J.C. Strickland came to Charleston as a young watch and clockmaker in 1964 with a wife and three children. Since then, he's been marking time for Lowcountry customers.
He's worked for various jewelry stores around town with familiar names such as McFadden, Ortman, Hamilton and Hanchey. For 56 years he's been meticulously cleaning, repairing and refurbishing the time pieces that wouldn't tick or had lost their tock.
Even in retirement, the 83-year-old Johns Island resident has a shop behind his house where he spends many hours a day trying to breathe new life into old, dusty, tired instruments.
"I've never run up on something I couldn't fix. I've had times when I couldn't find the right parts," Strickland smiles as he squints at a clock on his work bench.
Strickland is part of a dying breed. He learned the trade after an intense year of study at watchmaking school in Spencer, N.C. He heard about a job in Charleston and found a one-bedroom trailer but wasn't sure his wife would want to move.
"I told her the conditions would be tough at first. I wanted the family to wait a while till I got on my feet, but she said 'nothin' doin'. If you're goin', we're goin.' "
Strickland then looked at me with his little grin and cocked his head knowingly while softly sharing, "My wife had never seen a roach."
Apparently, in their first residence, they saw plenty.
What time is it?
Losing watchmakers is one thing. The clock is also ticking on a generation that can tell time. Will saying that it's quarter-to-8 or half-past 6 soon be obsolete descriptions of the time of day? Sure, a digital watch can tell you it is 12:48. Does that person also know that means it's 12 minutes to 1?
As I looked around Strickland's workshop, there's stuff everywhere. Tiny screws, bushings, wires and hooks were ready to be assembled if placed in the proper hands. Winding keys, click springs and strike levers waited to be placed in clocks that once kept time in a grandmother's kitchen.
"When clocks were first made, people didn't really care about time ... they worked from sunup to sundown," Strickland says.
He quit working on watches when he retired in 2000. He only works on clocks these days. He admires the woodwork and the well-made movements.
Though his hands aren't quite as steady and his eyesight not as keen, Strickland works on two to three clocks a week. Once upon a time, he'd work on 10 times that number.
As he grips his tweezers, he picks up a Jesus clip, a small piece of metal that holds a lever in place. I asked why it has that name. He could hardly hide the laugh as he answered, " 'Cause if you drop it, only Jesus knows where it landed."
Before time runs out
Strickland's tools of the trade are worth quite a bit if put in the right hands. All shapes and sizes of pliers are within arm's reach and he says a good clockmaker never throws away a piece of sandpaper because it's perfect for polishing brass.
He admits that one of his previous employers once asked why he didn't keep his bench a little neater. After Strickland cleaned it up, it took him a month to find stuff.
He's been fixing time pieces for 56 years. For most of that time, his ability to take things apart and put them back together put food on the table for his family. He's been married 62 years and has five children, 11 grands and 6 great-grands. These days, his time in the shop is primarily just a place to go to work on a couple pieces that need attention.
We can find the time just about everywhere these days. It's clearly displayed on our phones, TVs and dashboards.
When it came to fixing clocks, J.C. will tell you matter-of-factly that he was a fast worker in his day.
"But I never took shortcuts," he quickly adds, " 'cause they come back to bite you."
As a clock chimes from the corner of the workshop, I realized how thankful I am that he shared his time and his story. As he deftly held a jeweler's saw in his hands, Strickland confesses that this is the first interview he's ever had. Well, J.C., it's about time.