Passing Down The Golden Gift of Time

ABOUT a year ago, my eldest grandson, Elton, told me he never had enough time to finish his homework, handle the job that helped pay for college, enjoy a weekly visit with his girlfriend, and perform all the duties that make up just plain living.

I decided to give Elton my oldest possession for his 21st birthday and tell him this story:

When I was about 6, my father took me on my first train ride, the Del Monte Express between San Francisco and Monterey, Calif. We arrived at the depot early -- just in time to see how my Uncle Bart, who worked for the railroad, brought the trains in on time.

Bart had a huge gold watch, ornately carved and richly burnished, that he lovingly studied as the Lark, an overnight train from Los Angeles, pulled into the station. While we waited nearby, Bart counted the seconds loudly, bringing the chugging train to a stop: five, four, three, two, one. Then he bellowed in his clear baritone: ''Ladies and gentlemen, we've brought the Lark in on time!''

''My watch has never failed yet,'' he bragged to his adoring nephew. ''Let me introduce you to Aurum,'' calling the watch by name as though it were alive. ''Aurum keeps perfect time,'' he bragged. ''Wouldn't do to have the train late.''

Then, as though his day's duties had been accomplished, Bart put the watch in his pocket with a flourish and patted me on the head.

''You'll confuse the boy,'' my father admonished, not realizing how dependent the train was on the accuracy of my uncle's watch. Afterward, Dad tried to explain that trains arrive, on time or late, with no regard for what Bart's watch said. But Dad just didn't understand. It wasn't Bart that confused me, it was Dad.

For my birthday that year, my parents gave me my own silver-colored dollar watch. I didn't expect it to have Aurum's talent, but certainly, with practice, I could make it do more than tell time.

My mother presented the opportunity when she said, ''I wish your father'd get home on time for once. We've got a dinner date.''

Dad had promised to arrive by 6 o'clock. But his promises about time were never meant to be precise. They weren't even promises, he explained, just hopes.

A chance for a wonderful test. I sat in the bay window of our second-story apartment, my new watch in front of me, concentrating on Dad's getting there when the big hand reached 12. Two minutes to 6, one minute to 6, 6 o'clock.

But it didn't work. No Dad.

Disappointed, I stayed at the window, wondering if Dad was right after all, that watches don't control anything. But as I looked in surprised joy, Dad pulled in front of the house, driving a freshly painted, second-hand Peerless automobile, a birthday gift for Mother. It was 6 minutes after 6 on my watch.

When I saw Uncle Bart that week, I told him how I'd brought Dad home, more or less on time.

''Not bad for an inexpensive watch,'' Bart praised. ''Let's give it a name to show we respect it. How's Argentum? It means silver.''

''Does Aurum mean gold?'' I asked. He hugged me enthusiastically.

''Bright boy,'' Bart said. ''But don't say 'more or less on time.' Time's precise. It's either on time or not.''

So I wouldn't feel chagrined, he patted my watch. ''Good work, Argentum.''

I don't know what became of ''Argentum.'' But when Uncle Bart passed on, he left Aurum to me. He also left a special letter for me, which has since disappeared, but I can quote it word for word:

''I go to where time is measureless. I leave my cherished watch, Aurum, to my nephew Wallace. He alone shared my respect for time, and understands Aurum's true value. This bequest includes two wishes: That he will learn to distinguish between man's control of time and time's control of man. And that he will use what he learns wisely, not to control events as I have tried, but to control his own use of each hour, for his happiness and the betterment of all around him.''

My story ended, and there was a moment's silence until Elton asked, ''Do you think you've done that?''

''Lived up to Bart's expectations? No. But he helped me remember that no one can live more than one minute in one minute's time. A good point when you're over-rushed.''

Elton grinned. ''Maybe I've had the wrong watch.''

''Let's give Aurum another chance,'' I responded, and handed it to Elton.

The family considered Bart a little eccentric, overlooking his wit and tenderness, his way of making fantasy useful.

A year has passed. Elton has received all A's in school and has a better job. He says he's pacing himself better.

Has it anything to do with breaking up with his girlfriend? He didn't tell me why he had. Anyway, I'm sure that he'd say it was about time.

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