Finding a Trade in the Military
Cortez veteran has been a watchmaker for more than 50 years
Journal/ Sam Green
With tiny tools more suited for elves than grown men, Clarence Williams goes to work.
Teensy tools and powerful microscopes are required for miniature parts. Springs and components that need meticulous attention when they’ve gone haywire.
Williams’ hands and fingers seem far too large to handle such a delicate task.
But this Air Force veteran has honed his craft for more than a half century now.
He laughs as he talks about his craft in the small back room of his Jewel Box business in downtown Cortez.
“A lot of time when I first started, I spent on the floor looking for parts,” he says about the tiny pieces.
He’s proud of his profession. He realizes people in his trade — watchmaker/watch repair/clock repair — are trickling to fewer and fewer all the time.
“Watches are more disposable than ever,” the Chino, Calif. native says. “We are now in a throw away society except for expensive watches.”
He doesn’t think the clock is ticking toward an inevitable end to the trade, however.
He loves the trade. He loves the challenge and satisfaction that comes with a tedious job well done.
“Very few are taking up the trade today,” he says. “But back then it was a very good profession.”
“Back then” was 50, 60 years ago.
“Back then” was when Clarence was just a couple years out of high school and serving his country in the Air Force from 1954 to 1959.
A HARROWING DAY
He traveled to places like Germany, Lebanon, around the U.S. and a very memorable time in Alaska.
Memorable yes, terrifying definitely.
“When we were coming back, the airplane’s number three engine caught fire,” Williams recalls of that frightening day in the fall of 1959.
An engine engulfed in flames is bad but it was the plane’s cargo that turned the flying machine into a time bomb of sorts.
“The plane was loaded with jet fuel,” he says.
Jet fuel doesn’t burn, jet fuel explodes, he explains.
“So that was a pretty harrowing trip.”
The bell for the troops to bail out of the seemingly doomed plane sounded. Plummeting to the frozen turf somewhere between Fairbanks and Anchorage without survival gear was the worst-case scenario option.
“The bell rang and I was ready to bail out. The pilot said he was putting it on autopilot and if he didn’t get the fire out he was gonna be joining us.”
It remains one of the most terrifying moments in Williams’ life.
The fire was extinguished and the plane landed safely. But for Williams, flying was never a comfortable experience since.
Williams says his favorite time in the service was while he was stationed at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs.
It was there, in the instrument shop, where he learned his trade.
“I worked under a master certified watchmaker and he taught me hands on for a year-and-a-half,” he says.
Before taking on the hands of watches and clocks, he put his hands to work on the stinger missile project.
“I got to meet a lot of distinguished people there,” he says modestly.
That included the most distinguished person of the time: President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“That was pretty exciting.”
A POPULAR TRADE
The watchmaker trade was popular during the time.
“A lot of World War II veterans and veterans from Korea were trained to become watchmakers,” he says.
When he left the Air Force, Williams returned to Chino where he opened a small jewelry and watch repair shop. He moved to Cortez in 1964 and again used the skills he learned in the Air Force to open and stay in business ever since.
In the back room is a large wooden board full of watches. Williams admits he likes watches and pocket watches.
“I have a lot of watches,” he says smiling.
After giving it some thought, he says he has a great appreciation for a good old handsome pocket watch.
“I really like them for their beauty and durability. They were designed at the time to last a lifetime and some have lasted for three or four lifetimes,” he says.
He recalls working on a pocket watch for a local customer.
Who knows what the old pocket watch was worth, but in a word, it’s priceless.
“The pocket watch was his great-great grandfather’s and he had it during the Civil War. It was over 160 years old. I was able to fix it with parts I had antd restore it to its original condition,” he says.
The challenge, and the pride, satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with a job well done — those are things that Clarence Williams loves about his trade.
A trade that took flight following his time in the Air Force. A trade that has served him well for more than 52 years. A trade that has stood the test of time.