Time on His Mind


EDITH WHITESELL A married to a former professor at the University of Wisconsin who is now teaching in Sewanee at the University of the South.

THE clocks are so recent a passion that it was still possible for someone who had not visited us for a year to look around our Madison living room at Grandfather, Seth II, Frenchie, Hagen, Ansonia, and so on, and say, “Oh, does Fritz like clocks now?" That seemed to me a little like asking if Mr. and Mrs. Dionne ever had any children.

Oskar Hagen, the art historian, started it all by challenging Fritz to cure a handsome Regency clock of its highly whimsical striking. Fritz took Hagen, the first of the clocks, home, twisted a wire here and prodded a screw there, and in a week had it running and striking conventionally. Oskar, in one of the most satisfactory payments ever made a repairman, gave him the clock. We were very happy, but the actual possession of a good clock awakened in Fritz a desire to have more of the same.

He scrounged around in junk shops and acquired Ansonia and the French mantel clock. Ansonia was our first eyesore, shoving out twiddled brass on a cast-iron case and striking with a vulgar metallic clang; Frenchie, however, was of restrained slate and had a gentlemanly ting. Then came the large rectangular O.G. clocks, Seth Thomas I and II, and the calendar clock, cased in beautiful though peeling rosewood veneer; St. Vincent and an IBM time punch clock; Sternberg, with the mercury pendulum, that Fritz and the clock’s namesakes drove to Green Bay in a blizzard to buy; and enough lesser specimens and cuckoo clocks under repair — for others— to keep us from hearing the radio or the boys playing football in the attic. During the tense, windingup stage of the clock period I hoped the Hagens wouldn’t give Fritz a cookie or he might start a bakery. It was at this time that Dickie pointed excitedly out of a bus window and yelled, “Ooooh, Mommy, look at that great big clock with the church under it!”

Fritz was annoyed with our ancestors for not having left us a grandfather clock. Antique collectors, unappreciative of their timekeeping qualities, scour the market for these clocks, and running or not they command prices prohibitive to us. He grew more and more frustrated as one after another had to be regretfully passed up. Then one day he announced, “I’m going to make one.” And he did.

He got the School of Agricultural Engineering to let him use their woodworking shop; the Chemistry Department, by a process he terms osmotic oozing from its student workroom, to give him the run of its metalworking shop; and Beatrice Hagen to drive him to a country sawmill to get roughhewn walnut planks for the case. He had never done any cabinetmaking before, but that was not considered an obstacle. Patiently, weekend after weekend, he machined each part. Then after many months he assembled it and, heart-stopping moment, gave the pendulum its birth swing and the machinery ticked and ran. I asked him if he didn’t feel a little like God, and he said well, yes, he guessed he did. It needed correcting and regulating, but after some weeks it began to keep perfect time and has done so ever since.

We have to take Fritz’s word for this, as he has not yet got around to making hands or a dial face — or a hood or a door, for that matter. He can hardly be blamed for not being in a hurry to obscure the lovely works he created. The clock stands a noble eight feet high in our living room, its case, as far as it has been completed, beautifully proportioned and expertly constructed of satin-grained wood. Visible through the space where a door will one day be are the pendulum, weighted with a steel cylinder, and the weight, three joined iron bars — once tread pins for a bulldozer — that Fritz and Widgie picked up in a junk yard. On the top or business end of the clock there can be seen from the front only a square aluminum plate, with a few rods, serews, and nuts seattered about. Widgie’s pal Johnny Sweeney asked. “What’s that big machine in your living room?" and Widgie answered him with withering scorn, “Don’t you know a clock when you see one?” The five-foot, pendulum has a slow, majestic swing, with about the interval and volume of a dripping faucet.

For three peculiar weeks Grandfather had to yield its place to an even more commanding presence. At one of our Play Reading sessions Burt Nelson (and he looks so unoffending, too) asked Fritz by way of a joke, “Why don’t you fix the clock in Tripp Commons?”

“What!” said Fritz, galvanized. “Isn’t it running?”

“It hasn’t been running for years. Don’t you ever go to the campus?”

“Not when I can help it.”

The next evening Fritz made no objections at all when I asked him to take me to the Union to see a movie. He bought the tickets, took me over to the waiting line, and said, “You hold our places. I’m going to look at the clock.”

“Clock?” Then I remembered. “But Tripp must be locked up now.”

“I’ll get someone to let me in.”

He came back twenty minutes later, his box-of-cigars and rare-book smile all but nicking his ears. “It’s a wreck,”he said ecstatically.

One afternoon a University of Wisconsin truck drew up in front of our house, and two men carried out of it what looked like a gangster’s sarcophagus. Without stopping to think that the University would hardly handle its bodies in this way. I supposed for a moment that the men were headed for the church next door, and then as they turned toward our porch I thought in unreasoning panic that Fritz had come to his self-predicted end: a book had fallen on him or he had fallen off a clock. Then a third man appeared with nine steel pipes, in lengths ranging from four to six feet, and I saw the clock face on the front end of the coffin. As they steered the thing in, it looked so big it seemed more practical for us to move the house into the clock.

The bonnet had been left behind so that the clock could stand under our ceiling, and the protective seaffold of rough boards was the only part of its overpowering bulk that wasn’t carved within an inch of its life. In our modest living room, school of Makeshift Modern, it obtruded its dark mahogany opulence like Diamond Lil at the Tuesday Ladies’. The class that donated it had had $2500 to spend, and apparently the clockmaker, trying to piece out value received for that, kept throwing in another couple of hundred bucks’ worth of carving. Without even a nodding acquaintance toward each other, there were leaf patterns, gargoyles, scrolls, unidentifiable exuberances. All the unrelated decorations were so eyeknocking that the inch-high legend carved on the base, “Gift of the Class of 1920,” was all but unnoticeable.

The Monster was equipped with three sets of electrically operated chimes, Westminster, Canterbury, and Whittington. The tune of one’s choice played once on the quarter hour, twice on the half, three for the three quarters, and ushered in the booming strike with an hourly fanfare of four complete playings. The decibel count of all of them was designed to rouse a cathedral close.

Fritz soldered the Monster with a blowpipe broken off Dickie’s toy trumpet and got it to running fine.

Grandfather then seemed decorous and unassuming in our living room. The Monster went back to the Union, keeping excellent time in its new surroundings in the library, where it could be protected from pranksters. I hear from Madison that it still jolts the students out of their reading every quarter hour.

The Historical Society Museum then heard about Fritz and called him in to see what he could do with its assortment of limping clocks. Fritz tied in happily, looking to the day when he would have enough confidence to operate on the Museum’s prize exhibit, John Muir’s desk, which the great naturalist built himself with a clock mechanism to elevate a book every half-hour. Nobody knows why Muir wanted such a regular change of his reading matter, but the desk is fascinating.

Fritz restored about live of the Museum’s less spectacular breakdowns, then took a look at the lot and asked the curator how about giving him a spare one or two. Sure, sure, he was told, they had lots of duplicates. He would be taken care of. So he went on working at primitives, all-wood clocks, and so on.

One day while he was bent over in concentration, the curator came over to him and said, “You know, Whitesell, you’ve done a lot of work for us.”Fritz’s heart leaped up. He eyed the specimens and tried to figure how rich a prize he dared ask for. The curator went on, “You ought to be a member of the State Historical Society. It would only cost you three dollars a year.”