In today’s rush of activity we set appointments to the minute and get antsy when 10 or 15 minutes have passed. Today we can travel from one end of the country to another in a day, have precise scientific experiments that have to be carefully timed and participate in athletics where the fastest competitor is determined by tenths and hundredths of seconds. Many digital clocks come with an option to measure time that precisely.
For a dollar or two I can get a small digital clock to stick anywhere and know I have accurate time until the battery dies. I have worn digital clocks and now carry one in my phone. My initial wonder with digital clocks has long since faded. My interest with “before digital” has not.
It hasn’t always been easy to know the time. From burning ropes with knots and candles, to sun dials, to the hour glass, it took until the 1200’s before the first clock with gears could announce the hour. In a time of horses, oxen and walking, no one minded waiting for a meeting to begin sometime in the afternoon.
Then came the mechanical, wind-up clock like the one I discovered Saturday at a yard sale. Propped against the leg of the table beneath newer, more flashy items sat the old clock covered with years of dust, pollen and spider eggs. I nearly missed it in my rush to the next sale.
I saw it. Pulled up short and turned around. “How much for this wooden clock with a glass front?”
”Give me a price,” the owner suggested.
“Oh, no. I would insult you with what I want to pay,” I said.
“I have had it for years. My grandmother used to have it on her wall all the time, but it just isn’t me.”
She set a price only a bit above what I had considered. I bought it.
At home, I took down our battery operated clock, dusted off the grime of the years on the wooden clock, and put the key-wound clock on the wall to see how it looked.
Just like that the clock began ticking. I had not wound it.
In storage for years, once we had it properly aligned it on a wall, it began grinding out the time. And, I do mean grinding. The hourly gong sounded like it came through a wall of dust. The pendulum kept swinging through the evening as my husband and I considered what to do with that clock. It only faintly sounded like the clock that used to ring in the night at my grandparents’ house.
In the morning the hour hand still sat at four o’clock. The rim of the hole for the key to enter and wind up the works protruded too far for the hand to move. The face of the clock needed some re-alignment.
I fussed and wiggled at it with my mechanically inept fingers. I pointed my master handyman to the problem.
He took that clock off the wall with pleasure written all over his face. He could fix it. He knew he could.
I went to the computer and researched the clock. Google displayed pictures of vintage and antique clocks. It seems to fall into the gingerbread clock category for the collar of carved designs around the box holding the clock.
And yes, Nimble Fingers Hershberger, himself, took off the face, realized the works had lost a couple stabilizing screws and that the whole thing needed cleaning.
He literally cleaned my clock.
Cleaning clocks once kept itinerant repairmen in cash traveling from one community to another. The gears of the mechanically wound clock did not come in tightly sealed units. Their owners lived in an era of coal and kerosene burning stoves and a great deal of home cooking. All those dusts and oils settled on the works and over time hampered the clockworks. The clocks needed cleaning periodically to maintain a semblance of accuracy.
Our clock returned to the wall and began to beat out a loud, confident pendulum tick. At the quarter hours and hour, it rang out loud and clear. We had a clock with a story and a sound that took me back to childhood nights at grandma’s house.
Such a homey sound for such a great price, and so much more romantic than the red glow of a digital clock flicking off the microseconds with an accuracy no one questions.
Joan Hershberger is a staff writer at the El Dorado News Times. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.