Dedicated to the Schmidt Family, 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 sat in their home in a village called Elbogen, in the era of the second world war. It now sits atop a sideboard in my living room in a town called Benicia.
The clock fled from the Communists in 1947 riding in the back of a horse drawn wagon along with all the family’s possessions. The escape west out of Czechoslovakia had many accidents 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.
I inherited the clock from my father who died leaving little more than a few precious fragments of his and my mother’s lives behind. Since then 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.
One night I showed the clock to some guests while we drank wine and listened to smooth jazz. It was running a half hour fast. “Whoa,” I exclaimed. “Not so fast, partner.” I had 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 told me 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’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 how to approach the repair.
My grandfather, Karl Schmidt, was a sheetmetal artisan and he worked with careful, skilled machinists. 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 spoke with a patient, measured voice 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 responded. 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.”
With the clock’s disappointment ringing in my ears, 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 satisfy 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 my mother’s family was also known for. I fumed and waited for inspiration.
The clock interrupted my vexation with a gruff, impatient command. “You’re going about it backwards. Attach the loop 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 having a hard time keeping my tools steady. Both hands were shaking. 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, grandmother, 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 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 the sideboard. The pendulum swung with newfound energy. “Well?” I asked, pleased with the repair and grateful for my grandfather’s intervention.
The clock’s shiny face flashed me a peevish look in the fading sunlight. “Sheesh,” she replied. “It’s about time.”