Watches Tell Time, And Stories

August 10th, 2017

I’ve seen watches like it.

Individuals and families have donated them to The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Who wore them where and when is identified on cards, both on the European and Pacific Theatre sides of the museum. You wonder about those who wore them, who they were, what happened to them.

I’ve seen watches like it, but this is the only one exactly like this.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, August 11, 2017, and in The Memphis News, August 12-18, 2017

Watch 2


It’s an old 700 series Rolex watch – stainless steel with a small military-style black face, hands and numbers that once glowed in the dark, a simple stainless steel band and a small brass rivet for a fastener – nothing special by Rolex standards.

It’s the most special watch in the world to me.

On one side of the band, this is engraved, “Lt. Frank E. Conaway, CEC USNR, 282195 O T-7/43”. On the other, “Good Luck, Co. B, 123-USNCB”. Much of that is military identification – name, rank, serial number, acronyms for Civil Engineering Corps, United States Naval Reserve, Company B, 123rd United States Navy Construction Battalion (The Seabees). The “O” is blood type, and my favorite notation, the one people can’t figure out when I show it to them is “T-7/43” – the date of Dad’s last tetanus shot at the time, July, 1943.

This was my father’s watch. On his wrist on Peleliu and Guam, and across the Pacific Theater. On his wrist across my life, and on mine since he died in 1987.

His men gave him the watch. While he slept, they copied the information from his dog tags – even that tetanus shot – and engraved all of it on the watch band, a band they made after also measuring his wrist while he slept and bending the band just so to fit. Family legend has the stainless steel coming from a shot-down Zero, but the fact that his men gave him the watch and made that band requires no further legend.

Over the years, it’s run fast and slow, and a lot of not at all. Rolex dealers have looked at it and seen only an old watch, and an opportunity to sell me a new one. Watch repair people have seen only an old watch, and an opportunity to sell parts and charge a lot of money only to tell me there’s no guarantee it will run well or for long.

Colin Britton looked at it and saw a special kind of time, time marked in history, time shared across generations, meaningful time, time worth saving. Colin owns Memphis Mean Time – a vintage sort of craftsman, artisan really, in a vintage sort of bungalow on Cooper who repairs and sells vintage timepieces.

He took Dad’s watch and kept it for over a year. I visited regularly and got updates on parts from here and there, found in cyberspace and tried, machined and drilled and tried, sent to Amish specialists and returned, rebuilt and weighted and waited upon and reweighted and adjusted.

I was charged for some of that, but that stopped long ago because Colin became invested in the solution, and what it meant to a guy who kept showing up like someone visiting a family member in ICU.

Lt. Conaway, the men of Company B, and I would like to thank Colin Britton for understanding what’s really worth your time in a time of instant gratification.

I’m a Memphian, and the watch is back on my wrist.


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