Dad’s Watch

Graduation from Spokane’s Shadle Park High School in 1965 was like most other high school graduations that year across the country.  It had probably been similar in those same schools for many years before and would be so for an indefinite time going forward.  Except in three ways.

First, I was part of it.  ‘Nough said.  Second, ’65 was the year in which the tsunami of World War Two Baby Boomers completed high school in America.  Our high school had the largest population in the city at just over 2,100 students, all in just three grades.  Our graduation class had almost 1,000 of them:  half the students were in our class.  We’d been that wave all through thirteen years of school since kindergarten.

That graduation also marked the point in my life my parents gave me my first watch.  A Lord Elgin:  American made, twenty three jewels, self-winding (Elgin was the first to have this in the United States), gold-filled in some way, and with an expanding metal band.  This presentation was cool at a time when kids didn’t get wristwatches when entering kindergarten, cell phones in grade school and iPads in junior high.  Watches then were sort of special, at least in my family.  Though we didn’t know it at the time, 1965 would be the last year Elgin would produce the Lord Elgin.  An American institution was going out of business.

Time was different then too, I’m pretty sure.  Kids thought about time in terms of before school, lunch, after school, bedtimes, holidays and summer vacations.  What would a kid do with a watch when thinking in terms of “school year?”  However, high school graduation meant summer vacation would be followed by college, with its varying class schedules, commuting to and from school, and various academic and personal appointments.  Then, on to the life of an adult.

So, I got that watch as my graduation gift from Mom and Dad.  I wore it every day that next summer playing baseball and for four years of college.  I wasn’t allowed to wear it during US Air Force Basic Training, but I wore it the many months while waiting for technical school, in technical school and during my ten days at home before going to Saigon, South Viet Nam as an English teacher.

Who knew what that year in Viet Nam would bring?  For sure though, Dad knew it would be no place for a nice watch like mine.  We didn’t have a lot of money so we strove to care for what we had.  The day Mom and Dad took me to the Spokane International Airport enroute to San Francisco and Viet Nam, Dad traded my watch for his.  For safe keeping.  For remembering.  For a promise to return.

So, I arrived in Saigon with Dad’s blue dialed Seiko dive watch.  It was perfect for that environment.  No doubt as he’d intended, wearing that watch also brought him to mind with each glance for the time.  It was a dive watch so I had no trepidations about wearing it 24/7 (a term not created at that time), whether in the rain of the day or night, over the sweat created by a poncho on guard duty, on the basketball courts of the St George Hotel where I lived, or while showering in my or any other room that had warm water, or even just water.

When I returned to Spokane after that tour in Viet Nam in April 1971, we traded watches again.  Our promise had been kept.  Then we did it all over again in August when I went back to Viet Nam for a second tour of duty as an English teacher.  Same environment; same deal; same unspoken promise.

My second tour presented very different living circumstances.  Rather than living in Cho Lon in a hotel and eating in another hotel’s dining hall, I was assigned to a barracks on Tan Son Nhut (TSN) Annex, very close to our school.  This arrangement made it very nice for getting to school:  a five minute bus ride rather than a 50 minute long haul through city streets in the same kind of bus.  However, my primary reason for returning to Viet Nam was to live downtown again, as all of us had done that first year.

So, similar to what I had done via car my first two years in college, I commuted between Saigon and the Annex.  This time, by bicycle.  I used that bike to go all over the city, but mostly for the commute.  Often on that bike – actually, it was more like a cargo bicycle – I’d haul three cases of beverages “for consumption.”  Well, it was consumed by someone, somewhere, sometime.

Near the end of that tour I’d left TSN and was riding south on Nguyen Van Thoai Street, just sort of pedaling along, not really focused on anything.  The approaching evening had cast long dark shadows across the road, broken by blindingly bright sunlight in streams as I passed through each intersection which had no buildings blocking the sun.

It was in one those blind spots the cowboys truck.  Yeah, we all knew about these “kids” on Honda 50cc motor scooters.  One would drive the scooter while another sat astride or side saddle on the rear.  They’d whoosh closely by a GI or anyone with anything of value exposed.  The driver wove in and out of traffic just enough to distract people while timing that swerving so as to come within inches of their target prey.  The passenger would reach out and deftly snatch the necklace, bracelet, camera – or watch – from the arm, neck or shoulder of the victim.  These cowboys actually practiced their moves with one another, sometimes in gangs.

Two cowboys got my watch as I was mindlessly pedaling.  After two or three seconds of astonishment, I realized what had happened and gave chase.  First, on my one speed bike carrying me and three cases of pop.  Then, on foot as the traffic worsened.  One, two, and then three blocks I rolled and ran.  Screaming for help.  Yeah, right.  I stopped there.

Feeling stupid, foolish and abandoned, I exploded in anger and rage to all around me.  Using every vulgar Vietnamese word I knew at the top of my voice, I vehemently let the world know I’d been wronged by that place and those people.  Then, broken hearted, I had to accept it was my own behavior that had placed me in that position.  Isn’t that usually the case?

Yup, they got Dad’s watch.  The one he’d given me as an ideal timepiece for use in Viet Nam.  He’d made the trade to protect my high school graduation gift.  Then I went and lost his because I didn’t follow directions.  Didn’t heed others’ advice not to wear watches off base, to keep my sleeves rolled down if I did, and to be cautious while out on the streets.  Didn’t heed my own advice to new guys coming into Viet Nam to do the same.  Didn’t pay attention.  Didn’t do the right thing right.

I bought Dad a new Seiko the next day at the TSN Base Exchange and used it my last few weeks in-country.  Dad and I traded watches again when I returned to Spokane in the spring of 1972.  He really liked that new watch even better, he said, than the old I told him I’d lost to a cowboy.  Dads say stuff like that to their sons.

Then, I lost my Dad just seven years later.

I still have my Lord Elgin.  It still works.

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