Twice I tried to have it fixed, once by a jeweler, who gave up, and once by the people at Timex, who shipped it back to me with a bright orange sticker stamped “Unrepairable.”
My grandmother, Lena, gave it to me in 1986, shortly after Harry’s funeral.
If you’d known Harry, you might find a watch an unlikely keepsake. He wasn’t the sort to wear jewelry. He was a lifelong farmer. He lived in overalls and steel-toed boots. Neither would you say he was a man obsessed with time, or one who would fuss over schedules or promptness. I mostly remember seeing the watch on a side table with his wallet and keys as he settled into his chair to fire up a bowl of pipe tobacco. Velvet pipe tobacco. Sun-ripened Kentucky burley. America’s Smoothest Smoke it said on the red tin.
I had the watch out of the box because I’d been thinking about Harry, and his uncanny ability to wake up on the right side of the bed. If there were a way to bottle it, many of the world’s ills would vanish overnight.
Harry Spearman made his own fun. I don’t mean he made the best of things, and I don’t mean he saw the glass half full. Making one’s own fun is operating at an entirely different level. A lost art, really. He just always seemed happy, joyful even. No matter where he was or what he was doing. When I was a little kid, I never gave it a thought, it was what he did.
But I began to notice that when people realized I was Harry’s grandson, they would invariably pause, and then say something like “Oh, Harry. He’s funny– A real joker. Did you know that?” More often it was just a grin, followed by “That Harry.”
If you greeted him on the street, he was never “fine” or “well” or even “great.” He was “Top Shelf.” In Harry’s day, and mine, Top Shelf referred to the space behind the bar reserved for the good stuff, the single malts, the aged brandies, the triple-distilled.
It was always a pleasure to be around Harry, like sipping the very best oak barrel, small-batch bourbon.
Years ago my father gave me an old family photo. It looks to have been snapped at a reunion or picnic. Harry and Lena are at each other’s side. They’re dressed up; Harry sports a jacket and tie and tweed cap. My Aunt Louise, a toddler in white frock; and my father, Robert, a handsome six-year-old in shorts and sweater, stand at their feet.
Other relatives and their families are grouped around them. But it is Harry and his broad smile that stand out. The year of the photo is scribbled in the margin, 1934, the height of the Depression. Unemployment was 22 percent. In a few short years, Harry and Lena would have two more sons and two more mouths to feed. Yet here he is, smiling, as if the future were so bright you had to wear shades.
I never heard Harry complain, or say a negative word about anyone or anything beyond mild and fleeting annoyance. I’m sure he did; we all do, but I never saw it. Not even when my brother started a spectacular fire mere steps from Harry’s farmhouse using only a magnifying glass and a dead tree stump. The sole exception may have been when a local shop demanded the princely sum of $25 to install side boards on his ’56 Chevy pickup.
That’s not to say he was reticent with opinions. Before I was born, my family lived in central Montana. Harry didn’t care for the arid climate of the northern Great Plains. Of the region in general, he would say only that “It is so dry, you have to be primed to spit.”
Harry’s 107-acre farm was just outside of town. We visited every Sunday. He taught me to drive a tractor and a manual-shift three-speed truck. When working a tractor all day, check the oil once in the morning and again at noon, he cautioned. And manual chokes are the way to go. A vehicle with a manual choke will never stall on you. Not one time.
He loved Sunday drives. One spring weekend when I was 11 or 12, I stayed with Harry and Lena while my parents were out of town. He said the three of us should go for a ride, maybe grab some lunch. More than 100 miles later, several counties away, just this side of the Ohio River, he’d found the perfect spot. I spent five hours in the backseat of Harry’s Buick that day. But it was all good.
A decade later, on break from college, I found myself stopping by to see if Harry wanted to take a ride in my old MGB convertible, which had just been all fixed up. He was then in his late 70s, but still game for anything, as usual.
He was a good head taller than me, so the MG’s windscreen didn’t offer much protection from the night air. Harry didn’t seem to mind. It was one of those July evenings in the Midwest when the air is thick and still, with just enough humidity to feel the atmosphere around you. We drove around the high school, through the park and the ballfields, along the river. He seemed to love every minute. But like I said, that’s just what he did.
This week I decided to try once more to get Harry’s watch repaired. I’d heard of a small shop that could often fix watches others could not. Many of the online reviews said to stay away. They said things like “The two old dudes who work there are super cranky and will bite your head off if you ask any questions or try to explain anything.”
There were, in fact, two really old dudes running the tiny storefront. A little sign said “Since 1934,” and that seemed a good omen. I did not ask a lot of questions or overexplain. I said simply that the watch had belonged to my grandfather. The older of the two men, whom I took to be Jacob, the proprietor, was practically entombed behind a huge pile of tools, springs, gears and parts. He popped the back off the watch, peered at me over his bifocals. “I will fix this for you.”
I hope so. Maybe Harry’s watch will remind me to try harder to make my own fun. Because remembering him as I write this makes me feel much more than “fine” or “well,” or even “great.”
I am Top Shelf.