Vagneur: A tale of telling time

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Clocks have been the subject of songs, essays, arguments, missed deadlines, weddings, divorces and who knows what else, and for what good reason? We measure time as though it’s something we can control, usually forgetting that it is Mother Nature’s ultimate trump card.

One can spend thousands of dollars for a wristwatch these days, and some of them keep accurate time, but not that long ago, a wall clock was about as near anyone wanted to get to a timepiece. On my grandmother’s kitchen wall hung such a device, framed by cheap red plastic, about 6 inches square with a dangling electrical cord. It was the age of purely analog, and with an air of out-of-place imperiousness, it clung to that 1880s Aspen Victorian wall with an unbreakable tenacity that never wavered until the house eventually was sold.

It kept unflinching time, unless the hydropower plant under the Castle Creek bridge gasped from low stream flows or broken belts, in which case the local telephone operator could be counted on for the correct time. A plastic clock, so trivial-seeming and not that attractive, was about the first place anyone looked when they entered the kitchen, just to make sure the unspontaneous world was spinning in tune with their perceived reality of the day.

My grandmother and her sister, Julia Stapleton (Aunt Dula to family), patiently taught me to tell time at a preschool age. Shorthand, longhand, hours and minutes, a.m. and p.m., this new talent became a positive step in my ability to function independently in my world. It seemed like everything revolved around the clock; school started at 8:30, the noon whistle blew at 12, the ski lifts opened at 9; the movie at the Isis started at 8:15; be home by whenever.

Clearly, I remember a long afternoon, alone in the house, killing time until I needed to be at the gym for a high school league basketball game. Anticipation ran through my body, with little outlet, and I’d bang on the piano for a while and then check the clock; back to the piano, read a magazine, check the clock again. All this time, I was thinking how lucky I was, being able to play ball, two big games a weekend (I mean, how lucky can you get?), and felt comfortable with the thought that I basically liked high school while so many of my friends seemed annoyed with it. A last look at the clock, and I fled the house, walking two blocks to the Red Brick School gymnasium, eager to suit up, where Carbondale, with its 7-foot center, Bob Walsh, kicked the hell out of us. After that, I was less happy with my lot, at least for a while.

Three o’clock in the afternoon signaled the approximate time my great-uncle Tom would climb into his red Jeep and head to the Red Onion, where he’d meet up with other survivors of the silver-mining and ranching days. Beer Gulch, as they called it, smelled like a real bar all day long, not like these modern iterations that smell more like perfume and pizza than stale beer and Prince Albert tobacco. A kid, if he tagged along with Uncle Tom and kept his mouth shut, could get all the soda he wanted, sitting on his own barstool in the midst of those men who are today legends of our colorful past.

It seems unlikely that anyone in the house watched the clock with the same intensity as yours truly. Uncle Tom knew when it was time to drink a beer or roll a smoke without the aid of a clock. My grandmother’s other sister, Marie (Aunt Wee), knew when it was time to feed the chickens, just from doing it for 85 years.

Aside from knowing the deadline for this column and a few meetings around town, I don’t much worry about a clock. Having once served a business that required timely performance, I now see a wristwatch as a foreign implement in my quiver of tricks. Horses, livestock and dogs move with the sun and the ambient barometric pressure, and that suits my pace, as well. But I’ll never forget that old, red clock hanging on the wall at Grandma’s house.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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