When I was 15, I got the job of janitoring Glengoland, our one-room country school. In addition to what you might expect, this involved throwing a supply of cordwood into the basement from the pile the supplier left outside, and lighting the furnace every morning in heating season. This was one of those big old gravity ones, in those days there was no electricity to run fans, so oversize ducts ran from the furnace to the corners of the upstairs, and hot air rises so it would travel up them, the cold air coming down through a big register in the middle of the floor. That was the theory, anyway. The colder it was, the earlier I had to get up, so the ink would be thawed in the ink wells before the kids got there. This job paid $15 per month, a large sum in those days, and I felt rich. I felt like I should spend some of my new wealth on enhancing my image, but before I could get another shirt to add to the two in my closet, or a pair of whipcords not all threadbare in the front, or a pair of boots which had never been to the barn, I learned a hard lesson.
My mother had bought something or other from Peoples Credit Jewellers at some time, and was on their mailing list. About the time of my first paycheck, into our house came a glossy, full-page ad for a man’s watch on special, with a full-colour picture. It had the time and the date and the month, and a sweep second hand. It was shockproof and waterproof and self-winding and had 27 jewels. It had a sculpted chrome case and one of those new-fangled expansion bracelets, also shiny chrome. I imagined me wearing it to Dryden High, that would certainly convince the sneery town kids that I was a man of substance. It might even impress the skinny quiet girl with the big brown eyes who sat at the front of our bus. It was worth $100, said the paper, but was on sale for only $50, or ten monthly payments of $5. This was a huge sum of money, you could buy a pretty good car for $100, I bought my first one for $40.
In those days, shopping was simpler. Eaton’s catalog was the gold standard, the price there was what anything was actually worth. If an item could be bought for less than the price in Eaton’s Catalog, that was a good deal. The best watch in Eaton’s catalog was more than $50. Of course it had a recognizable brand name, and a warranty, and the case was gold, not chrome, but ignoring these details, the Peoples offering looked pretty good to me. Besides it was only $5 per month, and I would still have $10 in my pocket. I was sold. I ordered the watch.
It came, and it was magnificent. It was huge, almost as big as my grand-fathers pocket watch, and that chrome gleamed like a Russian spies teeth. It was a man’s watch, and I was about as small as 15 year-olds come, so that shiny expansion bracelet fit kind of loose on my wrist, but what the hey, it was gorgeous.
It arrived on a Friday in November. I of course worked around the farm on weekends, and at that time the work was putting up pulpwood. There was a bit of snow on the ground, which was not frozen yet. My job consisted of leading a horse to the cutting area, then hitching his logging chain to a tree already cut down and limbed. Then I would lead him as he dragged that tree to a clearing where we would buck it up into cordwood and pile it, by hand of course. Back and forth, all day. By the end of the day, the whole area was a well-churned sea of mud; bark and twigs, and slush.
Of course I had to wear my proud new possession, and kept careful note of the time as the day wore on, until just about quitting time, when I looked at my wrist, and horror of horrors, it was bare. Now you would think that a duck-egg-size lump of gleaming chrome would be easy to spot, even in a garbage dump. Not so. I spent till dark that day, and all of Sunday going over that ground, looking for my prized watch, to no avail, in fact, it never did turn up. I would not see the expected envious glances of my classmates, nor the admiring flutter of those brown eyes.
The worst part was that for the next ten months I had to send Peoples Credit Jewellers one third of my gross earnings, with absolutely nothing to show for it. I suppose it was an exercise in character-building, and I wonder if todays pampered youth would honour such a commitment.