All the time in the world
In Tucker County, Jessica Collar, a young woman in her 30s, is learning the art of clock repair from 88-year-old Doyle Kisner.
Last fall, I visited the pair in Doyle’s shop, their two lives converging quietly, patiently, in the midst of 300 antique clocks. Down in the basement, Doyle and his apprentice are seated while they work, amidst the chimes of cuckoo clocks and the discordant clash of gongs and bells.
“It escapes my day down here. It’s kind of relaxing, soothing, hearing the beat of the clocks,” says Jessica.
She has a small, delicate chain between her fingers. For a few minutes, she’s been easing it into an old grandfather clock. Attached to the chain hang the weights that strike the clock’s hourly chime. She’s giving the old clock its voice back.
“Aren’t people your age out having fun?” asked Doyle’s sister, Dorothy, when Jessica began learning clock repair. Doyle and his sister, Dorothy, live together, with a third brother, Richard, in a house on their family’s homeplace overlooking the Cheat River.
“I told Dorothy, ‘Well this is kind of fun. I’m learning something that not many other people will learn or care about,'” said Jessica.
She first met Doyle a few years ago while he was recovering from cancer treatments. Jessica began working with Doyle as an in-home caretaker with the Tucker County Senior Center, and soon part of their time was spent working together in his workshop downstairs.
“She saved me,” Doyle said. “I was weak and didn’t want to eat or even get out of bed very much.”
“He saved himself,” said Jessica. When she learned that Doyle was a talented clock repairman and clock maker, she urged him to start working at it every day. At the time, Doyle still couldn’t do much himself, so he guided her to do the work with him. Little by little, Doyle started to get stronger, and meanwhile Jessica was learning clock repair.
Part of Doyle’s tenacity comes from growing up in a family of 10 children during the Great Depression. And as a child Doyle spent a lot of his time working on the family farm. Their mother made butter and cottage cheese, and the entire family raised vegetables. Their father made deliveries to local stores and regular customers.
During the Depression, he often sold produce and butter to a CCC camp that was located nearby.
“We were as poor as church mice,” Doyle said. “My mother and father cleared all this land right here. But we were a very loving family.”
Hard work, adaptability, and determination all were part of what it took for Doyle to discover himself in the midst of nine other brothers and sisters. He is quiet, he is patient, he is smart. And when he wants to do something, he figures out how to do it.
“I don’t know if he told you or not,” adds Doyle’s older brother Harry. “When Doyle went in the service, he had a bad eye. So he remembered the charts, and he got in by remembering them.”
“Some people, if they lose a leg or something, they get tired of living, they try to commit suicide. It’s the way you take it. When I lost this arm, I just went to the left arm. I don’t know how I did it. I could drive a nail as good as with the other one. It’s all in the mind,” said Doyle.
It wasn’t long after he lost his right hand before Doyle turned his attention to his passion for clock repair and clock making. The first grandfather clock he made was in 1969. After he repaired the Parsons courthouse clock, people began bringing him their clocks to be repaired.
Doyle remembers the first clock that ever fascinated him. Growing up, his family was too poor for the kids to get an allowance, and so during the noon hour, while a lot of the other kids went around downtown Parsons buying sweets and things, Doyle usually passed a lot of his time looking in all the windows of the shops downtown. One day, he caught a glimpse of an anniversary clock, a very small, silver clock with a clear, glass dome over the top:
“I stood and looked at that anniversary clock day after day, something about it just got me I guess,” he said. “Ran 365 days a year. You wind it once a year, on your anniversary.”
Today, Doyle is nearing 90 years old, and he has repaired nearly 1,265 clocks.
“I’m gonna work as long as I can,” he said. “I have a passion for the clock repair business because there’s hardly anyone anymore that will work on clocks. People now, they don’t fool with that kind of work. It’s dying. It’s not too hard to learn, if you put time into it.”
Clock repair is not something people can easily learn from a book, and experts with the craft are becoming rarer and rarer. After World War II, there used to be hundreds of colleges that offered degrees in clock making and clock repair.
Today, there is only one program left in the country that teaches clock repair, a four-month diploma program at Gem City College in Quincy, Ill. Most people who go through the program become entrepenuer clock makers and clock repair professionals, a skill which is disappearing now among younger generations.
Doyle typically has about 10 clocks waiting for his attention. At his age, he has trouble meeting the demand, and most people must wait two to four weeks to have their clock repaired.
Doyle says he often loses track of time when he’s down in the workshop. It captivates him completely.
“You know, I can’t sit still, I’ve got to figure out everything,” says Doyle. “I don’t go to sleep sometimes before 3 and 4 o’clock every morning because I’ve got stuff on my mind. That’s the thing. I get stuff on my mind. Like if I have a problem with a clock or something. I’ve always got it on my mind. I want to finish it, do it.”
Down in Doyle’s shop, we’re shut away from cars and computers and the Internet. There’s the hum of melody, like calliope music as the merry go round spins on its axis. Amid the whir of springs and shuffling clatter, Jessica is still wrestling with the grandfather clock’s chain. Doyle sits nearby on a workbench with his left hand resting gently on an open clock. His touches the clock with tender accuracy, as an open heart surgeon approaches his patient.
To repair clocks, you must listen very carefully. Doyle uses a stethoscope so he can listen to the ticking of the clock. He can tell what’s off by sound, the way a doctor listens to a patient’s heartbeat.
And Doyle knows each clock’s story. That’s another thing he’s been teaching Jessica. He wants her to take over his clocks when he passes on. He points them out, one by one, delicately touching their special features with his prosthetic hook. It’s clear that he has all the time in the world down here. And the clocks, which run without electricity, without batteries, just good hardware, and regular winding and repair, they don’t seem to mind the passing of time much either.
A few years ago, Doyle repaired the Parsons Courthouse clock. He wrote directions at the top of the clock tower for regular maintenance and repair, in the hopes that people would keep the clock working better in the future.
Traveling 219 is funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council. For more stories from the Traveling 219 project, please visit www.Traveling219.com