Clockwork

It’s Wednesday morning, column day, and nothing seems to be going right, even choosing a topic difficult. One of those days, I suppose. Always dangerous. Never know where a man might wander on a warm spring day.

As for my unexpected issues, well, I imagine you all know the drill. First you go out fiddlehead hunting with dogs, bag and knife in pocket, and find clumps that aren’t ready. Then you get home in front of the computer and go immediately to your email, procrastinating, and, of course, find everything working in slow motion, annoyingly, tediously slow, and think, “Shoot! Why now?”

You close down Outlook Express, go to your anti-virus program, clean out temporary files and whatever else it is that you remove before rebooting and starting anew, hopeful everything will run snappier. This time, expecting an extended rebooting process, I signed in and left the station, moving to an adjacent parlor to kill time flipping through the new Rolling Stone magazine. Then, only a few minutes into the reboot in the next room, door ajar, I hear a disturbing yet familiar “clunk” that’s always alarming when emanating from the computer. I ignore it, sort of, page through RS 1180 a little longer, return to the computer and everything appears OK, much smoother.

I guess this spell of bad karma actually began midday Tuesday, when I foolishly decided to tinker with a country tall clock I had stopped winding two or three years ago, maybe more. I had just learned to live without when it decided for some weird reason to operate just fine, thank you, for 10 or 12 hours before sounding half-hour chimes on the hour and hour on the half, which got to be irritating indeed for anyone who pays attention to detail. At first, I took the time to make adjustments and get it chiming correctly before heading to work, only to come home many hours later and — you guessed it — same problem to greet me during my pre-sleep wind-down. Finally, I got sick of dealing with it, didn’t know who to call to fix it because yet another one of my clock repairmen, Ernie Smith from Williamsburg, up and bought the farm on me. At that point, I just opened the long, narrow case door, stopped the long brass pendulum and taunted the timepiece with, “There, take that! That’ll fix you.”

As for Old Smitty, well, let me briefly digress. I guess the old-time Yankee’s time was up. He was 93, I believe. The last time I saw him was at my place, age 91 if my memory serves me. I had picked him up in ’Burgy for a house call, brought him back to my Greenfield home and pulled out of storage in the shed a three-foot, four-legged stool with a round seat to stand on. Once inside, I placed the stool in front of a Chippendale slant-front desk standing in the taproom beneath the Aaron Willard presentation banjo clock I wanted serviced and, lo and behold, before I could even offer the man assistance, he had stepped up straight as a preacher atop that stool. No lie, the man never swayed an inch, impressive indeed for a fella of his age. Then this man of incredible geriatric agility just went and kicked the bucket on me. Yeah, Ole Smitty was quite the guy, a trouper with one of those devilish gleams in his eye and a wry grin that was even better. I loved it. He had worked for a Northampton jeweler named Gere long before I met him, a great day in my life. But then he was gone, I didn’t know who to call and thus have had two antique clocks sitting idle for many years.

Well, if you can imagine it, quite by surprise, that misfortune changed Saturday night during, of all things, a Bat Mitzvah I hosted for a colleague’s teen daughter. Her name is Emily. I call her Mable. She does fine with it. Then again, what choice does she have with a ornery critter like me? Anyway, her folks spared no expense for their only child, hiring Wholesale Klezmer Band to supply ethnic folk music for rambunctious dancing in the upstairs ballroom. The event drew quite a crowd, including many spring-fevered teens to test the spring-floor. But that’s not all they got into. It seems one of the boys took it upon himself to open the tall clock’s cherry case and nudge the pendulum into motion. I didn’t notice the clock running until everyone had gone, all was silent and I was sitting three feet away in a window-front La-Z-Boy. Then I heard the distinctive tick-tock, strong and true, remarkably in-beat. Every half-hour I’d hear a subtle click meant to engage the chime, which was not sounding, so I figured, “What the hell. Who needs it? I’ll keep it ticking as long as it keeps good time.” It was great to hear that clock beating again, always soothing in quiet spaces.”

Surprisingly, that 200-year-old clock, standing tall, idle and proud in a front parlor for years between a mantle and doorway, still kept great time and, by midday Tuesday, it was clear that it needed no regulation despite interior dust-and-cobweb filth scattered about among the brass works. That’s when — surprise! — this soon-to-be 60-year-old known for getting himself into situations he cannot easily pry himself from, especially when infected with spring euphoria, found trouble moments after finishing “Captors and Captives,” a book about Deerfield’s famous 1704 raid and its aftermath. Unhappy with the rhythmic sound of the tocks, I decided to slide off the goose-neck bonnet to expose the works and see what was happening. I should have known better. My first chore was to bring that hood outside onto the sunny porch, where I blew off a thick layer of dust from the thin, hidden, unfinished top board behind the goose-necks. Then I went to the cellar staircase for a beeswax-soaked polishing rag lying on a disorganized shelf. But, of course, I couldn’t just stop there. Are you kidding? Instead, I immediately started pleading for problems by, on a fanciful spring whim, grabbing a just-in-case oil can off the shelf tucked under the stairs to the left, leading to the second story.  What a fool. Will I ever learn? Or, better still, why must it always be the hard way?

Anyway, after carefully polishing that hood, paying special attention to the dusty undersides of the inlaid, broken-pediment goose-necks, I figured, “What the hell, maybe now that I’ve got the top off, I ought to oil the gears and see if it improves the tock.” And oil those gears I did, all of them, including the chime’s, which — oh yeah — sounded off within 10 minutes at 2 p.m. sharp. Problem was that it chimed 9 times, forcing me to rearrange the hands and run the chimes through the course to set it right and, yeeeup, problems immediately presented. First of all, having neglected the clock for some time, I had forgotten which of the two dangling weights were associated with what mechanisms, discovering to my dismay that I had wound the wrong one when trying to wind the clock. That was apparent when I noticed the one I had wound dropping with each chime. Oh well, so much for my theory that it wasn’t chiming because that weight was at its nadir. No problem, I’d just have to wind the other side, too, and hope for the best. But first I absolutely had to remount the bonnet before it tipped over or I got distracted and backed into it or something.

While winding up the heavy right-side weight hanging inside the dusty case, something didn’t feel right and the weight wasn’t climbing. So I pondered what was going on, stopped winding and, to figure out what was happening, hopped atop that same stool Old Smitty had used that day. I discovered that the braided brass chord had slipped off its wheel and gotten wound tightly around the post attaching it to the face. Not yet feeling totally defeated, I pulled a screwdriver and needle-nosed pliers from my toolbox but soon realized I would need to disassemble the face from the works and called it quits. Already in over my head and not wanting to “open a can of worms,” I stopped, went to my computer, Googled “antique clock repair” “western Mass” and came up with no good leads. Then I pulled a thick stack of business cards from inside the case of a dining-room Eli Terry shelf clock to see what I could find. It seemed to me I had somewhere written the name of a clock repairman my father told me about. No such luck. All I found was a forester who did clock work on the side but was long gone to parts unknown.

Then the search was on. I called my mother, who said she could help me. She had the name of a Florence clock repairman, who, as it turned out, is a tuba-playing musician, was old Ernie Smith’s pal and happened to be teaching his weekly UConn-Storrs music class when I reached his wife Tuesday afternoon. The wife, who teaches with my brother at Frontier Regional School, took my home phone number and assured me her husband would get back to me. When I asked if he made house calls, she laughed and said, “Yeeeeee-ah, if he must.”

So now I’m finally going to get this long-overdue clock project behind me. I’ll have the handyman fix the tall and banjo clocks, then swap the more formal taproom banjo with the plain Seth Thomas of the same style in my study. I’d been meaning to get to this project for some time but had dilly-dallied. The clock man will be here Friday morning at 8:30, quicker than expected.

It never ceases to amaze me the strange way things sometimes happen. Call it the revenge of a hormone-driven teenager horsing around with a clock on a beautiful spring-weekend night enlivened by invigorating music and robust upstairs dancing that eventually shook the frame of an old building made for social gatherings. Honestly, I could feel the old tavern’s mischievous smile and knew from experience precisely what to do. My instinctual response has always been to just buckle my chinstrap, relax and kick in my spurs to a liberating gallop.

It works for me.

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