Tim Woodward: Just a clock - until it stopped

Sometimes the things that work their way into our hearts are the ones we least expect.

May 11, 2014 

If you're human, you've formed attachments to material objects.

Cars, for example. Cars are at or near the top of the list of things we cherish. People name cars, bestow human qualities on them. My late sister was loath to part with every car she ever owned, driving the wheels off them and mourning them when they died. But certain other objects of our affection sneak up on us. They captivate us without our knowing it.

The old clock in my living room, for example. It's a wall clock with a pendulum and chimes. Not a valuable antique that has to be wound, but one of more recent vintage, powered by a battery. I bought it at, of all places, the Idaho Statesman's break room.

It was made by a then Statesman employee named Red Wilder. Red worked in the backshop, the now-dated term for the part of the building where type was set. In his spare time, he built clocks and sold them to people he knew, often fellow employees. I've forgotten how much mine cost, but $125 comes to mind. It was a bargain considering the amount of work he put into it. But for a young reporter in those days, it was still a fair amount of money - and an indication of my regard for Red's craftsmanship.

I'd forgotten how long we'd had the clock until last month, when I re-read the inscription on a brass plaque beneath the dial - "Handcrafted by DeVaughn 'Red' Wilder, 1982." I read the inscription while gloomily taking the clock down from its spot on the living room wall. After 32 years of keeping perfect time, its time appeared to have run out.

Its battery has to be replaced annually. I put a new one in this spring, but a week later the clock stopped running. Only the second hand continued to move. Thinking the new battery might have been defective, I replaced it - to no avail. The battery hadn't died. The clock had.

Only then did I realize how much that old clock meant to us. It kept us on time for work, school, appointments, social engagements, graduations, weddings and the other large and small events that make up our lives. It never gained or lost a minute. When other clocks failed, it kept right on ticking.

For 32 years.

How many things are that reliable in an age of disposable everything? When our refrigerator stopped working a few years ago and had to be replaced, the salesman encouraged us to buy an extended warranty.

"The average lifespan of a new refrigerator," he explained, "is about four years."

"Excuse me? It sounded like you said four years."

"Sad but true," he replied. "They don't make them like they used to."

The ice maker on the new refrigerator, incidentally, gave out in a little over a year. The repairman said he couldn't repair or replace just the ice maker. He had to replace the whole door.

We were glad we had bought the extended warranty.

This spring, I had to replace the lawnmower that had run faithfully for some 20 summers. On the last mowing of last summer, it exploded. Literally, as in flying shrapnel. I spent hours online perusing lawnmower reviews. One after another complained of parts breaking right out of the box. I was leaning toward a brand that sounded reasonably dependable until the guy who aerated our yard said he bought one and the wheels broke the first time he used it.

Red's clock, on the other hand, never missed a beat. Thirty-two years not only of running perfectly, but of adding traditional beauty to two living rooms. It was a fixture in our lives when our son was born in 1982, and when our great-grandson was born this year.

Only when it stopped working did I realize how much I loved that old clock, and how much I'd miss it.

The thing to do, obviously, was to call Red and ask if he could fix it. But I hadn't seen him in years. A Google search yielded a picture of him in uniform on the deck of a submarine at Pearl Harbor, but no phone number.

A former co-worker, however, had his number and was happy to give it to me. It was good to connect with Red again after so long. He no longer works on clocks, but he knew a shop that did.

That was a surprise. I thought clock repairmen had gone the way of buggy makers and, sure enough, the shop had closed. But Google (How did we survive without it?) supplied the names of others that hadn't.

I took it to a shop on Vista Avenue, which was like stepping back in time. Clocks everywhere. On the hour, the place erupts with everything from chimes to chirping cuckoos.

"We can replace the movement," the man behind the counter said. "One like the one that's in it is $150. If you don't need it to chime, I can get one for $40. It should be ready in three weeks."

The old clock's absence left a disproportionately large hole in our living room. Just an old clock, but it took the possibility of losing it to make me realize that it belongs in the same category as some of my favorite cars, guitars and other possessions I've loved, lost and would give anything to have back. Whatever it costs and however long it takes to fix it, it's worth it.

Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Monday. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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