“We got two categories of pilots around here,” said Florence “Pancho” Barnes; aviator, bad ass, and feisty proprietor of the Happy Bottom Riding Club. “We got your prime pilots, that get all the hot planes, and we got your pudknockers who dream about getting the hot planes. Now what are you two pudknockers gonna have, huh?”
I don’t know if Pancho ever said such a thing to the test pilots that frequented her bar but I expected something similar when visiting my local Authorized Dealer (AD) of fine watches. I’m a huge fan of The Right Stuff, both the book and its movie adaptation, and I’ve always thought the term pudknocker could easily describe most watch enthusiasts like me: I can talk a good game but the hot watches are out of reach. Feeling like a tourist in a land I foolishly believe I don’t belong might be my thing.
Understand, though, that I’ve always loved watches. My parents both collected them and they introduced me to icons who made wearing watches cool: deep sea explorers like Jacque Cousteau, pilots and astronauts like Chuck Yeager and Gordo Cooper, and–the greatest watch influencer of them all–James Bond. But they always felt out of reach to me. Despite my nerdy tendencies and uncanny ability to spot watches in movies and wrists in the wild, purchasing a nice watch was always for another year or the next big professional accomplishment. Jewelry stores and dealers are also intimidating places. I’m just your average pudknocker in a Star Wars T-shirt and the places where my favorite watches are sold often exude vibes I’m not comfortable with. That is, until I decided it was time late last year.
I long knew what my first proper watch was going to be. I was going to commemorate everyone’s favorite year, 2020, with the one watch I’d dreamed of for years; the watch of pilots and astronauts; the watch that got Apollo 13 back home safely; the watch that made it to the moon: the Omega Speedmaster Professional.
Why the Omega Speedmaster is cooler than your watch
Pilots and divers always wore interesting watches that were on the cutting edge of horological technology and style. Test pilots, specifically, were known for wearing big tool watches to help them time tasks or keep track of multiple time zones. Several of the best test pilots (not pudknockers) eventually became astronauts in the 1950’s and 1960’s and they took their unique, enormous watches with them. Two of those astronauts, Wally Schirra and Gordo Cooper, made personal purchases in 1962 that would have a notable impact on the space program, and my life, when they each bought an Omega Speedmaster with the intent of using them on missions. The Speedmasters were indeed on their wrists during their orbital missions and NASA officially certified the watch for space flight in 1965 after a series of tests, including competition from other brands, and eventually became the first watch on the moon. A fact that Omega has never let us forget since.
Considering that I grew up in Florida, loved The Right Stuff, and had an unhealthy enthusiasm for the exploits of test pilots (fun fact: I get air sick), my love of Speedmasters shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s also a deeply nerdy watch being a chronograph intended to time events with precision. It was originally intended for race car drivers to time laps and get a rough idea of their speed using the tachymeter on the bezel. But its reliability and usefulness meant professionals of all types found uses for it. So, yeah, Speedmasters are the coolest. (Sorry, Rolex Daytona fans.)
Insider secrets, sold out watches, and buying it anyway
Making an extravagant purchase like a watch is not routine. Outside of buying a car, this was going to be the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased and all it does is tell the time. Wally Schirra and Gordo Cooper actually needed a Speedmaster to do their job. I just want to look cool as I time the sear on my steaks.
I had visited this particular authorized dealer a couple of times already. Once just to get over my nerves about it and get on a waitlist for another coveted and meaningful piece, and a second time to actually try on the Speedmaster. To my surprise, and maybe yours, the associates were all friendly and happy to talk watches with me. I always thought they would be annoyed if they knew I wasn’t there to buy but that isn’t the case most times. They were always knowledgeable and happy to let me try on whatever I wanted. I suspect sometimes it’s a relief for them to talk to a potential customer who’s just a fan and geek out a bit.
You never know if a watch is truly for you until you get it in your hands and put it on. There was little doubt about the Speedmaster but I had to make sure. I have larger wrists so the 42 millimeter case size is perfect for me. The bracelet also felt much more comfortable than I expected. You have a choice between sapphire and hesalite for the crystal and I ended up liking the hesalite more. (It’s also truer to the version the astronauts wore.) I didn’t buy it though. I decided to wait. Before I left, the associate gave me some insider info that the watch was about to be discontinued and replaced by a version with some cosmetic differences and an updated movement. I was skeptical but something about an updated Speedmaster didn’t sit well with me. This Speedmaster, the 1861 reference, was the Speedmaster I fell in love with and no other would steal my gaze.
After a couple of weeks of confirming the rumors online, I knew it was time to get married. I returned to the store and the associate gives me the bad news that it was already sold out. I didn’t even give my heart the time to sink and asked him to check if there were any available in other stores. He didn’t think so but he was happy to make some calls and check the computer. After a grueling 5 or 10 minutes and wondering if I could ever be happy again, the word came in. There was one more at the corporate office. Blood rushed to my head and my hand reached into my pocket so fast I scraped some skin off my knuckles.
So how do you buy a fancy watch when you’re a pudknocker? You just buy it. I was nervous when I finally picked it up a couple of days later but it was good nerves. I wore my NASA T-shirt with a smile under my mask that never drooped. He gave me pause when he asked if I had parked close by (I was) and advised me to not do any other shopping (I wasn’t) but it was fun to get the, “you might die!” speech and I highly recommend the experience.
The Speedmaster now seldom leaves my wrist and, yes, my steaks have never been better.
Nice watches can have a stigma thanks to people who buy them to make others feel small. I like to think most of us who love all kinds of watches, expensive and not, wear them for deeper reasons that we’re happy to share.
Time is not a thing that’s ours to lose. You might as well enjoy looking at it.