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The Watch

Some pilot I am.

I don’t play golf, I don’t drink coffee, and I’m not all that into big fancy wristwatches. Except, of course, for my Omega Seamaster, but that has more to do with how I came into it as the timepiece itself…

It was the fall of 2005 and we were halfway through deployment—my fourth. In fact, it was my department head tour and for months the PBS film crew had been following us around USS Nimitz chronicling daily life aboard a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. We had been busily flying in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and looked forward to taking a break during the coming port visit to the UAE.

With Dubai being known for its abundance of fine consumer products and my 35th birthday fast approaching, my wife suggested I treat myself to a quality wristwatch. Years earlier I had passed on an opportunity to be part of a limited Breitling buy customized for TOPGUN instructors, so I thanked my wife and told her I’d “shop around.” After a full day haggling over Persian rug prices, however, I lacked the energy and instead made my way back to the hotel where my squadron was staying.

Entering the lobby with a rug under each arm (these were for family—I’d already bought all the rugs my home could handle on previous deployments), I discovered several squadron mates at a lounge table with a couple I did not recognize. They had met the British pair at the pool bar earlier and had eventually migrated indoors where the drinks continued to flow. I joined them and was introduced to James who seemed genuinely interested in making my acquaintance, promptly asking what I would like to drink. James was older than us, perhaps in his early 50s, and had an air of comfortable success. My squadron buddies seemed to be occupied talking to his attractive younger wife, so he and I made small talk as the drinks flowed.

It did not take long before the conversation turned to—what else?—flying. And talk of flying soon led to questions of what it was like to operate from an aircraft carrier. I mentioned that Nimitz offered tours but James said he and his wife were due to return to the U.K. the next day.

“It’s too bad,” James added ruefully, “I would have liked to buy a Nimitz cap.”

“Give me your address and I’ll send you one,” I replied without a moment’s thought. Ballcaps weren’t that expensive and he was providing a steady supply of refreshments. It was the least I could do.

“You will?” James asked, surprised.

“Of course,” I answered, thinking nothing of it.

The conversation shifted just then, as is common in large gatherings, but James soon turned back to me, “You’ll really send me a Nimitz cap?”

I wondered why this was a big deal to him but dismissed my concern, assuming there must be something at play I did not fully understand (this is one of my most oft-used coping mechanisms).


“Wait right here.”

James abruptly left the table, presumably going for pen and paper which struck me as odd considering we could have simply asked the servers. I chatted with the others until minutes later James caught my attention from near the elevators and waved me over. I played along, bemused that he felt it necessary to provide his address in private.

“You’ll really send me a Nimitz ballcap?” James asked yet again.

“Yes, of course.”

“Then here, I want you to have this,” James said, revealing a silver watch.

He thrust the watch into my hands and began telling a story—I wish I could remember exactly what he said but my mind was racing to figure out what was happening and since I’d had a few refreshments at that point…well, let’s just say my mental race car was bouncing off the guardrails. I vaguely recall a story of a friend of his father’s who had bestowed the watch on him, and now James was passing it on to me.

I regarded the watch with curiosity, unable to immediately tell if it was a gas station special or something nicer. It seemed the latter. The face showed “Omega.”

James slapped me on the back and returned the table before I could form a coherent expression of gratitude. I followed a few feet behind still in mild shock, fielding curious looks from my squadron buds. I waved them off with an I’ll-explain-later look and tucked the watch into my pocket before rejoining the reverie.

James eventually provided his mail and email addresses before we all parted ways that evening. I thanked him profusely, later showing the watch and telling the story to my equally mystified pals.

The next day a jeweler removed a link so the watch fit right, and I soon found its simple elegance suited me. When we returned to the ship the following day, I proceeded directly to the ship’s store to buy James the promised hat. Two hats, actually. And a shirt. And some stickers. Heck, I may have even thrown some Nimitz koozies in the box—I don’t recall—but I felt compelled. Days later when back to flying I took an inflight selfie giving a watch-adorned thumbs up. I emailed him the photo, captioned Thanks, James.

We corresponded awhile before eventually drifting apart, but I did not have the heart to tell James something was wrong with the watch—that it didn’t keep very good time. Seemed if I didn’t wear it for a couple days it died, but it was fine when I reset the time and wore it. Must be something wrong with the battery (did I mention I’m not a watch guy?).

By late October we had begun making our way home and stopped in Hawaii to embark family and friends for a “tiger cruise” during the final leg of deployment. I was delighted to share the opportunity with my mother and step-father and we enjoyed a few days in Honolulu before embarking the ship. One night we stopped in a Waikiki jewelry store to ask about the watch battery. I suddenly felt self-conscious, realizing my utter lack of any understanding of the watch—or a purchase receipt—must have seemed suspicious. The jeweler seemed to buy my abbreviated story, partly thanks to my parents who did not appear to be the sort to cavort with a common thief.

“This is an Omega Seamaster,” the jeweler said, expectantly. My blank look must not have been very reassuring. “It doesn’t have a battery.”

My next question seemed only logical, “so how does it keep time?”

“You have to wear it,” he said, making clear my presence in his shop was a waste of his time and needed to end. The lightbulb, finally, illuminated—although dimly.

I treasure my Omega not because of its value or because I’m a watch guy (I believe I have made that abundantly clear), but because of what it represents: friendship and generosity. When I wear it now, proudly, I wonder whatever happened to James, and how close to the truth I come when telling his side of the story.

I also wonder which of my three sons will end up with it. Maybe none of them. Maybe someday it’ll go to a stranger who does something unexpectedly, unnecessarily nice to me.

That makes the most sense.

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