You spend your life looking for the Friend
When you find him
If you find him
Will you get that time back?Rumi
The strap on my solar powered Seiko dive watch broke, probably from years of hard use and many recent dives in the Bay of Pigs, and I asked Hope if she wanted to walk with me to Just in Time, the small watch repair shop in Hillcrest. She said yes, and grabbed a Frisbee and put a few things she wanted to carry in her small backpack. As she packed, I had a thought, though I don’t know from where it originated. I dusted off an old, small jewelery box on the top shelf of my bookshelf, and removed Uncle Bob’s old, mechanical Rolex Oyster Perpetual wrist watch. The thin black leather band was cracked and desicated, and an old, deep scratch was still across the face. The hands hadn’t moved in almost twenty years. For a reason I don’t know, I placed it in my backpack with a few disc golf discs, just in case, and reflected on things for a moment.
I had never had it repaired because it was expensive to repair a Rolex. When it stopped running, I took it to a jeweler in the heart of New Orleans, near the French Market. I don’t know where Uncle Bob had bought it so long ago, but I recalled him saying he had bought it from a French speaking jeweler in a walking part of New Orleans when he first moved to Baton Rouge.
He was a French speaking Canadian, from near Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia, coincidentally where the Cajuns were exiled and began their march south to Louisiana, named for their King Louis and his wife, Queen Anna, and they saw migrating Candian geese flocking to the marshlands around where I grew up hunting, and they felt the geese were auspicious and they settled there about 100 to 150 years before Uncle Bob moved there for a middle management job with Montreal’s Bulk Stevedoring company. I remember him saying something about having bought it the same year Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay brought one to the first summit of Mount Everest, and it was the same one I had seen the super spy James Bond wear in old late night movies Uncle Bob and I had watched together when I sat with him in hospice care.
He was not athletic, and after serving in the Canadian navy for two years in WWII he probably never did a push up or jogged again, and his only exercise was swinging golf clubs or tennis racquets at the country club in his middle class neighborhood, Sherwood Forest, and walking around the urban streets of New Orleans. Ocassionally, he went home to visit his sisters, and would go skiing. His older watch had been a relatively nice Swiss wind-up, but sometimes he lost track of time on his trips, and if he forgot to wind his watch he wouldn’t know what time it was to catch his flight or make it off the ski slopes in time for happy hour. The Rolex had been a splurge for him, purchased from a reputable jeweler, and he knew nothing about its history; but, he knew discrete, unostentatious quality when he saw and felt it, and he noticed the difference in the Oyster Perpetual’s second hand compared to quartz watches, and he felt that he had achieved the American Dream and could afford a few luxuries. He and Auntie Lo had tried to have children for years, and had decided to accept what was and to embrace life as best they could. He could splurge on a Rolex, and no one would miss anything because of it. And they could buy the best bottles of Scotch and spend money on dinners at the Sherwood Country Club.
“You can’t take it with you!” He’d always say. “When I die,” he said on his deathbed, as I held his hand and tried to keep his watch moving every now and then, “Donate my body to science so that doctors can learn and others may live.”
“But,” he said a few times, smiling and joking, even at the end, “Rent a hearse and a U-Haul and drive it around the neighborhood for my funeral, so that people will say that you can, in fact, take everything with you.” He fell into a coma soon after that, and for two weeks the only thing moving were his lips as he alternated speaking in English, French, and Latin; and a few of his fingers that clenched his watch and kept it moving, as best he could.
I don’t know why I picked up his watch and put it in my backpack, but I did, and I had it with me when Hope and I walked into Just in Time.
“Hey, there, J!” Moe said.
Hope looked up at us, perplexed, and said she thought we were going to see Justin; Moe and I laughed, and they chatted a bit.
He replaced the thick, corregated divers band on my Seiko; the corregation helps it dry out after a dive, and keeps your wrist cooler than a thick plastic strap would.
Hope walked up and down the small, barely 6 foot wide strip of store front and 20 foot deep display case, fascinated by all the watches and mesmerized by the constant, off frequency ticking of many small quartz crystals and second hands moving to their own beat.
I took out Uncle Bob’s Rolex and asked Moe what he thought.
“Wow! Beautiful. I don’t see many this old any more. It’s a classic.”
I asked if he could fix it, and, out of habit from the last time I had asked someone that, almost 25 years ago. Back then, it would have cost about $600 to ship it to Switzerland for repairs. Parts were cheap, but the number of hours a watchmaker or repairman must spend disassembling and cleaning the tiny, barely perceivable springs and pullies and pendulums cost a lot. Time isn’t free, and it would have cost me a month of my final few college fund checks, almost a month of working as a paramedic, and, at the time, I chose to buy a small diamond ring for Cristi instead.
Moe said, matter of factly and without any arrogance, that he only knew of four people in Southern California who had trained in Switzerland and could work on a watch like that, and that I was lucky, because he was one of them. But, he said, he would have to order a new crystal – really acrylic, he said, which was lighter than crystal and high tech back then – but he could have the watch up and running by the end of the week, and replace the crystal whenever one arrived from his distributor. I said yes, and thanked him for his time, and left with hope to walk through the urban streets of Hillcrest before turning down 6th Ave and strolling home.
We stopped in Balboa Park to toss a Frisbee. The cool breeze went under my new, corregated watch band, and my thoughts wandered back to the dive trips in Cuba and my thoughts on the long airplane ride home, and I felt very, very happy with life. Uncle Bob had always said he tried to live a life without regrets, and I was just beginning to understand what that meant. It was a form of foregiveness, a way to acknowledge that we’re all flawed but can continuously do our best, like his watch continuously moves as long as we maintain a bit of motion. I smiled, realizing that my only regret was not renting a U-Haul and towing it around his neighborhood in hearse.
That would have been funny!
We made it home in time to cook dinner together, and I practiced making some Cuban food I had learned in a cooking class I took, one that had been suggested by my Lonely Planet guide book. It was a good dinner, and I was glad to have tried my best making it.