My Uncle's Watch
by R.C. Wilson
Eternity is hard to ken and harder still is this:
A human life when truly seen is briefer than a kiss.
--Alicia Carpenter (from a Unitarian hymnal)I am sitting on a basalt outcrop on the edge of Woodlouse Mesa, chewing on the stem-like leaves of Mormon Tea (Ephedra), a natural source of the drug ephedrine. The taste is similar to having your mouth washed out with expensive herbal soap. The drug is a stimulant, so perhaps I reached for it because I have been off coffee this week.
Woodlouse Mesa, north of Flagstaff Arizona, has a population of one this afternoon, not counting jack rabbits and antelope. And since the December sun is setting fast over the San Francisco Peaks (behind me), the population will be dropping fast. The moment, neatly outlined by fading brightness and emerging chill, is what I would have you share with me. I have been seeking, anticipating, yearning, for a free moment for a long time. And now that it surrounds me, I find my hyperactive mind is gobbling it down like a fast food snack. Nothing like sitting on a rock alone on top of the world for emptying out your mental sock drawer.
Part of my problem is that I am so disoriented. I am slow to arrive at new places. A big part of me is still back in Ohio, toiling beneath the low winter sky. Another part of me is ready to keep climbing, on up into the sacred mountains, but that part of me most assuredly does not include my body. My heart is pounding hard from the relatively short climb to the mesa, and the thin air is giving me a headache. Unlike those brave climbers who prepare for months for each ascent, I only decided to come up here this morning-- no time for cross training!
Last summer I had no notion that I would be, the week before Christmas 1997, sitting on a rock in Arizona contemplating eternity. I am a 44 year old father of two, slugging my way through a rather unspectacular career as a federal worker. My children are 18 and 20 years old, and my main focus this decade has been keeping it together at work until they get through college or otherwise achieve independence. Then I want to move back in with my parents and get back to what I was doing before I got married and had children, which come to think of it, was finishing college or otherwise achieving independence. Obviously, the years are taking a toll on my wits.
My son Joe, who is not burned out at all, but so full of youthful enthusiasm that I sometimes want to slap him, got a notion in June that he wanted to drop out of school for a bit and have an archeological adventure. And Joe is one of those people who follows through on his notions, desperately and at the last minute, but follows through none-the-less. He worked as a laborer all summer, too tired each day to plan his adventure, until sometime in August, when we were all convinced he was going to go the way of all slackers, he searched the Internet and found a volunteer assignment at Wupatki National Monument. Over the next few days, he wrote, e-mailed, called, cajoled, and pestered until he had closed the deal. The only catch was he had to have a car, since Wupatki is 40 miles from anywhere.
I am not a man who needs a new car every 4 years, or ever, for that matter. My wife and I have short commutes, and we rely mostly on chance when it comes to driving: as in, "there is a good chance it might start tomorrow", or, "there is a chance someone will park an old car in our driveway and walk away..." Restated, our priorities don't often include high status or even reliable rides. For this reason getting a mother-road-worthy car for our equally vehicularly challenged son in two weeks was a bit of a chore. After rejecting all three available cars, we finally picked one of them anyway; our 1985 Chevy Celebrity. It is a loud car, with a good engine, and so much rust that you could toss a Frisbee clean through it with the windows wound up. Given Joe's lack of long haul driving and emergency repair experience, we had some trepidation about just sending him on his way.
Fortunately for me, the problem offered me a chance to share the adventure and get back in time to my interrupted youth by riding along as mechanic and problem-solver. Admittedly, this was selfish, depriving the lad his own lessons in self reliance, but I felt the vehicle we had selected deserved a multi-generational support team. I even wanted to complete the crew by adding my father, who, at 83, is still the only competent mechanic in the family, but he insisted on a cruise control and a muffler. He did offer to come pick us up, wherever chance left us, and he seemed to have no fears about his ability to make good on the offer, but I'll get back to him in a while. Despite several breakdowns and several classic father-son battles, my son and I managed to bond closely enough in our 2000 mile weekend that I have missed him terribly all through the fall....
Now , three months later, I find my services are again needed, and this time for a week in December. The car is again in need of healing, and the oncoming winter in the southern Rockies has supplied a new blast of trepidation.
* * *
I am sitting on a basalt outcrop resting after a day of housework. Tomorrow, Joe is moving out of his apartment of 3 months, and I am cleaning for the official park service inspection. Ironically enough, my own federal work space back in Ohio needs a similar cleanup. I am playing hooky with this midwinter's leave to the extent that I may flunk my own inspection while passing Joe's. This possibility has not stopped me from enjoying the flow of the housework, the different sense of time it gives me to work without interruption. My normal workday is one long series of interruptions, one inside of another like Chinese boxes. Every day ends with the questions "Where was I?" , "What was I thinking?", and "What did I forget to do?"
When Joe was 5 years old we moved from California to Ohio. His mother and sister flew ahead to find the new house, and Joe and I stayed at the old place to clean up and supervise the move. 16 years have slipped by, and I don't believe we have spent a whole week together, just the two of us, in all those intervening years. The feelings, while cleaning out an apartment in a dry and sunny climate, while ending one time of life and starting another, are hauntingly familiar. My son is out counting artifacts, and I'm cleaning up his toenails, and I'm having more fun than he is; my day of domestic responsibility in a lifetime of domestic irresponsibility. It is the way of such moments, real rest stops for the weary time traveler. Time is on my mind on this rock.
Our laundry is tumbling in a dryer at the foot of the mesa. I set it for 60 minutes. The ruin in front of Joe's apartment, once a house with one hundred rooms, was abandoned 800 years ago. The row of apartments, built in the 1960's by the look of them, have been occupied and abandoned by many other volunteers, each with an epic tale to tell as worthy as this one. And as I gaze over 50 uninhabited square miles of Mother Earth I can see the signatures of Father Time, of volcanic eruptions and meteor collisions, the birth of mountains and the death of mountains, and even the long slow dance of the continents. If I had thought to drag a geology professor up here, I could have covered a quick semester while the clothes dried. But the chance to cram more facts into my head is not what I want from this perch. I want to fly.
As the sun falls lower, the red rocks of the ruins come to life like dreams of the earth, and working up here, alone with my tablet, is a kind of dream-time for me. In the front of my brain, I play with my little domestic itinerary: 1.) Come down from mountain and empty dryer. 2) Get out tortilla's and start rolling dinner.... 3) Put out old clothes for repairing the exhaust manifold.... While in the back of my mind sits "He Who Is At Home on the Mountain", a patient inner voice who has been waiting for years to get me up here. He Who Is At Home on the Mountain is helping me gaze over my life. He starts preaching to me: "the body takes one journey, and the soul takes another--- wherever the journeys cross is holy communion, the state of grace, the eternal tea party..."
But then the little dryer buzzer of the mind goes off, the sun sets, the coyote slinks away, and I must save my writing for the next free moment..
* * *
Some of the credit for this little bubble in the onslaught of time goes to my uncle's old watch. If the clock oppresses the worker, then my uncle's old watch is a liberator. It's a Bulova, with an ordinary stretch band. On the back, is an inscription identifying it as the Journalism Award from Loyola (of New Orleans) University, 1942. My aunt gave it to me after he died, and I have worn it since then as a reminder of him, and of my other connections to 1942 and earlier, my windows to the past. I also wear it because I enjoy winding it and living with its eccentricities. Like an old car, it is fundamentally understandable. With a magnifying glass you can discern each spring and gear, each tick and tock, and yet still appreciate the centuries it took to perfect the idea, the evolution of precision. Next to the 1000 year old marvel of mechanical clockwork, the electric molecular pendulum in quartz crystals requires a certain leap of faith for most of us. Yet these ugly little tick-less digital doodads conquered the mechanical clockwork in less than half a generation. They are way too precise for me. I like knowing my watch won't run if I forget to wind it. I like the ticking of my watch. It reassures me when it runs, and it sends me into a spin when it doesn't.
Sometimes my uncle's watch keeps its own time and I go along for the ride. I catch the stem on my sweater and it jumps ahead an hour or two, then falls behind until I remember to push in the stem. Sometimes it stops for an hour, until I coax it back to ticking. Sometimes I take the back off and stare real hard at the motionless gears until they flutter back to life. That's the way with old mechanical devices, everything works but with a wee bit of chaos thrown in for good measure.
The day I arrived at my son's apartment-on-the-edge-of-forever, the watch really stopped.
I cannot honestly say that my first reaction was to recognize the blessing in a stopped watch. I spent two or three hours trying to get it going. I shook it gently. I shook it hard. I dropped it. I swung it. I rocked it. I swore at it. I resented it. I felt hurt by it. I felt crippled at the sudden loss of relative time. My son had no clocks that I could see without crawling under his bed, and he was out in the desert somewhere, staring at ancient artifacts, probably not even using the digital watch on his wrist, and I was home at the volcanic cinder pile with only the sun and passing tourists to help me divide my busy day.
At first, like a child, I attempted to pretend my way back into the clock driven world. Every time I found out the time, I would reset my stopped watch to the right time, which allowed me to glance at my wrist and say to myself "it is no earlier than noon...or one...or whatever..." But somewhere in the back of my mind a still small voice would say, "you idiot, you already know that its later than the last time you checked and you don't need to look at the watch..." So, to appease the, "you idiot" voice within me, I started setting the stopped watch a few hours ahead, thus extending its approximate accuracy. The experience remained less than satisfactory. So finally, and sadly, I took off my watch of the past few years and put it on the scarred coffee table next to the guitar picks, post cards, pocket notes, and other flotsam of my son's life. For a while I was really bummed, to the point of almost driving 40 miles to Flagstaff to buy a digital watch at the K-mart.
But after doing nothing for an indeterminate amount of time, a peaceful feeling came over me. Deprived of a clock, I found a completely different day stretching before me. Instead of figuring I had until noon to fix the car for our long drive to Ohio, I just fixed the car. The day, and the week became a series of discrete tasks, to be contemplated, undertaken, and released, like a series of trapped birds. No phone, no TV, no clock.... Its like giving up smoking....ultimately rewarding. It reminds me of my job as a disability interviewer. I am often struck by the absence of time in the lives of the illiterate. "When were you at the mental hospital?" "It was either last week or five years ago, I can't remember which..." (The underrated wisdom of illiteracy...)
And so my timeless week has gone, each day a relaxing chain of puzzles from breakfast to dinner. It reminds me of my girlfriend in 1972 who practiced transcendental meditation. At the time I mocked her as a faddist. Now I could see what she was after; islands in the sea of time.
If unhitching the clock from my metabolism so that I could stop feeling so stressed were all there was to it, I guess my story would be over, but it is the subsequent feelings I really want to talk about. One of those feelings is surprise at the depth of my love for my son. When you are living a life of duty, it is almost easier to stop feeling anything than it is to feel constantly bad about what you could be experiencing-- feeling nothing as a way of protecting yourself from self pity. But of course, you can't pick and choose. The good feelings get thrown out with the bad. So a lot of what I feel here in the middle of nowhere are regrets at missing so much. But I also feel the spreading grace, the inner voice that says, "underneath it all, your life flows on like an underground river, with deep pools of love and wonder...."
* * *
But none of this is new... Escaping the prison of time soon illuminates another personal past, not at all depressed. In this past, there were many little journey's out of the rat race.. Call them poems, call them love affairs, call them walks in the woods, or shots of Irish whiskey. The "life of duty" is itself a mirage, covering all the ways we breadwinners have, consciously or unconsciously, to "step out" for a moment... For my own father when he was the age I am now, I wonder if it wasn't handball....
Even with the responsibilities of providing for 10 children, he managed to work in handball with his brothers at the old Jewish center on Balch St. in Akron, Oh. My uncle the priest, my uncle the plumber, my uncle the salesman, and dad, whacking a little black ball around a white room. The wonderful timelessness of athletic competition comes from its peculiar nature. There is no past or future, only a spinning black ball to capture your concentration, your whole being. You dive, you scoop, and the ball flies, all in the incredibly alive present. What a feeling!
For my mother, perhaps it is music.. In her seventies, even after several rounds of carpel tunnel surgery and with hands that can't buckle the seat belt, she keeps on playing her piano, from Bach to The Basin St. Blues. All our rules of time are suspended for music, which exist by and in its own time, the time of its creation by the composer, and the time of its recreation by the musician, even on to the suspension of time for some willing listeners. Hours become minutes when you lose yourself in a musical instrument.
Once, when I was a college student, I mixed these two miracles with disastrous results. I had been playing handball at the old gym in Kent for several months. There were only a few courts at that time, so reservations were hard to come by. I invited my father, then still up to his neck in his career, to meet me for a game. I was so excited. I ached to be playing, but the court wasn't reserved for another two hours. So I picked up my banjo to pass the time. I started working out a tune, and practiced it for what felt like 10 or 15 minutes, but when I looked at the clock, 2 hours had gone by!
I raced to the gym to find my father justifiably furious. It was too late to play. I was too embarrassed to tell him that I had been lost in a tune, lost in a sunny melody constructed of my desire to be with him. We stopped meeting for handball. Many years have past. But I still wonder at the strange mixture in my soul of my mother's piano and my fathers old handball gloves.
* * *
My son seemed almost as eager to get me out working in the ruins this week as I was to get my dad onto the handball court. As I have mentioned, he has a way of making things happen, just in time. So just in time, he got the paperwork together to have me registered with the park system as "volunteer for a day," with all the responsibilities and privileges afforded that auspicious rank (uniform not included)...We had an early breakfast and headed off to the visitors center at 8:00 sharp, according to Joe's highly accurate watch.
At first the day fizzled, since we had to wait a few hours for the decidedly less timely archeologist to arrive. Fortunately, there was no banjo at the visitor's center, or I might well have ruined another great day. I passed the time in the museum, "boning up" on the ancient Arizonans whose houses we were about to visit. Finally, a dusty white truck pulled up with the great seal of Northern Arizona University on the door. In a short while, we were climbing through a barbed wire fence and hiking out into the high desert to search for archeological sites.
We were not on a mission of discovery so much as rediscovery. Our job for the day was to find previously identified and described sites, photograph them, and compare them to the way they had appeared 10 or more years ago, when another team had visited them. Our leader, Craig, had a grant from the park service to study the impact of people, plants and animals on the many sites within the monument lands. The park service was trying to solve the basic political riddle of its existence: How to make our precious resources available to us and at the same time protect them from us. A park cannot exist without funding. Parks that allow no visitors get no funds. But parks that allow visitors to do as they please, and take home little pieces of the ancient world to put on the coffee table, eventually have nothing left to attract visitors and lose the battle for funding. Unlike shells on the beach, arrowheads and ancient potsherds are not a renewable resource.
Wupatki has thousands of archeological sites, numbered and scattered across 50 square miles, most of them off limits to the public. The ones we were looking for were not the big showy ones that collectors are likely to sneak into. In fact, without the help of Craig and Joe I would not have recognized the little rocky patches as archeological, but after a few lessons, I began to enjoy the hunt thoroughly. The old maps we were following aren't very accurate, and there were very few easy landmarks, so each time we set out in a new direction we would fan out like the rays of a searchlight, until one of us would shout when he found something promising. Once we had found the metal survey stake that told us whether we had found the correct site, Craig went to work with his camera, and set us to work searching the ground for a list of previously identified artifacts : "several Little Colorado Black-on-White potsherds, half of a sandstone plow, one fine grained basalt mano, one wall of a structure heavily impacted by a badger hole...." In college I trained for a scientific career that never quite happened, and so I was not unfamiliar with data collecting. Good basic science requires more patience than most people have, plus a lot of faith that your approach will be fruitful, that what your doing will show something and advance the general understanding. At the same time, and despite the potential for tedium, research can put you in places like this, seeing things few people get to see. I found myself wondering if Joe was more attracted to the science or the exotic locale. From time to time, I played the devil's advocate as only a father can, testing Joe with dumb lay person questions about whether it was all worth it. His answers were spirited and passionate. He refused to separate the method from the moment. He has embraced the process and given himself to it with a kind of idealism I remember in myself like the first time I tasted wild strawberries.
But there was little time for testing each other, and we were separated as much as we were together, each of us with his own search area to cover. Walking without trails is tricky. If you look up too much, you will break your leg in an animal burrow or walk through a patch of beautiful-but-deadly cholla cactus, and if you look down too much, you lose your bearings or miss finding another site. The slow rhythm of walking, glancing down for cactus and tiny artifacts, then up for mountains and distant landscape patterns, is strangely relaxing. It engages you in the endless present, a little like athletic competition does, but it also tunes you to the quiet music of the desert. I began to understand that my son has found a life here, however temporary, as important to him as all my youthful passions were to me. And with that recognition, like a weight lifting from me, came a sense of my own equality with my father. Not equal experience, for I can claim nothing in my life to equal the Depression, World War II, or having 10 children, but a life equally valid, equally real, equally unreal.
A son to a father is double-cursed, with being too much like the father and not enough like him. Every awkward phrase or step reminds us of what we don't want to be reminded in ourselves. At the same time, our egos demand, on some level, that the child complete and extend us, and when they turn out to be a poor fit, that also is hard to swallow. A father to a son is shrouded in mystery. He goes back in his memory to people and places we can never see. He begins as a giant and gradually shrinks throughout our lives, and yet somehow stays large. So, considering the difficult roles our species and culture have selected for us, it feels pretty good to find a moment when the playing field looks level. It is even worth driving to Arizona for.
As the day went on, I felt less and less like a civil service burn-out, and more like disembodied consciousness. A week ago, when I left Ohio, it felt as if the sun had not shone for months. Cleveland was an oppressive gray place when I got to the airport, almost too dark to read. But then the jet took off and took us up through the clouds to another world, only a few thousand feet above Cleveland, of bright blue sky over a vast and uninhabited white plain. Looking out the window as we climbed, I felt that age-old hunger to walk on the clouds. And now, here in the Arizona high country, I was able to do it. There was a high western sky, and soft green clouds of sage and rabbit brush and ageless juniper, as far as I could see. And hidden among these clouds were the tumbled walls of a tiny field house, built about the time of William the Conqueror, so that some kid would have a place to hang out and keep the ravens from the corn.
Sitting on yet another basalt outcrop, taking a late afternoon break, I listened to Joe and the others talk about what this plain was like 800 years ago. Craig summed it up; "These people were not that different from us, or from the Europeans of the same era. Look at England at 1100 AD, and you'll find stone buildings like these, plows not much better than these, crops no more nourishing than these. They came here when the soil was fertile, after the volcano, stayed for a century, and moved for better farm land. Not a bad survival plan for a desert civilization..." I found myself in awe of them, and a little sad for them. A century of toil and all that is left now is a few piles of rocks and a scattering of broken pottery. In another 20 years Joe can add his time line to mine and grandpa's and he'll have a 100 year period, our family's migration to and occupation of northern Ohio.
As I watched my son on his last day of data collection before our trip home, I found myself seeing all of us at this magic age of 20: Joe finding his place in the world of archeology, me with my society of poets and anti-war activists, my uncle getting his prize watch in New Orleans and coming home to write for the Beacon Journal, and my dad, facing the great depression without a nickel, but still determined to become an engineer, and even this guy guarding the corn crop back around the first millennium.... Each of us seeing our lives stretch out into a limitless future, each of us passionate and eager to become, each of us living lives briefer than a kiss, and yet living them with utter confidence that the world was born for us, for our age, for our dreams. Each of us plodding through our busy days by the shadows of some great Anasazi sundial, or the ticking of the church clock, the bosses watch, or a silent digital blink on the bottom of a computer screen....And yet all of us bound together in the eternity of a moment. Maybe God's time is all in the present, and we all live here always, and the rat race and the ravages of aging are part of the grand illusion necessary to keep the universe expanding.
* * *
It is our last night at Wupatki, and we are going to Flagstaff. We are going bowling. We are visiting every favorite place Joe has, and hugging all his friends from the past few months, one more time. We are driving up and down the Main Drag. We are buying extra duct tape and muffler putty. We are Christmas shopping at the best used bookstore west of the Mississippi and east of Berkeley, CA. We are having coffee at a way-too-cool coffee house next to the youth hostel. We are buying cheese and crackers and fruit for the road. And at the last minute, we will forget to buy another watch.
* * *
You probably have guessed, and are perhaps a little incredulous, but the watch really started again, right on schedule, while we were carrying the last of our stuff to the car. The apartment passed muster. The trunk is wired shut and the back seat piled high. The leftover provisions have been passed out among the other Wupatki folk. The hour of departure is ticking away. I am once again comfortable with time on my wrist, ready to rejoin my lifeline, body and soul. Rt. 66 is waiting for us in vintage black and white. I will write to you again from New Mexico, or perhaps the Texas panhandle-- central time, if my watch doesn't stop.
Copyright © 2000, by RC Wilson
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