Grandfathers Magic Watch


The makeshift sunblock my father had fashioned from a tarp and four cane fishing poles wasn’t beautiful, but it worked fine. Sitting under the contraption was me, my little sister, my mother, and my grandmother. I was eight years old. He and my grandfather were not far away, holding their fishing rods after casting into the rough surf. Whatever they caught would be our supper that evening. I wasn’t invited to fish with them; I was too young, and the surf too dangerous. Besides, my small Zebco rod was only strong enough to catch a passing perch.


The visit was our annual summer fishing trip to Port Aransas, Texas, a small fishing village on the northern tip of Mustang Island. I don’t remember my first visit, but my mother said I was barely one year old. After that, the Gulf of Mexico, the beach, and that island became part of my DNA.


I’m an old man now, but I can recall every street, building, and sand dune of that small village. Over the decades, it became a tourist mecca for the wealthy, destroying the innocent and unpretentious charm of the town. Gone are the clapboard rental cottages with crushed seashell paving and fish-cleaning shacks. Instead, gaudy stores selling tee shirts made in China sit between the ostentatious condominiums, restaurants, and hotels. I prefer to remember it as it was in the 1950s when families came to fish, and the children explored the untamed beaches and sand dunes.


Born in 1891, my grandfather was an old man by the time I was eight. Tall and lanky, with white hair and skin like saddle leather. He was a proud veteran of World War 1 and as tough as the longhorn steers he herded as a boy. He lost part of his left butt cheek from shrapnel and was gassed twice while fighting in France. Nevertheless, he harbored no ill feelings toward the Germans, even though he killed and wounded many of them.


On the contrary, he disliked the French because they refused to show proper gratitude for the doughboys saving their butts from the Krauts. As a result, he wouldn’t allow French wine in his home. He preferred Kentucky bourbon with a splash of branch water or an ice-cold Pearl beer. His hard-drinking days, he left in Fort Worth’s Hell’s Half Acre decades ago. He told a few stories about the infamous place, but he was careful to scrub them clean for us youngsters.


His one great joy in life was saltwater fishing with my father, playing his fiddle, and telling stories to whoever would listen. The recounting of his early childhood and life in Texas captivated my sister, cousins, and me for as long as the old man could keep talking. He told about being in France but never about the horrors of the war. He lived a colorful childhood and, for a while, was a true Texas cowboy. Half of it may have been ripping yarns, but he could tell some good ones. My mother said I inherited his talent for recounting and spinning yarns. If that’s true, I’m proud to have it.


He could have been in a Norman Rockwell painting while standing in the surf, with khaki pants rolled to his knees, a white t-shirt, and a duck-billed cap. I was in awe of the old man but too young to know how to tell him. My grandmother said he was crazy for wearing his gold watch while fishing.


The timepiece was a gift of gratitude from his employer when he worked in California during the depression years. A simple gold-plated 1930s-style Boluva. It was an inexpensive watch, but he treated it like the king’s crown, having it cleaned yearly and the crystal replaced if scratched. He called that watch his good luck charm and wore it when fishing for good juju. It was a risk that the salt water might ruin it, but he took it. He caught five speckled sand trout and half a dozen Golden Croaker that day, so the charm worked. Add the three specs my father snagged, joined with the cornbread and pinto beans my mother and grandmother cooked, and we dined like the Rockefellers that night.


The next few days were a repeat. I rode my blow-up air mattress in the shore break and caught myself a whopper of a sunburn on my back. The jellyfish sting added to my discomfort. I was miserable and well-toasted, but I kept going, determined to enjoy every second of beach time.
We returned to Fort Worth as a spent and happy bunch. The family would give it another go the following year.


Two years passed. One day, my father told me my grandfather was sick and would be in the veteran hospital in Dallas for a while. He mentioned cancer. I was young and didn’t understand this disease, so I looked it up in our encyclopedia; “An illness that attacks the body’s cells with over ten strains, some are incurable and deadly. One week he seemed fine, sitting in his rocking chair playing his fiddle and telling stories, and the next week, he was in a hospital fighting for his life. His doctor said being gassed in the war was the cause of his cancer. It was not treatable and would be fatal.


Near a month later, he was not the same man when he came home. His face was gaunt, his body, lean and meatless before, now was skin and bone. The treatments the doctors ordered had ravaged him as much as the disease. My grandmothers’ facial expressions told it all. There was no need to explain; I knew he would soon be gone. My father was stoic, if only for his mother’s benefit. His father, my grandfather, was fading away before our eyes, and we couldn’t do a thing to change the outcome.


A week after returning home, grandfather found his strength, walked to their living room, and sat in his rocking chair. He asked me for his fiddle, which I fetched. He played half of one tune and handed it back to me. I cased it and returned it to the bedroom closet; he was too weak for a second tune. His voice was raspy and weak when he spoke, but he had something to say, so I took my position on my low stool, as I often did when he recounted his tales. I noticed his gold watch was loose and had moved close to his elbow. His attachment to the timepiece would not allow removal. It was a part of him. He spoke a few words, but It was a painful effort to continue. My grandmother helped him to his bed. He removed his watch, placed it on the nightstand, and then lay down. He was asleep within minutes. From that day on, he would sleep most of the time, waking only to be helped to the bathroom or to sip a few spoonfuls of hot soup. I would visit after school, sitting next to him while he slept, cleaning his watch with a soft cloth, winding it, and ensuring the time was correct. I felt he knew I was caring for this treasured talisman.


I came home from school on a Friday, and my grandfather was gone. I could see the imprint in the bed where he had laid, and his medication bottles and watch were missing from the nightstand. Mother said he took a turn for the worse, and my father took him back to the veteran’s hospital.


The following day, my father came home and told us my grandfather had passed away during the night. I noticed he was wearing his gold watch. I thought if the timepiece was such a lucky charm, as I had been told all these years, why had it not saved my grandfather?


Life continued on Jennings Street; for me, some of it was good, a little of it not. Father wore grandfather’s watch in remembrance and respect. He waited for the magic to come. He gave me his worn-out Timex, which was too big for my wrist, but I wore it proudly.


The magic of the watch began to work for my father. He acquired two four-unit apartment houses near downtown, fixed them up a bit, rented them out, and sold them. We then moved to Wichita Falls, where he started building new homes. A year later, we moved to Plano, Texas, where he continued to build houses. It appeared the good luck of the watch was working overtime. I became a believer in this talisman. The hard days in Fort Worth were well behind us now. The future for our family was filled with promise.


On a day in 1968, riding with my father to lock his homes for the night, we had a long overdue father-to-son talk. I rarely saw him because of his work, so I welcomed the time. Had I thought about college? What was going on in my life? I played in a popular rock band, so that was a point we touched on. He didn’t want me to become a professional musician as he had been. I assured him this phase would end soon. He and my mother were worried I would be drafted and sent to Vietnam. We talked for two hours. He remarked that as long as he wore his father’s watch, everything he touched turned to gold. Father was successful, so how could I doubt his belief?

In the summer of 1969, the band on the old watch broke while we were fishing for Kingfish in the gulf. While gaffing a Kingfish, my father bumped his wrist against the side of our boat. The watch fell into the water, and in a flash, it was gone. He said that if he had to lose it, this was a fitting end; lost to the water that his father loved so much.

“A Fort Worth, Texas Kind of Christmas”


When I first published this story, readers asked me if the characters were real or did any of it actually happen. Our neighbors, the Misters, were real folks and became our neighborhood mentors. Leonards’s Department Store Toyland in downtown Fort Worth was a sight to behold, and the attempted flocking and ruination of our Christmas tree is true. My father was able to negotiate peace with my mother, and my uncle delivered a new tree, so Christmas was saved. A flocked tree never adorned our living room, but we did buy an aluminum tree with a rotating color wheel. Years later, in the early sixties, I used that rotating wheel as part of a hokey light show for our rock band.

A personal recount of my childhood Christmas memories.

Photo by: Elf -O-Mat Studios

Riding a ceiling-mounted “Rocket Train” to nowhere around the basement of a department store doesn’t seem like a Christmas thing, but that’s what thousands of other Texas kids and I did every year in the 1950s.

Leonard Brothers Department Store occupied two square blocks of downtown Fort Worth real estate and was known as the Southwest’s Macy’s. They offered everything the big shot stores in the East carried, hundreds of items no retailer in their right mind would consider.

If you had a mind to, one could purchase a full-length mink coat with optional mink mittens, the latest women’s high-fashion clothing line from Paris France, an Italian cut-crystal vile of Elizabeth Taylors spit, James Dean’s signature hair tonic, Rock Hudson’s autographed wedding photos, a housebroken Llama, an aluminum fishing boat and motor, a new car, a pole barn, a nice two-story craftsman home “build it yourself kit” delivered to your lot, chickens, barb wire, hay, horses and cows, a 30-30 Winchester rifle, a 40 caliber autographed General George Custer Colt pistol, a bottle of good hootch and a Ford tractor. That’s about as Texas as it gets.

The Christmas season in downtown Fort Worth was internationally recognized for its innovative and wonderful decorations. The righteous city fathers figured the best way to outdo Dallas, a full-time effort, was to line every building with white lights from top to bottom and install large glowing decorations on every lamp pole, street light, and building fa├žade available. If that didn’t make you “ooooh and ahhhh,” then you needed to go home and hide in a closet.

A week or so after Thanksgiving, my parents would take my sister and me downtown to see the decorations and visit the Leonard Brothers Department Store. Santa just happened to be in their basement, taking advanced verbal orders from every crumb cruncher that could climb the stairs and plop on his lap.

My sister always asked for the latest doll in between screams and crying fits. She was scared senseless of “HO-HO,” but she somehow managed to spit out her order. Like clockwork, every year, I asked for a Daisy BB Gun with a year’s supply of stainless silver ammo ( for killing werewolves), a full-size Elliot Ness operable Thompson Sub Machine Gun, or an Army surplus Bazooka with real rockets and a long, razor-sharp Bowie knife encased in a fringed leather holster. It was a 1950s boy thing; weapons were what we longed for. How else could we defeat Santa Anna at the Alamo or win World War II, again? Our neighborhood may have sported the best-supplied “kid army” on the planet, and jolly old Santa was our secret arms dealer; parents non-the wiser. I finally got the BB Gun, but Santy was wise enough to not bring the other request.

Walking down the stairs to the store’s basement was the thrill I had waited for all year. There, hanging above my head, was the beautiful red and silver tinseled sign, “Toy Land,” kid nirvana, and the Holy Grail all in one room. The smell of burned popcorn and stale chocolate candy wafted up the stairs, and I could hear the cheesy Christmas choir music and the sound the Rocket Train made as it glided along the ceiling-mounted rails. I almost pissed off my jeans.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of parents jostled down isles of toys, pushing, grabbing, and snarling like a pack of wild dogs fighting for that last toy; the holiday spirit and common courtesy were alive and well. The queue of kids for the Rocket Train snaked through the basement like a soup line.

Sitting on his mini-mountain top perch, sat old red-suited Santa Claus and his elfin apprentices, herding kids to his lap at break-neck speed. Each child got about fifteen seconds, a black and white photograph, and then it was off the lap and down the steps. Kids were fast in those days; we memorized and practiced our list weeks before our visit for maximum impact. “Ho-Ho” had better be writing this stuff down. Kids, don’t forget squat.

After two Santa visits, four Rocket Train rides, and three popcorn bags later, our family unit departed Leonard’s for the new and improved “Leonard’s Christmas Tree Land,” located across the street from the main building. Thanks to the demolition of several winos-infested abandoned buildings, the new lot was now the size of Rhode Island and held enough trees for every person and their dog in Texas.

Thousands, if not millions, of fresh-cut trees awaited our choosing. Father, always the cheapskate, chose a sensible tree; not too big, not too small, yet full and fluffy with a lovely piney aroma. My sister and I pointed and danced like fools for the “pink flocked” tree in the tent, which cost the equivalent of a week’s salary. My parents enjoyed our cute antics. The sensible tree was secured to the top of our Nash Rambler station wagon, and we were homeward bound.

Pulling into our driveway, it was impossible to miss our neighbor’s extravagant holiday display. We had been away from home for 6 hours and returned to a full-blown holiday extravaganza that made our modest home look like a tobacco road sharecroppers shack.

Our next-door neighbors, Mr. Mister and Mrs. Mister, were the neighborhood gossip fodder. The couple moved from Southern California for his job. He, an aircraft-design engineer, and she, a former gopher girl at Paramount Studios. The Misters reeked new-found money and didn’t mind flaunting it. They drove tiny Italian sports cars and hired a guy to mow their lawn. His wife, Mrs. Mister, always had a Pall Mall ciggie in one hand and a frosty cocktail in the other. Father said she looked like a pretty Hollywood lady named Jane Mansfield, but Mother said she resembled a “gimlet-assed dime-store chippy.” I got the impression that the Misters were quite popular in the neighborhood.

Their Christmas display was pure Cecil B. DeMille. A life-size plywood sleigh, with Santa and his reindeer, covered the Mister’s roof, and 20 or more automated Elves and various holiday characters greeted passersby. Twinkling lights covered every bush and plant in the yard, and a large machine spat out thousands of bubbles that floated through the neighborhood. This was far more than Fort Worth was ready for.

The kill shot was their enormous picture window that showcased a ceiling-high blue flocked tree bathed in color-changing lights. There, framed in the glow of their yuletide decor, sat Mr. and Mrs. Mister with their two poodles, Fred and Ginger, perched on their expensive modern sofa, sipping vermouth martinis like Hollywood royalty. This display of pompacious decadence didn’t go unnoticed by my parents.

Father hauled our puny tree into the living room and began unpacking lights for the decorating that would happen tomorrow evening. Mother hurried my sister and me off to bed. Visions of spying Elves, sugar plum pudding, and dangerous weapons danced in my head; Christmas was upon us.

Sometime after 10 PM, Father got hungry. Searching for sandwich fixings in the kitchen, he found a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon. Then he found a fresh half gallon of Egg-Nog, which he enjoyed with the bourbon. While searching for bread to make the ham sandwich, he found two “Lux Laundry Soap Flake” boxes with a dish towel in each one. Then by chance, he discovered the food coloring. This gave him an idea for our sad little tree.

I awoke with a start. The sun was shining on my face, which meant I was late for school. I ran into the living room and was stopped in my tracks.

Our formally green tree was now flocked in thick pink snow, as were the curtains, the fireplace mantel, two chairs, the coffee table, and my father, who lay on the couch, passed out, with a half-eaten ham sandwich on his chest. My Mother sat a few feet away, sipping her coffee and smoking a Winston; my Louisville slugger lay on her lap. I was reluctant to approach her, but I had to know.

I timidly put my hand on her shoulder and asked, “Mom, is Dad going to be alright?” She took a sip of coffee and a drag from her ciggie and said, “well, for right now, he will be, but after he wakes up, who knows.”

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