My grandfather, who I was named after, was born in Indiana in 1896. After fighting in the “Great War,” he returned to Indiana where he ran several businesses and raised his family. Rumors were that he had two families.
The clan had its share of characters back in the day.
At some point along his journey he acquired a watch. An Elgin pocket watch. A railroad watch. No one seems to know the exact story surrounding of how he came by this watch. He could have bought it or he could have taken it in trade for some of the many cigars he sold in his “City Club.”
Although it was gold-filled, it wasn’t one of those fancy watches used to mark social status. The ornate ones with jewels that weren’t part of the mechanism. No special engraving. No hand-painted or enamel designs. No animated scenes or characters turning in coordination with the hands.
No, this watch was used to tell time.
When my dad graduated high school, granddad sat my father down and explained that dad had reached a point in his life where he earned some recognition. He was now old enough and responsible enough to receive a precious gift. A timepiece to mark a rite of passage.
And so the watch was passed on to its first successor guardian.
Leaping forward, when I was 17, it became time for the tradition to be passed to a new generation. I had just graduated high school and my dad took me aside to show me granddad’s watch. He showed me the dial that was encased under the glass dome and how that dome could be removed – very carefully by rotating it counterclockwise. The back of the watch had an etched pattern. Not too ornate, but enough to give it some character. The back was worn because this watch didn’t sit in some display case.
This watch was used to tell time.
Then dad showed me how the back cover of the case would screw off and how you could see part of the moving action. The gears ticking off the seconds. The partial plate surrounding the action had a squiggly line pattern and you could see the words “Elgin Nat’l Watch Co. U.S.A.” And then I noticed the inside of the back cover where you could see the case serial number.
But there was more.
There was a date scratched near the edge in an arc conforming to the circular shape of the case. That date really stood out because of the size of the letters and because it was scratched through the patina that had formed around the case’s outer edge. That dark coloration, which made the cleanly scratched date jump out at you, was absent from the center of the case where, when closed, it would match up with the moving action of the exposed gears.
Their continual movement lightly sweeping that spot clean.
Beside the large date, there were smaller jeweler’s marks scattered about reflecting dates of service or codes for cleaning or repairs. And someone had scratched the word “To,” followed by a name I didn’t recognize, memorializing the gift of this timepiece. I started to ask my dad about that engraving and the other marks, but he cut me off.
“Don’t worry about those marks, and I don’t know what that date is about either.” “What’s important is that my dad gave me this watch when he thought I had grown to appreciate it and now I’m giving it to you.” “I think you’ve earned it.” “Keep it with you and maybe someday you can pass it on to one of your children.” “When they’ve earned it.”
I held this time-keeper in my hand and marveled at it. I also puzzled why dad chose me, the youngest of his three sons to be the recipient, the next guardian of such a symbol. A symbol of time, of generations passing. I was now part of something bigger than myself. An awesome responsibility. Could I be trusted with continuing the legacy?
Thirty years ticked by since the watch had parted from my hands, and my days of roaming were long gone. I had finished that college degree, and earned another. Married and had a beautiful daughter.
It was 2008, the economy was in a death spiral.
I have no recollection where the thought was born. But it popped into my mind that with times getting tough, people would, unfortunately, find themselves pawning their possessions. I wondered if there would again be a glut of gold pocket watches in pawn shops just like that pile of watches in that display case back in Flagstaff so many years ago. I could look.
I knew I would never find the watch I had foolishly given up, but I thought I would search for a symbol. Match it as close as I could and pass the watch, and the lesson, on to my daughter at the right time. But something also seemed wrong about looking for the results of someone else’s hard decision.
So I let that thought fade.
Time passed, and so did my thoughts, and in 2009 so did my dad. As I reminisced over the golden moments I had with my father and all that he had taught me, I remembered granddad’s watch and the idea of trying to replace it. But economic times had shifted again. While the economy was still struggling, the price of gold was rising, and it kept rising. The idea of finding this symbol of time seemed to slip out of reach and was filed away, not to resurface until 2011.
2011. I’m in real time. Daytime. I am looking at quartz crystals on an online auction and I get a hit on a gold watch.
The idea buried in the recesses of my brain began to tick. I search for pocket watches – 56,709 hits. Elgin pocket watches – 2,429 hits. Price range $40 to $5000. Sheesh! Then I realized I didn’t even know the exact type or model of the watch. What year, what name? All a big hit and miss game. I search for “railroad watch,” but the dials that appear on the screen just aren’t right. I skim page after page of pocket watches. Some are close, but only close to memories.
I am lost.
After an hour passed, and now fearful that if a replica is there it will escape me, I sort the listings by the time the auction would end. Two auctions surface that are ending in the next 5 hours. As I compare the two, I notice the second one’s dial, outer rim, bow, and crown match my memories. I click on this one and discover the seller has posted five pictures. And these aren’t ordinary pictures, these are high resolution pictures you can enlarge and examine up close.
Almost like holding the watch in your hand.
First picture of the dial is right. The second picture of the back of the case stirs a memory. It’s a match! The etched design I remember. Not too ornate, just enough to give it character. Now I have a model – a 1921, 7 jeweled, gold-filled, Elgin pocket watch. A workhorse watch. A watch used by ordinary people to tell time.
The third picture revealed the action with the back of the case removed. Besides the gears you could see that squiggly line pattern and the words “Elgin Nat’l Watch Co. U.S.A.” My heart raced. I’ve got a model and year down. Could this be my symbolic replacement? My attempt to make amends for the foolishness of my younger years?
But then I hit the forth picture, the inside of the back of the case. Staring back at me was a date scratched in the case near the edge in an arc conforming to the circular shape of the case. It stood out from the surrounding patina that had formed around the outside edge of the inside of the case. There were smaller jeweler’s marks scattered about reflecting the dates of service or codes for cleaning or repairs. And I could make out the light scratching of the word “To” and the name below memorializing the gift of this watch.
And there was another word scratched neatly into that part of the case that I remembered from so long ago, a word I was about to ask my father about when he told me to ignore the markings.
The word “Dad.”
Speechless, I checked the seller’s location and discovered he was only 30 minutes from Flagstaff – the scene of my crime some 33 years past. I bid it, won it, and while I was waiting for it to be shipped I reread the description on the auction. It included the serial number.
I ran that number on the Elgin watch collector’s website and discovered that the run quantity for its serial number range was 10,000 in 1921, and there were one and half million watches of this equivalent “grade” produced between 1903 and 1945. A one in ten thousand shot in 1921; one in a million and a half by 1945.
What would the odds be now to find this 90 year old watch that had passed through so many hands, traveled so many miles, counted so many seconds?
I don’t know if dad, being out there in the great beyond, somehow led me to that precise auction at that precise moment in time or not, but somehow granddad’s watch found its way back to me, to give me a second chance at honoring a family tradition that was entrusted to me by my father.
And I am passing this watch on to my daughter. The story about it having grown. Its meaning and value enriched. The trust that must be honored to keep the tradition alive, whether it be daytime, night time, winter or summertime; as the seconds, minutes, hours, weeks, months and years tick by . . .
Photos: I saved the photos from that on-line auction and used those five images for the two parts of this story. And I’m glad I saved them. When I received the watch they had polished it up and removed the patina that was in the back cover, which helped to illuminate the etchings inside. Once I had the watch back in my hands and was 100% positive it was my Granddad’s, I told the seller this story, and he remarked, “Well, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.” And he’s right 🙂