The Ritual, Southampton and Winding the Clock

photo by S. Dermont
photo by S. Dermont

Once a week until last month, Travis Corwin would leave Corwin Jewelers, his store on Main Street in Southampton, to climb up to the clock tower of the First Presbyterian Church at the end of the block in that town to check the bell and, by hand, wind the clock. The face of this clock looms over Southampton from its great height. It is nearly six feet in diameter. The bells sounds every day on the hour.

Travis’s father, Tim, had this job for many years. Tim’s father had the job before that. And generations of Corwins have been winding that clock once a week for more than 140 years, which is to say they have wound it since it was installed in 1871.

For about a month, however, Travis has not been working for the church. It is not about the price he charges for this service, which is just $15 a visit to climb up there four stories off the street once a week, check it out and turn a steel tool for 10 minutes. It’s about cell phones.

The church had agreed to allow cellphone provider MetroPCS to put cellphone antennas up into the steeple. It would bring the church much needed income. It would improve cellphone service. It would, within the clock tower, be invisible to the general public. It seemed to be a good thing all the way around.

However, the MetroPCS antennas are not up there yet and appear not to be going up anytime soon.  There is now a lawsuit about it. We had an article in the paper last week about the lawsuit. The village had refused to issue a permit for the cell tower. Before making its decision, the Southampton Village Board of Architectural Review and Historic Preservation looked into it and found that to install the four antennas inside the tower, they’d have to replace four lengths of antique wooden siding with identical looking siding made of reinforced polymer. You wouldn’t even know the difference. It would look on the outside just like wood, but those in the know would know that the historic wood had been tampered with.

MetroPCS and the church filed a joint lawsuit against the village. They want to hold the village responsible for standing in the way of progress. And there’s the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a federal law that says communications businesses must be allowed to compete against one another in any market. It meant, MetroPCS and the church said, that the village should get out of the way. The village has hired the law firm of Twomey, Latham, Shea, Kelley, Dubin and Quartararo LLP to represent them, and so now the legal battle begins.

Of course, there was no legal battle on the horizon when the church made their bargain with MetroPCS. What WAS a problem, and this is why Travis thinks his services are no longer desired, is that he told the church fathers that, having looked at the plans for the installation, he would not be willing to go up there if the antennas were installed, amidst what he fears would be radiation and radio waves and whatever else there might be, to wind the clock.

“They assured me that none of it was harmful,” he told me. “But I’d be right up against the transmitters. What if it turned out they were wrong?”

In a way, Travis Corwin was putting them on notice. He says that as a result of his “being seen as more of a nuisance than an asset,” the church board let him go. Travis believes that the church fathers looked into buying an automatic winding system for when the time came to install one, but found the cost to be very high. And then one of the parishioners, who is mechanically minded, said that he could build a clock-winding system for very little money. But the status of the clock right now, since Travis stopped winding it, remains unclear.

“The clock was running for a little while, but right now it’s not,” he said the morning this paper went to press. “Honestly, I don’t know whether they are using an automatic winding system or not. I’m prevented from going up there. So I don’t know how the clock is being wound. Maybe now they’ve just got somebody new going up there.”

The thing is, if you think about it, this matter will be in the courts for years before it gets resolved. And during these years, and maybe forever after these years if the Village prevails in the courts, the clock will still have to be wound. There’s no radiation up there now. Just let Travis Corwin continue to wind the clock as his family always has. And how historic is an automatic winding system? Are there batteries? Do you plug it into the wall?

“Would you return to work if they wanted you to?” I asked. “Of course I would,” he said.

Another interesting thought is whether MetroPCS has an objection to having a man go up there to wind the clock amidst all the antennas. Maybe a man up there blocks the signal while he is up there. Everybody’s cellphone service in Southampton goes down for ten minutes. Could be that they INSIST that there has to be an automated winder for the clock.

I think (here comes a pun), when the time comes that MetroPCS has their antennas up there, if ever, that Travis continue to go up there once a week, but wearing a lead-lined suit tailored to fit him and make him feel safe.

When the phone service goes down for those ten minutes once a week, everyone in town will know. They’ll close down their phone calls.

“That fellow from Corwin Jewelers is winding the church clock again,” they will say. “He’ll be done in a minute or two.”

Come to think of it, that’s great advertising for the jewelry store.

*      *     *

As we go to press, we have received a phone call back from the church’s representative on the matter. He is Board of Trustees member Wayne Bruyn, and he had a somewhat different take on the situation.

According to Bruyn, the plan to automate the winding of the clock was under consideration long before the MetroPCS proposal came along. The church had been thinking about it for decades.

Recently they looked into prices for automating the winding and could only get impossibly high estimates. Then a “benefactor” appeared to underwrite the cost of the automatic winding, and the church decided to go ahead with the project.

Bruyn recalls that both Tim and Travis Corwin were at the early meetings when automation was being discussed, and says that Tim helped in getting a proposal about the automation.

Bruyn also says that Travis has not been relieved of his clock-winding duties. He did say that Travis had said he would have nothing to do with the facility if a cell phone antenna were in place because of fears of radiation danger. As Bruyn understands it, the church and MetroPCS addressed Travis’s concerns about radiation but Travis remained skeptical. (Calls to the law firm representing MetroPCS and the church in the lawsuit were not returned by press time.)

Because the church was moving toward automation of the clock regardless of whether or not a cell antenna would be installed, Bruyn says, there wouldn’t be a need for anyone to wind the clock, but “we wanted him to continue servicing the clock. But Travis said he didn’t want to be involved anymore. At the present time, I do not know who winds the clock and whether it is automated or not, although the automation could be in effect any minute.”

*       *       *

Today is Tuesday, October 16. Did you hear the bells sound on the hour? Indeed, according to Travis, the clock was not running as of this morning. Did anyone hear any bells sounding the hour? Time is standing still in Southampton.

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