DOES ANYBODY REALLY KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS?
When I was 14 the kid who mowed the cemetery went on vacation and I spent two hot summer days doing his job. Back and forth and between the stones, cringing each time I had to step on someone, I trimmed it up nice. My uncle was there then, and someday I will be, too.
When it was done I got a check for twenty bucks. I walked up Greenwood Street to the First State Bank and cashed it. Then I went next door to Beaver’s Rexall Drug and started spinning the display of Timex watches. I loved that store. It had greeting cards and magazines and perfumes. It was there, on a rack near the door, in a copy of National Lampoon, that I saw my first almost-naked boob. I went back two or three times to look at it, pretty sure that my friend Tom’s mom, behind the counter, knew what I was doing.
Her name was Althea. She ran the town from behind the counter at Beaver’s Rexall Drug. A couple of years later she and Mr. Marts would come home unexpectedly one night and, in the dark, I would be sitting at their breakfast nook with a girl from Hornell on my lap. Tom was on the couch with the girl’s friend. Althea sized it up quick and merely said, “It’s awful dark in here,” as she and Mr. Marts walked through toward their room. “There’s ham in the fridge if you’d like a sandwich,” she said over her shoulder.
With the twenty bucks in my pocket I turned that Timex display around and around, forward and back. Pausing to consider, switching to the other side for comparison.
Next to the watches, there was a similar rotating display that held watchbands. Back then they were mostly metal. But metal like a snake. All shimmery and bendy, with tiny overlapping scales you couldn’t quite figure the mechanics of. Those were the men watchbands. The long-hair watchbands were leather. Big wide leather with metal rings, like something on a Roman gladiator. I wanted one of those. And I would need a watch to go on it. Leather watchbands were an earthy brown back then, not an angry black, and I scanned the Timex rack for one that had a matching shade of brown and actual numbers I could read.
I dragged this out for most of half an hour, savoring it.
Then I picked up a watch and I picked up a massive leather band, with two buckles, and walked up to Althea at the register.
“That’s quite a watch,” she said.
I asked how much I was going to get back out of the twenty and then picked up a Three Musketeers, and set it beside the watch and band.
She helped me put it together, showed me how to pull out the spindle and set the time, and then buckled it around my wrist for me when I couldn’t easily do it myself. Pulled as tight as it would go it still hung loose around my bony arm, more like a bangle than a watch, but I walked out of there as proud and happy as I could be, sauntering in an arm-swinging fashion that I was certain drew attention to and admiration for my watch.
I had that watch until I got out of Basic Training ten years later.
Sometimes, running the streets and the hills as a teen-ager, my mother would tell me to come home at a certain time. When that time came and I didn’t quite want to go home yet, I would pull out the spindle and set the hands back, believing that my watch was my defense, believing that changing it could buy me time and back up my lie. Challenged on my tardiness, I believed I need merely produce my errant watch and my conduct would be explained and all would be well. Later, when I had a job and punctuality was premium, I would set its hands forward, and run my life 10 minutes in the future.
Back then, when you set the time on a watch, you did it in a rough approximation. We spoke that way and lived that way. “What time is it?” one would ask. “Oh, about quarter to 1,” another would answer. It might actually be ten of, or forty after, but “about quarter to 1” was plenty close enough. So if you looked up at the clock on the back of the stove and its dial said something significantly different from the dial on your wrist, you wheeled your minute hand around until it was pointing in roughly the same direction as the minute hand on the stove. A couple of days later, you might have to do it again. Or if you forgot to wind your watch and it ran down.
No two clocks told precisely the same time, except in the Sears catalog, but as long as you were within the margin of rounding, you were fine.
I kissed my first girl wearing that watch. And spent plenty of time riding my bike and standing on the bank of the creek fishing. Through the summers of my teen years there was always a big white albino band around my wrist when I went in the water. And when I forgot to take it off before going in, the crystal would fog up and sometimes it wouldn’t run for a couple of days.
I graduated high school in that watch. I went out on the reservation as a missionary in that watch. I swore into the Army in that watch.
But after a while they invented digital watches, and I got in a situation where it would work better if I wore a man watchband, the snaky metal kind, and if I had a watch that told me the exact time and could be relied on to keep that exact time for weeks or months. The old watch went in a box somewhere, the well-worn leather band giving off its own brand of sweat and filth funk.
I went through a couple watches, all Timexes, and maybe 30 years ago I got into running and by then they had watches that would record your lap times and I had to have one of those. It was the Ironman line from Timex. And every five years or so, when I lost it or broke it or it just gave up the ghost, I would go to a K-mart or a Walmart and turn that display around until I found the exact configuration of buttons, color and band that I wanted to sign up for for a few years.
That’s how I spent my 20s, 30s, 40s and most of my 50s. I had a sports Timex and it would tell me how fast I was turning a mile or finishing a marathon.
But then they came up with smart phones and apps and I haven’t timed a race or a workout on my watch in two or three years now.
And when my last Ironman got carried off by the 4-year-old I found myself back at the display at Walmart, turning it around.
Looking at watches with dials and hands and a steadily clicking second hand.
They had a nice watch in the Expedition line. It looked like one of those old Vietnam watches. Plain, military, olive drab. And big enough numbers that I could read. So I paid the lady and strapped it on and threw away the case. I walked out the door swinging my arms a little bit, figuring people saw and were impressed by how rugged my watch looked.
That night I set it by the Naval Observatory Master Clock.
The next morning when I got to work it was two minutes slow.
I bitched on social media. Timex sent me a compassionate note. I never called the number.
I reset it. A couple of times that day. Pushing the stem in to start the action and exactly synchronize the second hand with official time.
And the next day it was two minutes slow. Never mind the second hand, the minute hand was going its own way.
I was crestfallen and heartbroken and felt betrayed. I talked it up with people but nobody seemed aware of or concerned about this unreliability of cheap contemporary watches. And I don’t know if it’s all watches with hands or if I just got a lemon. I’m out of touch on the goings on of the wristwatch industry.
I couldn’t so quickly dump a watch I’d just boasted to family and friends of buying.
So I just sat it out. I’ve not taken it off since I bought it. And for days I didn’t look at it.
And then I started to adapt. I purposely looked at my watch – instead of my phone – to check the time. And I’ve eased back into approximation. Every night I dial the big hand ahead a couple of minutes, not setting it to any time -- official or not -- and for most of the next day I’m pretty much in the ballpark of accuracy. I am back to living in an approximation. It’s not the exact time, and it may be off quite a bit, but it’s close enough.
I’ve found a new place that is an old place.
And lately I’ve been clicking around online looking at big leather watchbands. Mostly I find heavy metal instead of hippy, but I’m going to keep looking.
Looking for another watchband and another time.
Hoping to get something on my wrist I can set back about 40 years or so.
When Althea ran the town from behind the counter at Beaver’s Rexall Drug, instead of rested up under the ever-growing grass at the cemetery.
I see the time it’s getting to be, and I don’t want to go home quite yet. I want to stay and play some more.
- by Bob Lonsberry © 2017