Monday, November 10, 2008

The Clock Doc Visits

It's a pleasure to watch a master-craftsman at work. Due to the inclemencies of our remodel job down in Laguna Beach, two of our treasured clocks--heirlooms from both sides of the family--had gone on the blink. One was the substantial mission-style American Seth Thomas, wall clock reliable and plain, which had hung for years in Ellie's mother's ceramic studio and before that on the wall of her grandfather's business office back east in New Jersey. It had ticked away solidly on our dining room wall at the beach for the previous fifteen years.

The second was my own "nursery clock," a lovely French piece with a classic, hand-painted face and an oak body with art-nouveau style inlay in various different woods. Its mellow strike sounding out in our little cottage here in Southern California was an immediate--and improbable!--reminder of my earliest days in the big old Victorian rectory in the village of Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire, some sixty miles north of London, where I grew up. Looking out across the valley from the windows, we could see the distant chimneys of the brickworks near the county town of Bedford; and, during the war years, the beams of searchlights catching the undersides of the fleets of barrage balloons and, sometimes, the bellies of squadrons of warplanes below the clouds.

(I realize now, too late, that I should have taken a picture of each of these two clocks, so that I would have something other than words to describe them! I am so foolish about such things...)

Anyway, we had taken special care to pack these treasures away from the perils of construction jolting and dust. However, quite naturally upset by the chaos around them, both had gone on strike and refused to be coaxed back into normal operation. (Truth to tell, the temperamental French nursery clock had been giving us trouble for some time before.) Last week, in the process of getting the cottage back to habitable condition, we turned to the Yellow Pages for help, and came upon The Clock Doc. He arrived yesterday, Sunday, for a house call, and set to work first on the Seth Thomas.

No major problem there, it turned out. It was largely a matter of oiling, cleaning, and getting things back in balance. Never having seen the works of either clock before, I was impressed by the sturdy brass construction of all the moving parts of the Seth Thomas, the precision of their interaction. It looked, well... American--in the best sense of that word. Practical, unpretentious, well-constructed, honest, hard-working.

The French job was fancier, more intricate--and far more temperamental. The works were smaller, of course, and more delicate. At least two clock people have worked on it in recent years, in the attempt to bring it back to reliable functioning. Both had some measure of success, but each time the clock reverted to its diva-esque refusal to perform as it was supposed to. I watched with admiration as Jordan, the Clock Doc, took it apart and examined piece by piece

with a critical eye before muttering finally, with a certain satisfaction, "Ah, there's your problem."

The problem--and it turned out that he had identified it correctly--was that a single tiny hole in the brass that allowed one of the wheels to spin had previously been replaced with one that was fractionally too tight, with none of the play that the cog apparently needed to function properly. Jordan worked at it with a tool to widen the hole slightly...

... then oiled the works and put the whole thing back together. (I was reminded of the old joke about the man who took his watch apart, then re-assembled it and proudly announced that he had enough parts left over to make another one.) When that was done, there was a further hitch in getting the strike to co-ordinate correctly with the time--another problem that was dispatched with patience, confidence, and the sure hand of an expert. And a bonus: my ear had picked up a metallic edge to the once mellifluous sound of the hourly and half-hourly strike, and our clock doc was able to make a slight adjustment to the striker which brought it back to its original gentle gong.

As I started out saying, it was a pleasure to sit and watch Jordan work. Mass production has done much to deprive our contemporary world of the need for true craftsmanship. This work was more than simple mechanics: Jordan brought to it a very human sense of touch and an attentive ear to the task, along with his sharp eye and finely-tuned intelligence. Like all good doctors, he's as much an artist as a technician. If there's anyone out there in need of a person with these skills, please feel free to be in touch!


Tom said...

A wonderful post. For some reason [WHAT, exactly, I dunno] I find it deliciously Buddhisty to have keen expertise in one rather-narrow field or corner of a wider field. An interest in something fine-tuned makes one a conquerer, a knower of the small details.

One you know SOME small details, you appreciate "the small," the grains of sand, the differences in clouds.

It seems to me there would have to be wisps of Buddhism about The Clock Doc

PeterAtLarge said...

Hello, Tom. Thanks for stopping by with a comment. And yes: you say perfectly exactly what I was thinking as I wrote the piece.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

This reminds me of the enormous and comforting pleasure of watching a piano tuner at work.

My parents had a friend who owned several grandfather and grandmother clocks and had them all set to go off at 10:00 p.m, 10:05, 10:10, and so on until all their dinner guests had left. If guests were so obtuse as to stay through the constant chiming, he simply retired upstairs and left his wife to deal with the clods.

PeterAtLarge said...

Lovely story! Something to learn from, I think!

They call him James Ure said...

It seems very Zen the whole process indeed. I often wonder if we'd all be better off back in a world where most things are done by hand.

The Industrial Revolution brought us much but it will likely destroy us in the process via global warming and other forms of excessive living.

Oh well. Coming and going, living an dying I guess. :)

roger said...

i love things that can be repaired. and i love repairing things. i have sometimes "repaired" various bits of malfunctioning machinery merely by disassembly and reassembly. of course i do suppose that somewhere in the process i corrected some defect without realizing it, but i feel the invitation to muse that the machine just appreciated some kind attention.

alas, much of the modern world is not repairable.

mandt said...

I've read this essay over several times----it's a delight: beautifully constructed with precise, jeweled gears one driving for another, keeping the time moving in a well told story. Well done. It has an O.Henry quality about it. Peace MandT

PeterAtLarge said...

mandt, thanks for the thoughtful reading. It's a pleasure to be read in this depth--and with this understanding.

roger, we need you now! Check out my entry today (a couple of days later) about our electrical problems. We could use a man who loves to repair things!