Author: Campbell, Bruce

Grandfather's Pocketwatch
One of the neat surprises that Bluegrass had for me was its embracing the song “Grandfather Clock”. I loved that song as a kid! The melody is simple but catchy, and the lyrics are perfect. Somehow that grandfather clock and its owner are cosmically linked. It weighed the same as he did! It was bought on the morn of day he was born, ran for 90 years, same as the man, and it stopped when he died! Wow! I wondered if it was true. The perfect symmetry of the situation really appealed to me, and I guess it still does.

As you may know from last week’s column, I reached a milestone of sorts – half a century on this blue marble. And I received a gift that appeals to me and fired my imagination as much as the song mentioned above. My mother gave me my grandfather’s pocket watch.

My grandfather was a railroad man – he worked for Southern Pacific for 50 years. Who holds a job for 50 years? For all the time I knew him, he and my grandmother lived in a tiny house on SP land, nestled between a railroad switching yard and SP commuter line tracks. The house was clearly built by whoever builds railroad depots – it was even painted the same color.

Granddad didn’t wear a watch. He had a pocketwatch, connected to a chain. If you asked him what time it was, he didn’t make the familiar gesture of looking at his wrist. In a similarly practiced move, his hand would dip into a pocket on his coveralls, and come out with the watch on the chain. He wound it every night. Time is important to a railroad man. He also had a nighttime ritual of going around his house each night with a key that was used to wind up all the clocks – I had forgotten that. How long has it been since I’ve seen a clock with a key?

When my father turned 50, my grandfather gave him his pocketwatch. I don’t yet know the story or ritual that might have accompanied this exchange. My grandfather was not a ceremonious man, so I don’t expect a big speech was involved. And I didn’t know my father had received it. It wasn’t on display, and he never mentioned it that I can remember. But, after my father passed away, my mother held onto the watch, and when I turned 50 – she gave it to me!

It isn’t fancy. It has a brass case, with no inscription on the back. It’s surprisingly heavy – it must be chock full of gears and springs. The face is a plain white with plain black numerals, and little tick marks for every minute in the hour. There’s also a little watch face within the face – I guess it’s a second sweep. But I don’t know, because the watch isn’t running. Did it stop when my dad died in 1987? Or two years later, when my grandfather died? Maybe… Right now, it’s set at 10:14, which is when I was born.

What will I do with this watch? Well, one thing’s for certain – my oldest son will get it when HE turns 50. But should I have it fixed? Aside from not working, it shows no signs of damage – it was clearly well taken care of. Aside from one well worn mar on the back (like an old scrape worn smooth, about 3/8 of an inch), it looks great. The crystal is completely unscratched. After all, it was worn in a pocket designed for a watch – not in a front pocket with keys or coins. Clothes don’t have a watch pocket anymore, so they?

I don’t know what I’ll do with it, at least not yet. But I am really enjoying wondering about it, and pondering the stories, the memories (and maybe the songs) in this old watch. And it’s only going to gather more, as it awaits its next owner…
Posted:  4/30/2008

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