thin, I decided to graduate to a wristwatch.

Since that time I’ve gone through a number of these, mostly cheap work watches and several fairly expensive ones. Currently I own three, all of which were gifts. One is a fairly cheap “no-name” battery-powered quartz watch. Another is an expensive quartz. The third is a counterfeit self-winding Rolex, purchased in China “for a pittance.” A beautiful watch with performance that does not match its impressive appearance – or even come close.

Now, long-retired, I have little real need for a watch or, for that matter, an alarm clock. With few appointments or deadlines to meet, I rarely have to know the exact time of day, yet find myself constantly checking it out. So often that, if I forget to put on my watch before I leave home, I feel almost naked. And embarrassed at the frequency with which I examine my bare, watch-less wrist.

At eighty-four years of age, fleeting time still remains a most precious possession. I feel extremely fortunate that, for me, it is still ticking by, and that I can still hear that reassuring “tick, tock, tick” of an old spring-powered clock.