Tuesday, February 27, 2007


I clearly remember, though it’s been decades since I even thought of it, the purchase of my first watch. I was either seven or eight. It was 1956 or ’57.

When I'd ask my parents for something there was no certainty I’d get it. My request had to be doable, reasonable, and desirable. My folks never screwed around with incentives, like get an A and get a toy, or any crap like that. Doable, reasonable, desirable.

During the years in North Hollywood, for instance, I wanted a bicycle and my parents were dead set against it. They felt that traffic in our part of L.A. was just too dangerous. Within a month of our return to S.F., (I was 10) they bought me a shiny new three speed and I rode everywhere, I made up for lost time.

Their approach to kid’s clothing was utilitarian. They saw no reason to spend more than necessary on clothes we kids would quickly outgrow or sooner destroy. They understood my pangs during adolescence of not being as fashionably dressed as my peers, but my folks discouraged keeping-up-with-the-Joneses of any sort. They thought we should aim higher, like, if you’re really smart it doesn’t matter what you wear, or really nice, or really funny, or a really good athlete, or a really good friend.

My dad had two pocketwatches back when I was seven years old, a good one and a spare. I think I started bugging him, on dress-up occasions, to borrow his spare, and there’d be the complicated ritual of hooking up the chain to a belt loop, and deciding which pocket to put the watch in, and exactly how the chain should hang.

In retrospect this must have delighted my dad, his seven year old boy wanting to be just like him.

So, on a rainy Saturday, we went to a jewelry store on Lankershim near the El Portal theater. My dad told the male clerk, “This young man would like to buy a pocketwatch.” The clerk went along with the gag and treated me like an important customer who was making a significant purchase.

It wasn’t the cheapest of the three I could choose from, it was the middle price, $2.00 as I recall (minimum wage had just jumped from $0.75 to 1.00 per hour, a pack of Hostess Twinkies was 0.07), so the watch cost maybe $25.00 in 2007-dollars, not nothing for a seven year old.

My dad knew that I’d lose interest in the watch and would soon start leaving it behind, and forgetting to wind it. I’m sure that for my dad the enjoyment of the purchase ritual, and seeing my thrill of ownership, were well worth the price of the watch. Plus, I stopped borrowing his spare.

My dad needed a spare watch because, in those days, you’d take your watch in for cleaning and re-setting. Sometimes a part would have to be replaced. There was a marked difference in accuracy between watches, all of which were spring-driven. You had to wind them. I think it was during my childhood that the self-winding watch was introduced.

An expensive watch not only looked better than a cheap one, it was supposed to keep better time. Nowadays, cheap battery operated watches are more accurate than the most expensive watches of my childhood.

A gentleman would make an investment in a good watch, and, with maintenance and repair, expect it to last a lifetime. In fact, his good pocketwatch was still ticking in 1973 when my dad died. The cousin I gave it to, who loved my dad very much, still cherishes it.

I just received a watch as a retirement gift from UCSF. Six months after my severance date I received a slim gift catalog in the mail with a 10th generation Xerox of a letter from Chan(cellor) Bishop thanking me for my service, and I could pick a gift from the catalog.

I went online and requested a Wittnaur wristwatch and it arrived a couple weeks later, pennies from heaven. Simple, round, gold-tone case, a black dial with no numbers, only little gold lines to mark 3, 6, 9, and a little diamond at the 12. Not even a second-hand. As simple and elegant as can be. Just my style.

Except it has a leather wristband. I hate leather wristbands. So I went to my local Walgreen’s to buy a Speidel twist-o-flex (another major improvement) expansion band, I was looking for something in black with gold trim.

The lady told me they didn’t carry watchbands, maybe sometime in the future. I was dismayed. They didn’t even have one of those revolving Timex displays. So the market has changed on me again.

I fear my quest for a suitable watchband will become Ahabian/Moby-Dickian. I hate it. I might even have to visit a shopping mall, like Ponce into the swamp. And things were going along so well!

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