My great-grandfather's name was Joseph Mastroianni. It was my father's name and it is also my name.
The Waltham 1908 pocket watch, serial number 196911997 was manufactured by the American Waltham Watch Company in Waltham, Massachusetts. It was part of a lot of 2000 watches made between the years 1914 and 1915. It is a hunter's style watch, meaning the movement was cased in a housing that had the winding stem at the three o'clock position. The stem was depressed and a lid flipped open under the tension of a spring revealing the face. Hunter's watches were so called because the face was covered, protecting the crystal. Thus, they could be brought into the brush without fear of being scratched, unlike the open-faced models which had the winding stem at the twelve o'clock position and no such protection for the crystal.
Hunter's style watches were not approved to be used on railroads, which was the most mission-critical use of a pocket watch at the turn of the 19th century.
The watch has a plain face. Standard white ceramic face with black arabic numerals (as opposed to the older and sometimes thought of as more "stylish" roman numerals). The name Waltham is painted in black above the center wheel spindle, upon which the blued steel hands are mounted.
The movement comprises fifteen jewels. It was classed "grade 620", unregulated, meaning it was not guaranteed to keep accurate time over a wide range of temperatures, or positions.
Typically, the watch case could be chosen separately from the movement by the buyer. Therefore, watch cases are not felt to be an integral part of the history or value of a particular watch, and unless they're solid gold, they're dealt with interchangably by collectors, who will recase a valuable movement to have it show better.
Movement 196911997 is cased in 14K gold marked "Warranted, to assay". This is a good-quality higher end case that was intended to convey a level of formality. There is no tarnish or brass evident on the case.
When I started repairing antique pocket watches in 1996 my father offered me his grandfather's watch. It had passed into his hands after his mother's death, and he'd had it for several years. It appeared non-functional. He offered it to me to "see what I could do with it," and after a quick inspection I determined that the mainspring had broken and taken with it the ratchet mechanism. At the time I was buying 100+ year old watches from a little known, burgeoning auction site called eBay, and I'd been practicing my watch repair to some moderate degree of success. I'd restored some non-ticking watches to ticking status, but none of them kept good time, and most of them fluctuated wildly from running too fast to running too slow, depending on whether they were in my pocket or lying flat on a table beside my bed.
The last thing I wanted to do was to further destroy my only link to my namesake through bumbling incompitence, so I put the watch on a shelf under glass and forgot about it until yesterday.
The Waltham model 1908, grade 620, was a working-man's watch. At 15 jewels and no regulation, the movement was only moderately reliable. The watch was probably worn mostly in formal circumstances to complete a particular style of dress. The working man of 1915 typically did not carry a watch. Unlike today's watches, they were not waterproof or shock resistant or dust resistant. Taking one out onto a dirt street on a dusty day would likely cause it to seize. Subjecting it to an impact equal to a fall greater than a height of three inches would break some of the fragile pivots inside and the watch would stop. Taking it out in the rain would cause it to stop.
A watch was an expensive proposition for the working man, and so he would tend to rely on the clocks in the town square or the afternoon whistle to alert him as to the time.
My great-grandfather was not a wealthy man. He was a common laborer who saved the money he made working on farms in Sicily to pay for a boat ride for himself and his family through Ellis Island to the new world. Perhaps the watch was a gift to him from his family, or perhaps a gift from a more powerful patron. It's doubtful, given what I know about him, that he'd have bought it for himself. He'd have found better use for that money.
He probably wore the watch to church, to weddings and funerals. Sometime during the depression the mainspring broke and he couldn't afford to have the watch fixed, so he wore it anyway as jewelry. After several years of not finding work, he left the watch with my great-grandmother to hock and he returned to Italy to look for work he could not find in the U.S. The watch remained in her possession, and then with my grandparents, and then my father.
We can imagine a story around it. Why is it that during the depression my great-grandmother chose to hold on to the watch instead of selling it for food? Sentimentality? Did she promise him she would return it to him when he returned?
What we know is that my great-grandfather, Joe Mastroianni 1, never came back to the United States from Sicily. He sent money, and eventually when his children grew up and left the home his wife returned to his side. They died in Sicily in the 1950's. And as a storyteller I'll concocct a tale about him running from the law, or perhaps he was involved in the mafia and had been "marked", for there is no doubt the Cosa Nostra touched our family if only peripherally in those days. In any case the watch stayed in the United States. Today it is in my hands, beside me as I write these words.
When I found out I was returning to the south pole for the second time this season I thought to bring a talisman or two with me. Something that belonged to my father - I would leave it at exactly 90 south. And then I thought it would be karmic and important to my lineage to bring my great-grandfather's watch to the bottom of the earth but only if I could get it to tick.
Over the years I'd collected quite a few watch findings and random parts, and sure enough, I had a box labled "Waltham Mainsprings". Inside I found a mainspring for a model 1908, and after a couple hours labor with my every increasingly presbyopic eyes, I managed to get the new spring into the watch. To my surprise, it began to tick, and it is ticking now, keeping remarkably accurate time. Incredibly, this 95 year old machine still works as if it was just passed over the jeweler's cabinet.
The sound is light and slightly metallic. Somewhat hollow. Not solid. Like an unborn bird's heartbeat hovering in the netherworld between birth and death. And I am the first to hear it since it stopped during the depression. I hold it to my ear and imagine it in my great-grandfather's vest pocket while he listened to Latin mass on Christmas eve. I imagine him holding it to his grandchildren's ears. I imagine him riding in horse-drawn carriages, on trains and busses, a man with a thick Italian accent in an Anglo-centric universe, calculating a future for himself that didn't extend beyone next week's dinner.
I rarely think of my great-grandchildren, if they'll exist and what they'll be like, so I doubt the notion of me ever passed through his mind. How could he know that I would be the one who sitting amid a spew of watch tools and tiny screws would be the first to bring his little machine back to life? What would he think of my bringing it to the south pole? Did he have a concept of where that place was, and what it would mean?
My great-grandfather was an explorer of sorts the way a lot of poor people were thrust into it for survival in those days. He left his country and his family to start a new life and he almost succeeded. Did what he could. Eventually, things got going without him.
I have decided I will not bring his watch to Pole. I leave in two hours, and I am afraid transporting of the watch will destroy my family relic in a fashion beyond my powers to repair. The technology of polar travel indicates rough going, and this watch is as fragile as it was in 1914. The right thing -- the way the universe wants to roll on its bearings is that I have been the one to restore its heartbeat. That's good enough.
But I can hope that someday my own great-grandchild will hold this watch in his or her hands on the surface of the moon where it will tick without sound. And they'll remember me and my father's father's father and know that in one glance they can see all of our life's explorations on this great blue marble, from Europe to North America, to the white open nothing at the bottom of the earth and the infinity of possibility beyond in the stars.
I hope that happens.
Maybe his name will be Joe.