November 2006

The last Commodore in America

By David Feela

I hate to sink anyone’s ship, but it’s not a naval story I’m about to tell. The Commodore I want to talk about is an old, old, old-style data processor manufactured at the dawn of the personal computer business. If you remember when the Commodore 64 was an affordable introduction to the world of computers, then it’s likely we are from the same planet; if you’ve never heard of a Commodore – not the computer or even the naval officer – then it’s entirely possible you haven’t yet graduated from high school.

The Commodore by today’s technology standards is a dinosaur, much like the old kitchen clock I’d inherited from my father (who’d inherited it from his mother). Before the quartz movement became commonplace in the time business, the gears of clocks and watches pivoted on a jewel – an actual gemstone. My father’s mother wound her clock with a key each week, and the pendulum would swing back and forth. I know very little about what makes a clock tick, even less about what makes a computer byte. I suspect, though, that for every year that passes a computer ages seven.

This is where Larry Lee enters the story, an antique clock repairman, one of a vanishing breed. He works out of a rented garage just off Main Street. Nobody would recognize the location if they drove past. No sign on the door. Just a sturdy workbench and a floor space cluttered with tables and boxes, where people drop off their family heirlooms and go home. Walk into his shop on the hour and you’ll hear at least a dozen clocks chiming. And maybe Larry will glance up from the clock he’s dissecting at the moment to welcome you over the din of clock music. Or maybe you’ll just have to wait until the chiming subsides and he notices your nervous cough.

The clock I brought to Larry Lee had been cannibalized by my father. I didn’t have much hope the timepiece would ever be resurrected. Before my father died he’d removed its gears and guts and stuck a cheap plastic quartz movement behind its timeless face. It ran like every other clock in America – without imagination. Its ability to chime on the hour had been silenced. First I tried a clock repair charlatan in Farmington, N.M., and he spent nearly a year with smoke and mirrors trying to convince me he’d have my father’s clock running in just another month. He put its guts back in place but its heart was still missing. Back home the clock ran for one full day.

Larry Lee said he’d look at it.

I left it in a cue with many other clocks. Mine is over 100 years old and the arthritis in its hands radiated through my own hands before I let it go.

Unknown to me at the time, Larry Lee had a secret weapon: his Commodore 64 computer. He’d written a program back in the heyday of computers that allows him to hook his clocks up with wires like a doctor connects patients to an EKG machine to regulate the pattern of their tickers. Larry can trace the clock’s ailment, adjust its whatever, and make the necessary repairs. He restored my father’s clock and in less than a month called me to say so. I came by the same day to pick my aging relative up.

The clock ran smoothly for several months. I’d spent about $200 in repair tickets between the two clock shops, and obviously, too much time. When the clock stopped running again, I thought, That’s it! I’ll leave it as a museum piece, a time capsule, so to speak, of my family’s penchant for winding things up. I, too, was done with it.

But after a month I missed the chiming it produced on the hour. Actually, clanking is a better word for the sound its tiny hammer produced when it struck a coiled piece of wire, but I grew accustomed to the sound. My resolve dissolved and I called Larry again.

He said he’d look at it.

Of course, he got it running again, and he didn’t charge me a penny. He pointed out how clocks this old begin to suffer the calamities of aged people: Things stop working like they used to. The metal suffers from stress, the teeth and bushings get worn, the movement... well, let’s just say the springs lose their springiness. Time takes its toll, even on clocks.

I enjoyed another six months of clock music. Larry had actually resurrected my grandmother, my father, and to some extent even my childhood. Then the last time I wound my clock the pendulum lost its tick; it just wouldn’t continue swinging back and forth. I set the hands at twelve o’clock and that’s how it remains today. It’s probably a simple adjustment, that’s all, to get it running again. But I remember my last conversation with Larry Lee, when I asked him why he doesn’t replace his Commodore. He just laughed.

And you can’t argue with that.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.