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Mantle Clocks and First Drives

John Betjeman once wrote that “Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.” He may have been right. I had an opportunity to reflect on distinctive sounds and sights of a part of my childhood recently, courtesy of an antique mantle clock which now keeps time on a shelf in our living room.

The clock, which dates back to the late 1800’s, was recently given to me by my Grandma Hansen. Recently, she sold the home she and my late Grandfather, Marvin, built when they retired to Traverse City in the seventies. The clock had been handed down to them, and was originally from the Hansen farmhouse in Trufant, Michigan, which I have previously written about. For as long as I can remember the clock had sat on the mantle over the fireplace in their dining room, keeping time. One of Marv’s daily rituals was winding the clock with a key stored inside of it.

I had never paid much attention to the clock as a child. I knew that behind the side of the clock Marv kept a red whistle with a compass on the end of it, which I think he used to call

his dogs. Marv bred dogs for a time when my dad was growing up, and he always enjoyed training and spending time with them. Marv had a guy in town who would work on the clock when it would not keep time properly, and I found that whoever the repairman was had kept handwritten notes about when the clock was serviced on the wood panel on the backside of the clock.

With the sale of the house, the clock was given to me. My Dad brought it down from Traverse City after the close of the sale. After picking it up, I wondered what to do with it and if it still kept time, so I wound both the chime and pendulum winders with the key and set the pendulum in motion. The clock immediately began keeping time, with a distinctive and familiar “tick-tock” that caused a wave of nostalgia for annual summertime childhood trips to Traverse City.

The visits happened every summer; and I would usually stay about a week. I always looked forward to these trips. If you’ve never been there, Traverse City is one of the best places to visit in Michigan. It’s a beautiful town situated between thousands of acres of cherry orchards on the southern shore of West Bay. The scenery is amazing, with rolling hills, and miles of shorelines around East and West Bay and the peninsula that separates them.

My grandparent’s home was on Highland Avenue, on the peninsula. There were woods to explore just down the street on Eastern Avenue, and Marv used to take me for walks down a path in those woods as a child, showing me where to avoid poison ivy. The path led to a playground at the Elementary School. Marv taught me how to navigate the balance beam and monkey bars and how to pump on a swing. Later, as a young teenager he and my grandmother would arrange tennis lessons on the courts at the high school next to the elementary school. Marv bought me my first bicycle and taught me to ride. Marv was an avid fisherman, and kept an old motorboat. At least once during each of my summer visits he would wake me up at about 5:00AM and we would trailer his boat down to West Bay and head out at dawn. Marv taught me how to fish, and together we’d usually get a bass or two, and occasionally a few trout. Marv cleaned the first bass I ever caught and cooked it for me; to this day, bass is the only fish I will eat. For a time, Marv collected, cut and polished Petoskey stones, and taught me how to do it. A Petoskey stone paperweight sits on my desk today that he cut and polished. Marv also had a serious green thumb, and his family and neighbors were the frequent recipients of many varieties of vegetables and berries he grew in his backyard garden. I used to love harvesting the sugar snap peas- cracking open the pods and eating them in the garden.

As that mantle clock began keeping time in my own home all these memories and lessons came back to me. Until then, I had never really reflected or recognized all that Marv had taught me growing up. But there was one other very important experience Marv introduced me to, at a very early age… Marv taught me how to drive. Every summer, at least once during my visit, we would get in his car and drive a couple blocks to the high school on Eastern Avenue and Marv would let me drive around. I was probably five or six the first time, sitting on his lap and just learning how to steer. As I got older and tall enough to reach the pedals myself, Marv moved to the passenger seat as we did lap after lap around the high school parking lot. As I became more proficient, he taught me how to get in and out of parking spaces, navigate turns and how to drive smoothly. By the time I was 12 or so, the driving lessons moved from the high school parking lot and on to the roads around Northwestern Michigan University’s campus, where I learned the basics of how 4-way stops and right of way laws worked. Naturally, in those later years I was also admonished a time or two for not “keeping my foot out of it.”

Marv himself was not really what you would call a “gearhead” in a conventional sense. I think he generally saw cars as little more than a means of solving a “point A to B” problem. I do recall he always knew who had the cheapest gas in town. His driving lessons, I’m quite certain, were not meant to turn me into the raving automotive enthusiast I eventually became, but for a budding car nut, it was the best fuel for the fire. The car I learned to drive in eventually became my first car; Marv gave me his ’77 Plymouth Volare when I turned 16. This car was pretty tired when I got it; but it was with this car that I began learning how to turn wrenches; learning about intake and carb swaps, maintenance and tune-up’s, setting timing, and a lesson in wiring I will never forget, as a couple of carelessly crossed wires burned up about half the wiring harness in the engine area to a crisp. The first brake job I ever did was on that car. The original radiator blew shortly after bringing it home from Traverse City, so I learned how to swap a radiator. That old Plymouth was a burnout machine, and I had a good year or so experimenting with it, terrorizing friends and making myself a well known nuisance to the local police before my parents “suggested” that a reduction in cylinders before I killed someone made good sense. In hindsight, I’m sure they were right. I sold it to a guy from Grand Rapids who had plans to turn it into a drag car and run it at Martin Dragway. I bought a Nissan with t-tops but only half the cylinders and the police eventually forgot about me.

The mantle clock is with me now, and its winding is a new part of my daily routine. I’m aware now every time it chimes the hour, and I enjoy hearing it. Its chime reminds me of simpler times, when my biggest dilemmas in life were- in hindsight- small and trivial. I’ve been having great fun the past couple of years teaching my own girls how to drive. My eight year old has been out many times in my Miata, and while she’s not tall enough to run the clutch yet, she’s gotten good at shifting gears and figuring out how to negotiate turns smoothly and drive in a straight line around our neighborhood. My five year old daughter is not far behind her; both of them racing their own clocks- unaware- before the dark hour of reason grows.

Happy Motoring.

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