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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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A Working Heirloom: How much it means to me

Most heirlooms sit tucked away in a drawer, perhaps carefully packed, or maybe on display. “That was Grandma’s china,” or perhaps, “this set of glasses came over with my family from England.” Things like that, and often, in terms of a family history, that connection that bonds one generation to the next, is priceless.
I have several items just like that, but my favorite isn’t on display or carefully tucked away with the family china.  It’s on my wrist.  With care, I wear it every day.  Of course, sometimes, if I am doing heavy work, or perhaps going out of the country, I put it aside.  I don’t want to risk damaging it or losing it.  But, it’s a working heirloom, and I don’t see any reason I shouldn’t keep on using it.  Besides, at the risk of sounding superstitious, I think it brings me good luck.

You probably already guessed it. It’s a watch. It’s a men’s 1939 Rolex Oyster Lipton. It’s not the flashy silver- or gold-styled Rolexes you see today. These modern versions look more like jewelry than tough, made-it-to-take-it timepieces. But this watch is different. It is, like all of Rolex’s famous products, a remarkable timepiece, but unlike many of the company’s watches in later years, it’s relatively small and compact. It has a rugged stainless steel case, and yes, I have to admit, a face with numbers that are getting tougher and tougher to read as I get older. I frequently have to extend my arm to read the time, or reach for my glasses to see the numbers. But so far I haven’t found that a particularly difficult imposition.
I have no idea, to this day, how my dad, an apprentice draftsman with the Federal Power Commission in 1940, found the money to buy it. It could have been a gift or payment for a debt. My dad was always lending people money.  He was kind of a pushover in that regard. I don’t know. But it stayed with him through most of his life and this includes serving in World War II.  He was a Navy hydrographic survey technician in the Pacific. This is a job with lots of varying duties. These men did underwater surveys to find good landing sites for the Marines, cleared obstacles and marked anchorages. He wore it while working on several Pacific Islands, but most notably, he had it with him on Iwo Jima. Sometime during the course of his work on the island he managed to damage the watch rather severely.  
Several months later, when the ship was back in Hawaii, he took it to a jeweler who was able to repair it.  I think the repair was expensive, but my dad and the watch, even though it was just an object, had already developed a relationship. Until he gave it to me he never wore any other timepiece.  He wore it at his college graduation, at his wedding, at work and on vacations. I remember it well.  I was allowed to handle it from time to time, but touching the stem, or winding it, which involved unscrewing it, was totally off limits.
However, time passed. I grew up, and the watch, as all machines do, got cranky. A local jeweler told my dad it couldn’t be repaired. My father knew he was wrong, but it seemed like a good time, in my dad’s mind, to pass it along. You see he knew that Rolex fixes anything they ever made or will supply parts. No exceptions. So, he said that if I got it fixed, which took some doing, I could have it. He would pay for the repair, but I would need to make the effort to see it got done. It was a small test. It involved finding a jeweler who was qualified and willing to contact Rolex for the parts. Back then that involved sending telexes. It took months, but the watch came back in fine shape. I have worn it ever since. I have worn it taking exams in graduate school, when I got married, and when I was commissioned as an officer in the Navy.  My dad was gone by then, but I felt, in a way, thanks partly to the watch, which had profound nautical connections, that he was still there.
However, two weeks ago I realized that after 30 years since its last visit to a jeweler that it needed attention.  There was a small crack in the crystal, it was losing time every day, and worst of all, it was dirty. But, letting it go, even for a week, was not an easy thing for me to do. But I found a good jeweler. He knew his watches and seemed to understand the importance I placed on this old time piece. He promised to return it good as new. He was good to his word. The crystal is new, the watch has been cleaned inside and out, it keeps near perfect time and, oh yes, it’s even waterproof again.  
It’s not quite an antique, but it is an heirloom. I may, at some point, decide to be more judicious about when I wear it. But not just now. It may be 70 years old, but having served through one lifetime, which included a major war, and good part of my life, I don’t think its time as a working heirloom is quite done yet.  
You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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