Dedicated to Karl, Anna, Bruno, Ossi, Oskar, Erika, Anni, and my mother, Gisela
I have an old mantel clock that belonged to my mother’s family, a crowd of eight souls, Oma, Opa, three sons and three daughters.
The clock was theirs and sat in their home in a village called Elbogen, in the era of the second world war.
The clock has covered a lot of ground since then and now sits in my home in a town called Benicia.
The clock fled from the Communists in 1947 sitting in the back of a horse drawn wagon along with all the family’s possessions. The escape west out of Czechoslovakia had many accidents along the way including one that put a crack in its front piece. The crack now serves as a reminder of painful circumstances long since forgotten that left a mark I see every day. Family members handed the clock from one to another, all the while the clock did its job keeping time.
The clock was handed to me some years ago and I’ve tried to keep it clean and lubricated, but it occasionally needs more attention than I can provide. The mainspring gets tired and the gear train needs attention or replacement. After a recent trip to a repair shop it came home with a shiny face plate, its mechanism solid when I wound the mainspring, but it didn’t keep accurate time. After many years of refusing to keep up with the present, it now raced into the future, with a hurried cadence of pendulum swings.
It was running a half hour fast when I showed it off to some guests while we drank wine and listened to smooth jazz. “Whoa,” I exclaimed. “Not so fast, partner.” I’ve adjusted the pendulum’s swing many times to alter the clock’s speed. It’s a simple procedure, but this time when I twisted the pendulum’s threaded rod, the pendulum disconnected from the clock’s mechanism. “Oops!” Embarrassed, I attempted a hasty repair while my guests looked on, but the clock resisted the intrusion.
“Don’t touch me!” the clock said over the laid-back sound of Miles Davis. “I will not be treated with hasty disrespect.”
So I apologized to my guests, returned to my wine and let the clock be.
Two days later on a quiet afternoon I placed the clock on the dining room table, opened the back panel and observed the clock’s mechanism. Instead of a simple, straight-forward connection between the gears and the pendulum, the clock presented a puzzle of wires that didn’t look like the arrangement I had seen before. Lengths didn’t add up. End pieces wouldn’t connect the way they were supposed to. I was ready to complain to the repair man, but I was embarrassed to do so. I’d just had the clock in for maintenance. All I’d done was detach the pendulum. Nothing appeared to be broken. Couldn’t I figure it out?
The afternoon sun bathed the clock’s gear housing with good light. I stared at the brass pieces for a long time and, remembering the clock’s reproach, thought carefully about what to do.
I thought about Elbogen and my grandfather, Karl Schmidt, a sheetmetal artisan, and the careful, skilled machinists my grandfather worked with. They were tool and die makers, cutting and shaping wood and metal into fixtures, jigs, gauges and clocks. The clock knew these people. Could I be trusted to tinker with their artisanship? Sure, I told myself. It’s just gears and springs. Old world technology, simple stuff.
“The loop at the end of the mounting wire is missing,” the clock said when I touched its brass components, feeling for clues. “See the mounting wire in the bracket at the top of the gear housing? The loop links the mounting wire to the connecting wire. The pendulum swings from the other end of the connecting wire. Here. See?”
Mounting wire? Connecting wire? Loop? It sounded complicated. I picked out a length of thin wire from my tool chest, along with a wire cutter and needle-nose pliers. Why not just use one wire? I thought. After fashioning my own connecting wire with a hook at one end, I attached the wire to the bracket and connected the pendulum, bypassing the complicated wire-loop arrangement. I’ll improve the design. Make it simpler, I thought. With an elated “Tada!” I closed the back panel and tilted the clock to start the pendulum swing.
“No!” the clock grumbled. One swing later the pendulum stopped. “The connecting wire doesn’t attach to the bracket. You need the mounting wire and a loop. Otherwise, the connecting wire won’t swing freely. The wires have to be positioned just so, to allow the pendulum unobstructed movement.”
Chastened, I searched through my wife’s jewelry and found tiny loops that joined links of chain together. With her permission I salvaged a couple I hoped would meet the clock’s specifications.
The pieces were so small my pliers felt like a monkey wrench. Connecting the mounting wire was a trial and error process and all my trials were met with errors. After the second loop fell and disappeared under the table I dropped my tools and slid my chair back. This is ridiculous, I told myself. The only thing that kept me from leaving the table was a stubborn streak of bullheadedness my mother’s family was also famous for. I fumed and waited for inspiration.
“You’re going about it backwards,” the clock said. “Drop the mounting wire through the hole first, then attach the loop at its end before you fasten the connecting wire.”
“But I don’t have the proper tools.” I rubbed my knuckles. “I’m all thumbs, sitting at a dining room table instead of a clockmaker’s workbench. I’ll never get it to fit.”
“You think the clockmakers in Elbogen had it any better?” the clock sneered. “Pliers and benches don’t make clocks. Clocks are made by steady hands guided by experience and resolve.”
I took a breath, salvaged another of my wife’s jewelry loops and picked up the wire with the pliers. The tiny mounting hole waited for me as unapproachable as ever. I was getting tired. Both hands were shaking. It was hard to focus. The wire swayed around the hole, bumping into the bracket . . .
“Quit stabbing at the hole!” the clock barked. “Think about making me whole again!”
Elbogen, I thought, the watch makers, my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles living in a village filled with precision, order and love. Down a narrow street, my grandfather Karl’s smiling face appeared in a doorway. He was holding tin snips in one hand, a cigarette in the other. “Clocks are temperamental,” he said. “Like your grandmother. They need to be pampered. Come in. Let me show you.”
I followed him into a small, but busy room filled with tools and machinery. The air smelled of cigarettes, lubricating oil and the musty aroma of hard, patient work. The clock sat motionless on a worn work bench, its back panel open. Karl placed his tin snips in a drawer, took my hand and we carefully threaded the mounting wire through the hole, his rough fingers rubbing against mine. With deft movements, together we fastened the loop to the mounting wire and attached the connecting wire.
The clock made a satisfied ticking sound. “There we are. See?” my grandfather said. “She’s happy now. I’ll let you finish the job.”
I attached the pendulum to the connecting wire, closed the back panel and returned the clock to her place of honor, front and center, atop my sideboard. The pendulum swung with newfound energy. “Well, whaddya think?” I exclaimed in triumph.
The clock’s shiny face gave me a shrug. “Sheesh,” she replied. “It’s about time.”