Christmas 1973 fell on a Tuesday. My mother was scheduled to work wardrobe on some stage show as usual and so we celebrated on Christmas Eve. It was a fairly solemn occasion: my father was only dead about a year and we weren’t exactly in the chips. In fact the only thing keeping us afloat was Mom’s irregular paycheck and the money we got from Social Security after the old man went.
A stock market crash had brought on a recession and there were no jobs to be found for younger people. My older brother had no job and I was about to graduate high school. My mother wanted me to go to college but I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t ready for the navy either, but I’d signed up and was to go in a few days after graduation.
I didn’t realize how badly my mother wanted me to stay home. I knew that she didn’t want me in the service, but it didn’t occur to me that she had never lived alone and was afraid of what that would mean. My brother had left the house to flop with friends; he came around only sporadically and seldom spent the night.
I got my mother what she wanted: two cartons of cigarettes. I didn’t ask for anything in particular—my head was somewhere else, away on the ocean, in places and circumstances whose reality I could only imagine.
As I recall we were sitting at the kitchen table after dinner. She had worked a show that day and was tired. I had just come in from running a few miles in the neighborhood. We made a little show of exchanging gifts but nobody was really in the mood. Even the dog seemed depressed—she missed my father more than anybody and would sit by the front door for many years, waiting for him to come home again.
At some point my brother begged off and left for whatever he wanted to do, leaving my mother and me sitting in the kitchen over coffee. She said “I have something for you,” and handed me a small box. Inside was a pocket watch—not the sort one gets at retirement, just a cheap stainless steel model with a windup stem. I cracked it open to see the face and found, engraved upon the inside cover, my initials and a date: 6-21-74.
I thought there had been some mistake, but she said “That’s the date you go in the navy. After that you will be gone from me forever.”
Her words chilled me to the heart, but I didn’t realize how right she was. Though I came into that house a thousand times afterward I was never anymore her son, and a very different person from the boy in the kitchen that night.
I was a shy kid who papered over his fears with a veneer of smart talk. The navy threw me into the world of adults, many of them hardly gentlemen, some of them much worse. It was a world of tight discipline, little compassion and less pity. Nobody there quoted Shakespeare like my father or worried that I might be cold at night. After four years I had seen the elephant and been trod on besides: my face scarred from a particularly bad beating, my mind shaped and sharpened, my attitudes shifted— I was ready for life because I had lived another life, a thousand years in four sets of seasons.
The other day I found the watch in the corner of a desk drawer. I gave the stem a twist and it began ticking, its face set to the exact time of the moment I picked it up. It’s almost a shame I have no son to give it to.