My Magical Watch

(I was asked to write a true Urban Fantasy story. This might border more on magical realism, but here it is…)

I confess that I don’t put much stock in ghost stories or psychic events, but on the other hand, I can’t tell someone that they did not actually experience what they remember experiencing. After all, I’m not the one who was there. With that in mind, let me tell you about a wristwatch of mine that seemed to know more about how to live life than I did.

It was an unassuming little thing, an analog wristwatch with a small digital inset. I’d had it for years, and the gold-plating on the wristband had faded to a dull yellow. I would have replaced it long before, except for the fact that it was thin and lightweight, and the trend for men’s wristwatches had moved towards bulky anchors. Those factors combined to make the watch literally irreplaceable. So I was that much more annoyed when it started acting funny.

You see, sometimes, it would simply stop. The hands would freeze in place, and the digital portion would go blank.

My first thought was that the battery was dead, but before I could take it down to Walmart to get a fresh battery installed, it started working again. So I reset the time and continued on my way. But then it would stop again, and after a day or so, it would restart. After a few months of this I began to notice a pattern.

It only stopped on the weekends.

Being something of a scientist, I began to sniff around for rational explanations. Texas is hot from April to October, and I was frequently outside in the yard working up a sweat on the weekends. Sometimes I was mowing the lawn with plenty of vibrations coming up through my hands from the mower. That had to be it, right? Or could it be the heat and humidity? That made sense. So I stopped wearing it while doing yardwork, but even then, it would still sometimes stop on the weekend.

Well, that wasn’t not so bad. The weekend is a time to relax. As my wife put it, I don’t really need to worry about time on the weekends. She suggested that perhaps my watch was trying to tell me not to worry about the time when I should be relaxing and enjoying life instead.

While I admitted that it was indeed a good time to be relaxing, I wasn’t ready to buy into any magical watch theories. I replaced the battery, but it still kept quitting on the occasional weekend. I took it to a jeweler to be repaired, and he suggested that the spring holding the battery in place was simply loose and needed to be tightened. That sounded like a good rational explanation, so I had him do that.

It didn’t make a difference. It quit on me the very next weekend, and what’s more, it started quitting on me when I went camping. I was doing two or three weekend campouts a year in Central Texas back then, and sure enough, within an hour of arriving at the campsite, the watch would quit on me. That was fine. It was a relaxing campout. I shouldn’t be worried about time anyway, so I left it in the car. Invariably, it would start working again on the drive home. Still, my rational mind was satisfied with the heat and humidity explanation.

Then it went missing.

I was on a business trip to SIGGraph. I was working at Autodesk at the time, and every other year I went to this conference that was half technical folks and half graphical artists. I could attend a presentation on vector compression and walk across the hall to see interactive, three-dimensional art. For someone like me who was equal parts math-geek and visual artist, it should have been more of a vacation than a business trip. But this time, early on the first day, I noticed that my watch was no longer on my wrist.

I had been checking email on my laptop earlier in the day, and I tend to take my watch off when I’m typing. To keep track of it, I would usually set it on the open laptop so that I would be forced to put it back on before closing up. Maybe I did something different that time. Maybe I set it on the table. Maybe I tried to put it in a pocket and missed. Or maybe the watch just made a jump for it.

I stopped by the show’s administrative office and registered it with their lost and found, but then I put it out of my mind and stopped worrying about the time. I stayed out late. I ate dinner with random people I had met at the conference. I ran into one of our executives and invited him to join me and some of my coworkers for lunch. I wandered the halls and found parts of the show I had never known existed. Sure, I missed a few presentations that I had circled in the program book, but I enjoyed that show more than any other SIGGraph before or since.

I stopped by the admin office each morning, but they never had the watch, nor did they ever call. I checked out of my hotel the last day, made one last sweep through the trade show floor, and finally started thinking about time again. I found myself looking at the clocks in the building, aware that I would have to leave soon to catch my flight home. Then, as my last stop before heading out to the taxi stands, I went to the admin office one last time. Sure enough, someone had turned in my watch mere moments before. It was still working, showing me the correct date and time. It seemed like it was taunting me for not believing in it.

I was a lot more forgiving of its idiosyncrasies after that. When it stopped on the weekend or on a camping trip, I merely set it aside for a few days and picked it up when it was time to start moving again. We had reached an understanding of sorts, and I was happy to let that go on for another year or so.

Then my dad got sick. It was cancer. He battled it out for two years, and I made a few trips out to visit him in the dry Arizona desert, sometimes even stopping off for a day going to or from my job in California. Sure enough, on every visit, my watch stopped working. I didn’t worry about the time. Instead I savored it. Those moments were both fleeting and priceless.

Eventually, my father lost his battle with cancer. I was back home when it happened. It was a Monday afternoon in August. I sat down that evening at my computer, laid my watch across the top of the keyboard, and wrote a blog post that eventually became his eulogy. The watch stopped fifteen minutes after I posted that entry.

The watch never started again. It’s been almost eight years, and it still sits frozen on my desk. I have bought other watches since then, but I never made another attempt to revive that one.

So that’s the true story of my magical watch. I remain a scientist at heart, but I can offer no rational explanation for the many coincidences I had with that watch. Instead, I am left only with the lesson it taught me. Don’t worry about the time. Treasure it.

Neil Armstrong

Most of you probably know by now that Neil Armstrong died a few days ago. He was the first person to set foot on the moon, and he was in some ways made immortal by his words, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

I was not quite two when he landed, and I’m told I was awake and watching when it happened, but I have no memory of it. Certainly, though, I grew up in a world where man had walked on the moon, and the next steps beyond seemed imminent. But they never came.

I was going to write a rather sad piece about that lost opportunity, about how in some ways we’ve squandered the last forty years, but I did not want to disrespect those who have given their last measure of devotion to space exploration in that time. John Scalzi managed to walk that fine line better than I could have, so I’ll point you to his remarks.

However, I would like to add one more thing. Neil Armstrong was an engineer. Yes, he was a damned fine pilot, but he also had a degree in aeronautical engineering. He always said he was a nerd, and that all of his NASA accomplishments came from the efforts of other nerds like himself.

My father was one of those nerds, and electrical engineer. He was working at Collins Radio, and they got part of the contract for the Apollo communication system. The piece he designed did not actually go into space. In fact, it wasn’t even part of the groundside receiving system. Instead, it was one of the components that carried the signals between the groundside antennas and mission control.

It was a small part in a piece you might not consider terribly significant, but still, Neil Armstrong’s one small step arrived to the rest of us because my dad did his small part, just like so many others. While Neil provided the step, I think he understood that it was all those nerds who had provided the giant leap.

My Father’s Car

I’ve been driving my father’s care lately. Technically it belongs to my mother, and I’m the one who bought it, but to me, it will always be my father’s car. To explain why that is, I have to go back over forty years and talk about another car entirely.

I’m a little fuzzy on the date, but it would have been late 1970 or early 1971, and Dad’s old Dodge Rambler was ready to be taken out back and shot. Dad decided to give GM a shot, and we all went down to the Chevy dealer. I was only three, but I remember the trip.

Mostly, I remember sitting in the back seat of a few different cars. One in particular stood out because the seats were upholstered with white synthetic fur. Come on, fur? Who puts kids in a car with white fur? Maybe someone with a cleaning fetish, but not my father.

In the end, he settled on a 1971 Chevy Impala. It was gold, and it quickly became known as Goldie in our house. Ironically, the white car was never Whitey, but that was probably a sign of the times. But good old Goldie became not only dad’s commuting car, but we also took it on a number of vacations. It eventually gave up the vacation role to a 1976 Chevy Impala with a trailer hitch, but it remained his main commuting vehicle for more than twenty years.

In the 80’s, he bought me my first car, a used 1972 Chevy Impala. It was almost the same as his, except that mine was what they call a “hardtop”. For you classic car aficionados, no it was not the two-door collectible version, but rather the four-door. It ran well, and it had the same bit 350 cubic inch V8 that Dad’s had.

I have fond memories of that car, and I often thought it was neat… you know, me and Dad in our big roadsters. You didn’t so much drive them as you sailed them. The ride was that smooth. You didn’t feel speedbumps so much as you heard them.

But in 1995, Mom got a new car, a police package 1995 Chevy Caprice. It was in many ways the proper heir of the old 1970’s Impala. The smaller, underpowered (but more fuel efficient) Caprice of the 1980’s had been stretched, given a bigger engine, and the police package made it a peppy little car. It had the Corvette’s LT1 engine (again, a 350-V8 descendant), and the cam shaft was geared for high torque. While nothing compared to modern sports cars, it had a very respectable 0 to 60 time of 7.1 seconds.

But it had the nice, new interior, so it became Mom’s car while Dad was relegated to her old 1986 Caprice with the smaller engine. Yes, it could go nearly 600 miles on a tank of gas, but I could tell that at some level, Dad felt he’d been relegated to the kid car. He tried to hang on to old Goldie for another year, but it was old, faded, and according to Mom, “just plain ugly”. So he had to get rid of it.

I didn’t want to see him have to hand it off to the junkyard, so I bought it from him for about $200. I managed to keep it going for another year, but when the transmission went, I decided it was time to junk it. Dad understood, and I think that year had given him enough time and distance to let it go.

But he was still in that underpowered 1986 Caprice. He said he wished that he had bought a second Caprice like Mom’s, but 1996 was the last model year, and by the time he realized it, it was too late. Notably, the famed Impala SS of the 90’s was essentially the Caprice police package with a few styling changes and a slightly different suspension. The trend in the 1990’s was away from four-door sedans and towards the larger SUV’s, so the Caprice production died off early in 1996.

By now, my 1972 Impala was on its second engine and its third transmission and was showing its age. I wasn’t ready to let it go quite yet, but I decided it was time to get something newer, and I also bemoaned the untimely demise of the big Chevy Caprice. But then I noticed that they were still in steady use by police departments, and a vague memory that they retired them after a certain number of miles.

What began as a research project eventually led me to the quarterly auction of Texas’s Department of Transportation. I bought myself a 1994 Caprice in the spring of 1996, a retired DPS patrol car. It had 92,000 miles on it, but it had been expertly maintained. My research on the vehicles ahead of time let me avoid any with collisions or persistent problems. It was very bare bones, exactly like you’d expect a police car to be, but it made a great civilian car. There was that one time the mechanic found some shell casings rattling around under the hood, but that’s another story.

Eventually, I got one for my wife, and my brother came down to get one himself. Then, finally in the fall of 1998, I bought one of the last 1996’s for my father. You don’t get them in the original black and white trim. They repaint them in a solid color before putting them up for auction. This one was gold, so once again, Dad had Goldie.

He was grinning ear to ear when I presented it to him. He knew, of course, that it was in the works, but I hadn’t told him the color until he came to town to pick it up. It was smooth, roomy, and peppy — everything he had been missing from his old Goldie.

I was a little disappointed at first to discover that he was mostly keeping it in the garage while continuing to drive the old 1986 Caprice to work, but then he explained. He wanted to drive the old one into the ground, while preserving the newer one for his retirement. He still took it out and drove it for pleasure on the weekends, but he kept it otherwise pristine.

Alas, that retirement never really came. In 2003 he was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and while he got some use of it that year, his health deteriorated to the point that he could no longer safely drive.

He died seven years ago today. The car had only had another fifteen thousand miles put on it.

Eventually, Mom moved that car down to Austin so that she could have a car here when she flew in for visits. It’s technically her car at this point, but I still drive it every now and then to keep it shape.

But now all the others are dead or dying. The engine block cracked on my wife’s car two years ago. My brother’s died a few months later. In the last year, mine has started having transmission problems, and I’m still debating whether to repair it or let it go.

With that, I guess I decided it was time to pull Goldie out of reserve. Even without as many miles, it’s showing its age. So I’ve been driving it.  In some ways, it’s my last physical connection to my father, and if I could, I would try to keep it forever.

But time passes, and no matter how much these things may recall your youth and the things you’ve lost, they won’t last forever. Enjoy them now, while you still can.