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The Things We Carry

Buddy, Can You Spare the Time?

By Tamia Nelson

February 27, 2007

For the last hour or so I've been trying to find the time of day. It's not that I don't have a watch. I do. But finding the time…well, that's turning out to be quite a job. My watch, a Timex® Expedition, is about as simple as watches get nowadays. Still, it's two-faced. (Maybe that should have warned me.) A small window beneath the "classic" dial offers a high-tech alternative to the minute and hour hands — a no-nonsense digital readout. I liked the idea at first. The two displays give me the option of showing two different times. Local time and GMT, for example. Or Daylight Savings Time and Standard Time. And that's just the beginning. My electronic marvel doesn't restrict itself to telling time. What modern watch does? It's also an alarm clock, a stop-watch, a countdown timer, and a calendar. In fact, it's two calendars: I can set both date and time for each of the two displays independently.

Such versatility comes at a price, however. In addition to the stem, four buttons protrude from the body of my watch, looking for all the world like the stubby limbs of a tiny turtle. And in the process of setting the hands just a few minutes ago, I unwittingly pushed one or more of these four buttons. Not good! Apparently, I reprogrammed my timepiece's brain. The digital clock suddenly disappeared, its place taken by a timer, tirelessly counting down the minutes to some unknown event. Unknown to me, at any rate. Whatever it was, though, I had only four hours, 29 minutes, and a handful of seconds to go. This annoyed me. I didn't think I should have to wait four and a half hours to get my digital display back. I wanted to know the time, and I wanted to know it right now. After all, I still had to finish setting the hands. So I pushed what I thought were the right buttons, in what I hoped was the correct sequence, in order to recall my watch to its primary duty. But nothing happened. The countdown continued.

It was starting to look like my digital time display was down for the count. That's when I dug out the instructions that Timex had thoughtfully provided for just such contingencies, a sheet of tissue paper roughly the size of a topographic map, printed on both sides in all the world's major languages, gloriously intermingled and reproduced in minuscule type. Nothing daunted, I searched for the scattered English-language paragraphs among a welter of unfamiliar tongues and alphabets. And in the fullness of time, with the help of a strong light and a powerful magnifier, I found what I was looking for. But my rapture was somewhat modified. The writer of the instructions had obviously been at a loss for words. Maybe he developed his technical writing skills penning copy for comic books. Or perhaps he once had a job creating new emoticons. In any case, whenever and wherever possible — and in a lot places where it was clearly impossible — he'd substituted hieroglyphs for text, embellishing the tiny icons with cryptic legends like "Face Illuminated (Any button)." Lacking a Rosetta stone to decipher these glyphs, however, I was further from seeing the light than ever. Meanwhile, the countdown went on.


Defeated by a simple wristwatch! How did I reach this sorry state? Well, what better way to begin my story than with these words…

Once Upon a Time

I learned to tell time when I was four years old. It was one of my earliest achievements, falling somewhere between mastering the art of tying my shoes and learning to read. In recognition of my newfound skill, I was presented with a brand-new wristwatch, and from that day forward I was never without it. I reveled in the unfamiliar weight on my wrist, and delighted in the way the glass flashed in the sun as I swung my arm. I even enjoyed the daily chore of winding, seeing it as a sort of ritual welcome to each new day. But nothing lasts forever, and despite the almost obsessive care I lavished on my first watch, the time came when no amount of winding would make it tick. The stem turned round and round without resistance. The mainspring was broken, and for a while it seemed my heart had broken, too. Still, I refused to give my watch up, wearing the silent timepiece on my wrist as a defiant proclamation of my grown-up status. My grandparents, who were as observant as they were wise and generous, took note. They surprised me with a new watch for my next birthday — and this watch had a second hand. I lifted the watch up to my ear and heard a reassuring tick! tick! tick! Then I held it before my eyes and watched the second hand advance around the dial, in perfect synchrony with the now barely audible ticking. I felt a part of the adult world again.


Of course, owning a working watch brought with it adult responsibilities. Since I could tell time, and since I carried the means to do so with me everywhere I went, I no longer had any excuse for failing to return home on time. On time. That was one of my grandfather's watchwords. He'd first learned the importance of punctuality in the Coast Guard, and a subsequent career as a postal inspector had reinforced those early lessons, lessons which my grandfather was quick to pass along. One thing was obvious from the start, however. It wasn't enough to know what time it was. It had to be…

The Correct Time

This was back in the days when many local radio stations still broadcast time signals every hour on the hour. (The tradition survives today in the BBC World Service, but the World Service stopped broadcasting to the Americas a while back. We're on our own, now.) An uncle who was just out of the Army taught me to listen for the time signal and set my watch accordingly. I soon learned a painful fact: my wristwatch couldn't be depended on to keep good time. It gained — or sometimes lost — seconds each and every day. And these seconds added up. By the end of a week, my watch might be minutes ahead of (or behind) the correct time. So I added Check Time Signal to my list of morning chores, right after Wind Watch. Then my other grandfather dropped by for a rare visit, and he had a watch like none I'd ever seen. For one thing, it didn't need winding. A tiny battery took the place of the familiar stem. But that wasn't the only thing that set it apart. Grandad's watch had no hands. The face was featureless and black — until Grandad pushed a button. Then the time appeared from nowhere, spelled out in bright red digits.

I was enthralled. I had to have one of my own, and before long I did. It was a Timex, with a digital display and a metal band. Furthermore, it claimed to be waterproof. I tested it, and it was. The ads also implied that it was indestructible. I put that claim to the test, as well. In the five years I had it, the watch survived everything from whitewater capsizes to long hours banging ice-screws into frozen waterfalls. It even survived being swallowed by my baby niece. She, too, came through the experience unscathed, I'm happy to say. Like my watch, she took a licking and kept on ticking. (Though of course my digital watch didn't tick. And come to think of it, neither did my niece. She gurgled nicely, however.)

My digital watch also kept good time — to within a few seconds a week, in fact. But when it finally failed, there was no bringing it back. The friendly village watch repairman I remembered from my childhood was long gone, a victim of technological progress and changing tastes. Watches were no longer heirlooms, to be cherished and passed down from one generation to the next. They'd become disposable consumer goods, like razors and tape players. So I didn't waste time on sentiment. I chucked the dead watch and bought another. And then another. And another one after that. Each new watch was more complex than the last, not to mention more expensive. But not necessarily more durable. So when my latest acquisition — a marvel of compact digital processing that paired a recording baro-altimeter with a chronometer that was guaranteed to keep better time than anything John ("Longitude") Harrison ever made — suddenly failed without warning after doing nothing more demanding than gathering dust on a bookshelf, I'd had enough. I decided it was time to get back to basics. From now on, I swore, I'd keep things simple.


Which brings me almost up to the present day. My current watch — the cheap, simple Timex that represents my latest attempt to implement the KISS principle — is still counting down to who knows what end, while I search fruitlessly for the key that will unlock the secret of the indecipherable instructions. You could say that…

Now Is the Winter of My Discontent

OK. Progress is progress. Watches that keep good time and survive all but the hardest of hard knocks are a lot easier to find than they were when I was four. And they're cheaper, to boot. (My present Timex cost no more than box of plonk. If you adjust for inflation, that's less than the price of my very first watch.) And you don't have to search the dial for a radio time signal, either. The National Institute of Standards "official US Time" is only a couple of clicks away. So it's never been easier to be on time than it is today. But something's been lost, as well. Mechanical timekeepers that needed no batteries and could be repaired by a jeweler in almost every town used to be within the reach of anyone with a few dollars in his pocket. Now they're luxury goods commanding prices that only the wealthy can afford. The rest of make do with what we can get.


I just looked at my watch. The digital display tells me that there's one hour, 15 minutes, and 45 seconds remaining till H-Hour. What happens then, I wonder? And where has all the time gone?

We've come a long way from the dollar watch. And most of the time I'm glad we have. It's great to know that I can dunk my watch repeatedly in an icy river without giving the matter a second thought, and it's nice to have an alarm whenever I need one. But sometimes I find myself longing for the days when watches only told time — and when you didn't need the assistance of a programmer to help you set the display. And speaking of time, it's slipping away. Only one hour, ten minutes, and five seconds to go. Until what, exactly? Damned if I know. Maybe I'll figure out how to persuade my little digital wonder to stop counting down and give me the time of day before the clock runs out on both of us. Then again, maybe I won't. Only time will tell.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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