Mack Williams column: Watches and half-life
In the downtown section of the city where I live can be found a few places which survive from its main street’s “good old days,” one in particular, a place of business named The Watch Doctor. This general practitioner of watches has all of the modern “offerings” as far as timepieces are concerned: digital, calculator, etc., but he also has a few of the “old ones” (not to be confused with H.P. Lovecraft). Just the other day, I crossed the threshold of his business and saw some watches which reminded me of those timepieces upon which I cut my boyhood “time-teeth” many years ago.
Wristwatches, in addition to being strapped to my wrist after about 8 or 9 years of age, were always tied to my mind through my fascination with them. My first watch was a Timex, and I remember being proud of it when I saw the old commercial where it survived John Cameron Swayze’s testing of its toughness by tying it to a motor-boat propeller and letting the engine run for a minute. My Timex was never tested by being tied to a motorboat propeller, but it lasted for several years being tied to me.
Some watches back then had fine print on their faces telling how many jewels (necessary to their greater efficiency) were at work inside. The connection of jewels with time seemed to be reinforced to me in 1960 at Salisbury’s Capitol Theater when I saw the crystal-topped control lever operated by the actor Rod Taylor in the original movie version of H.G. Welles’ “The Time Machine.” His character could travel both forward and backward in time with ease by moving that bejeweled lever, but we are restricted physically to future time travel at the usual, minute-by-minute pace, while sometimes leaping into the past via the time machine of memory.
Later came “fancy” watches with calculators, alarms, and days and months, seeming to overstep the bounds of the watch to tread upon the jurisdiction of the calendar. Just as my family’s phone out on the Old Concord Road was only involved in conversation (the real kind, not texting), my watches back then only did the same job as that performed by the hourglass on “Days of Our Lives” and the one belonging to the Wicked Witch of the West on those numerous televised reruns of “The Wizard of Oz.”
The “precious” jewels, once numbered on the watch’s face, later came to be replaced with a pretty common crystal: “quartz,” along with battery and solar power. I remember that with some of these watches, the directions said that the natural movements of the wrist would serve to “wind” them. I seem to recall the directions of one even saying to give your watch wrist a good shake once in a while to keep it going (the watch, not the wrist). Just the look of someone winding his watch in the old days imparted a look of intelligence to his demeanor, but not so the shaking of his hand, as if it were wet and he were without towel. (I feel sure that both Pontius Pilate and Lady Macbeth observed proper towel etiquette when it came to the drying of their hands.)
One of my watches veered from the usual Arabic numerals to those of Ancient Rome. (If both cursive writing and being able to multiply in one’s head supposedly fell out of favor over the years, then I’m afraid to ask about the current status of Roman Numerals.)
The watch which made the greatest impression on me and provided a little bit of fascination during the night was the one with a radium dial. The minute and hour hands were marked with a line of radium, with a small “dot” of radium painted next to the number of each hour. The second hand was unmarked with that glowing element, so the seconds continued to move undetected in the dark. Shortly after the receipt of my watch, I remember going to our Compton’s Encyclopedia and looking up “radium” and “Madame Curie.” Nowadays, someone would “Google” radium, but doesn’t “look it up” or “reference it” sound much more intelligent than “Googling!” (Just take one letter away from “Googling” and you have what a man’s eyes do when he sees a beautiful woman walking down the sidewalk.)
Sometimes back then, I would wear my radium watch in the darkness before falling asleep, staring closely at one of those number-marking radium dots, seeming to detect little flickering points of light within its overall makeup, as if I were watching minute explosions of atomic instability.
I don’t know the present location of my old radium-dial watch, most likely in the Rowan County landfill. I think there was only one county landfill back then, but there may have been more, and if there were, I’m using the word collectively, with no pun intended in the use of the word “collectively” regarding the landfill(s).
Those hands and dots are probably still glowing somewhere underneath decades of accumulated refuse, with the rate of radium’s decay into lead possibly now being the only part of that timepiece which is still “telling time.” I don’t know what the half-life of radium is, but at 62 years of age, I do know that my own youth is more than “half-a-life” away from me now.
The only watch which I still have from back then wasn’t originally mine; it was my father’s Gruen wristwatch. Since I only knew him for 15 years before he left in death, and since Gruen is a very well-made and reliable timepiece, I feel that probably a good portion of my time with him was measured by that watch. It stopped running decades ago, but with servicing may tick again (while modern watches are mute).
I like to think that something of those 15 years with him may somehow be mysteriously stored in the watch’s long-stilled metal spring, such static storage more than equally matched by the memories deposited in the moving “coil” which yet winds within my mind.