Getting the time back in joint

If you say ''Barnum & Berry'' to somebody, he will probably think of the circus, and that would be wrong. Barnum & Berry made ice skates, in particular the kind that clamped to the soles of your boots by winding a key. The Barnum & Berry skates of my youth are long gone, but I have my skate key in hand, and Old Timer shall ring tonight. It's a sort of story. Old Timer would be about to run down; Old Timer being our family tall clock and probably the oldest in North America. We aren't sure, but he was built in Enniscorthy, Ireland, before 1665 by Richard Freeman, whose clock shop still stands across the street from St. Mary's Protestant Church, except that now it sells sweeties. There was a British army officer in our family who bought the clock while he was stationed in Ireland, and brought it to America when he was reassigned to the garrison at New York when the English falklanded Manhattan from the Dutch.

Old Timer has had his ups and downs. For a couple of centuries and more he was tinkered and cajoled by itinerant clock repairmen who often did no more than oil him, pat his hood, and pass the night in the attic chamber. Old Timer was younger then. Now he is older, and when he skips a pallet he needs real attention from experts who are hard to find. He's not a beautiful thing, all varnish and gold like his younger relatives in the museums. Some of his rosewood fell off long ago. His face is lead-pencil on once-white enamel, just as it was drawn by Richard Freeman. People sometimes ask if he has wooden works. No. Wooden works are modern. Old Timer sports bright brass throughout. So in late years when we find a man who deigns to come to see what he can do for Old Timer, his customary approach is to glance in disdain. But then he does a double take, looks long, and usually turns to say, ''Gracious! I don't believe you know what you have here!''

But we do, indeed, and we lament that in the past half century the men who come to attend Old Timer go a-tremble in his venerable presence and sooner or later admit they are unequal to his needs. They have puttered, and they get him going, but in a time that is but a fleeting moment in his total span Old Timer ceases and desists and his stately strike is heard no more in the Province of Maine. At this, most of the fixits beg to be excused and we go looking again. The latest in the long line is one Thomas John, who surprised us after a long search by living in the next town. When he came, he looked the old boy over, was properly impressed, and said he would take the movement home and it would be several weeks. He said he could easily see the problem - over the years tinkerers had fixed or adjusted this and that as necessary, but nobody had started away back where Richard Freeman left off to check everything at every point. His confidence was complete - he would get Old Timer going and would guarantee him.

To digress, but not really: Quite a few years ago a new water system was installed at Vatican City. It would be imprudent to turn a backhoe loose in Vatican City, so great precautions were taken to be sure the laying of pipes would not abuse some priceless bits of history. The eminent seismologist, Fr. Linnehan of Boston College, was consulted, and as the leading expert on that sort of thing he agreed to proceed to Rome and use his delicate instruments to lay out proper places for pipes. This he did, and one day he sailed from New York aboard the liner United States with a great many thousands of dollars' worth of earthquake and dowsing gear in the hold of the vessel. He told me once about how, halfway across the Atlantic, it struck him as comical that all his complicated and expensive instruments and devices were totally useless without the windup key in his trouser pocket.

Yes. Mr. John brought Old Timer back, saying all systems were go. He fitted the movement into the case, put the spirit level to all dimensions, rigged the cables and weights, wound the cables, consulted his chronometer and set him, started the pendulum, listened a moment at the tick, closed the door, and slipped the key into his pocket.

Absent-mindedly, of course. Old Timer is an eight-day clock, accustomed for some 317 years to a weekly wind on Saturday night. Mr. John is on a trip; a tape machine answers his phone. Saturday night approaches. Time is running out. But I have my Barnum & Berry skate key, and it fits.

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