Scott Thoma’s father’s watch.

Mystery man arrives at right 'time'

"You know me..."

Boxelder Bug Days is one of top town celebrations in southern Minnesota, but my attendance this year turned out to be one of the most mysterious experiences I've ever had.

As I was about to take a bite out of a grilled hamburger with fried onions that I had just purchased in the Bug Square, a hand clutched my shoulder.

“Are you Scott?” a voice asked.

“Yes,” I responded, while turning around from my picnic table seat to see who the voice belonged to.

As I began to extend my hand to greet him, I thought to myself “Oh no, not again” because I didn't recognize him and I had just talked with someone earlier in the day that I should have known but embarrassingly forgot their name.

“I have something for you,” the elderly man said, digging deep into the left front pocket of his pinstriped bib overalls.

“This belonged to your dad. I've had it for years.”

Anyone who knows me would attest to the fact that my dad and I were best friends up until the day he passed away in 2005.

What was handed to me was a gold pocket watch that I instantly recognized as my dad’s. It was a Westclox watch with Roman numerals that featured a smaller circular second hand where the VI would be located.

“I've always wondered what happened to it,” I told the man.

“It’s been in my family for many years.” My grandpa gave the watch to my dad, and my dad planned to pass it down to me. When he died, I couldn't find it anywhere in his house.

“I'm sorry I don't know who you are,” I admitted.

“What is your name?”

The elderly man that I figured was in his early 80s pulled off his green seed corn hat that he donned slightly titled on his head, wiping the perspiration off his forehead with a napkin.

“You know me,” is all he would say. “Well, thank you from the bottom of my heart,” I told him.

“But how did you get his watch?” “Your dad and I hadn't seen each other for many years and we ran into each other one day in Worthington,” he explained.

“Somehow we got talking about the things we've done over the years and I mentioned to him that I collect and repair pocket watches.”

“So he showed me the one he had and the glass front had a small crack in it. I told him I could fix it and I would call him when I had it done. I tried and tried to get a hold of him and then I found out he had passed away.”

The mystery man apologetically explained that he didn't know how to reach me either and forgot about the watch until, unbeknownst to me, our paths crossed when I was speaking at the Murray County Fair in Slayton a few weeks ago about the Tracy tornado book that I wrote.

“I didn't have the watch with me when my wife and I listened to you speaking at the fair,” he said.

“My wife wanted to buy your book so I told her to ask you where you lived and worked. I wanted to surprise you with it.”

“My wife is originally from Minneota and we live in Iowa now. She found out that you write for the newspaper in Minneota. We come to (Boxelder Bug Days) every few years and we figured you might be here, so I brought the watch with me in case I saw you.”

Again I asked who he was. “You know me,” he repeated with a wide grin.

“What is your wife's name?” I inquired, hoping to trick him.

No response.

Just another grin.

“Is she here?” I asked.

“No,” he answered. “She is visiting someone at the nursing home.”

“Why don't you want to tell me who you are?” I said, smiling to mask my frustration.

“You know me. You'll figure it out,” he replied.

Unsure what the big secret was, I could hardly focus on anything else the rest of the day. The only way I was going to find out his identity was to get some help. So I asked several people attending Boxelder Bug Days if they knew him and no one did.

When the man was seated at a picnic table listening to Nona Fay sing on stage, I placed myself far out of sight to take his picture. Feeling a little like a detective, I figured I could print out the picture when I got home and then ask someone to identify him the next time I was in Minneota.

There was a large crowd around him so I was sure he wouldn’t notice me. I quickly clicked a picture, put the camera down and walked away. When I got home, I was looking through all the photos I had taken of Boxelder Bug Days for the Mascot and then came across the photo of the man.

But there was one small problem. He wasn’t in the picture. Like a vampire, he had vanished from sight. Actually, the crowd around him had stepped in front of him as I was taking the photo, blanketing him completely.

Now having the watch in my possession means the world to me. And if/when I ever figure out who the man is, I will tell him I am forever grateful.

The watch still keeps perfect time and every time I wind it now and listen to it “tick”, it reminds me of three things: How much it means to me to have the watch in my possession, how much I miss my dad, and who that mystery man is.

I love a good mystery. I’m still waiting for the conclusion of this one.

Because no matter how many times he said “You know me”, the fact is that I still don’t.

Scott Thoma

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