Friday, January 28, 2022

What I Kept


Memorabilia, loosely defined as anything intended to remind you later of what you did, or where you went, who you knew or what you valued. Not everyone collects memorabilia, but I have. Books rank highest. Art is close behind. Collecting includes anything from postcards, photos, beer coasters, pens and pencils, receipts, and stickers. Being able to look around the rooms of my home and see what I have kept lifts parts of each day with memories of good times past, travels, people, experiences. Beach flotsam, pine cones, skeletal remnants, teeth, ocean glass, antlers and skulls.

My first collections were things I found in the woods near my home in Chapel Hill where I lived  as an elementary student in a post-WWII college student housing neighborhood, Victory Village. Around the rotting wooden trash receptacles that held two galvinized steel garbage cans each, someone dumped steel helmets, helmet liners, canteens, ammo belts, 1911 .45 caliber leather pistol holsters, the materiel of war, conflict on a scale I could not comprehend. Much of the debris had likely been stored in small shallow attics for more than a decade. At age six, I was too young to understand what those artifacts represented to the people who once possessed them. Lost friends, pain and blood, fear and sleepless nights, bombs and artillery fire, wounded comrades, dead family, lives ended too young, the promise of futures terminated too early. War remained romantic for me and my friends. We watched a Tuesday night TV series titled Combat set during WWII where the Americans always prevailed.

At my grandparents’ home, I found a heavy cot from the same war. It was a weighty armful and then some, a burden that I could barely handle in my early teens. Sturdy canvas and hardwood frame gave me a solid sleeping platform in all the Boy Scout camps that we did not backpack into.

Along with my neighbors and classmates, we played army in the woods. Favorite Christmas gifts were anything military: plastic rifles, rubber bayonets, toy cannons. We traded badges and insignia, and mimicked jargon. But we never held ourselves to any sort of regimental discipline or ranks. As children of the early sixties, we stayed loose and freewheeling. If I was old enough to walk myself to my second grade class at Franklin Street Elementary School in downtown Chapel Hill, I was old enough to play by my own rules.

A few years later, the Boy Scouts exposed me to more serious collecting. Scouts of all ages trading all things scouting, sometimes for money as well. Rare patches, including those that were flawed at creation, appealed to bona fide collectors of all things BSA. Camporees and, even moreso, jamborees featured frenzied trading among scouts from around the region or, in the case of the National Jamboree, from US states and territories around the world. Who knew there were Boy Scout troops in Okinawa with members who were native Okinawan? Once I laid my acquisitive eyes on a headband from Okinawa, my determination was insatiable. White cotton with blue oriental characters, a simple rectangle similar to a bandana that the scouts tied around their foreheads. Each Okinawan scout I asked to trade refused. My friends gave up. I jumped deeper into the challenge and committed to asking every Okinawan scout I saw. Many shaking heads replied, many also declaring “No”. Politely, but no.

Just to be friendly as I met scouts from all over, I made several badge trades each day, but the Okinawa headband remained foremost in my goals. I was Ahab and the headband Moby Dick. Nothing would satisfy me until I possessed one, especially as all my friends had given up the chase.

Days passed before I met a nice Okinawan scout who seemed empathetic to my plight and did not flee from me fast enough to avoid my pitch. I persuaded (all but forced) him to accept a pile of patches that he may or may not have cared about in exchange for his headband. As a trade, he received the better value, but I had my Moby Dick. As we shook hands and I returned to my camp, his expression seemed one of remorse and regret, as if there might be some shame in having traded away his headband. For me, it seemed an act of generosity. The grin locked onto my face as I sashayed into camp was worth all the effort up until then. The members of my troop cooed and cawed as Ahab flashed his white whale around the campfire and tents. As far as I was concerned, I could go home then. Prey, pursuit, success.

Aside from scouting, what we collected as children defined us as...children. Curious. Bones, feathers, turtle shells, rocks, sea shells, shark’s teeth from the bottom of the hill at the mall construction site, odd pieces of weathered wood, bright leaves in autumn. Plus, the toys. GI Joe and his endless accoutrements (until my friend Gary and I decided we had outgrown GI Joe and constructed the Final Battle to blow up anything that would explode with a firecracker). A set of 007 miniatures. Anti-war (Viet Nam) posters, band posters, anything painted to brighten with black light. Albums galore, most of which I could not afford.

By college, my collecting goals had changed to new experiences (who, what, when, where, how) and, midway to my graduate degree, t-shirts from 10K runs, one half-marathon (the Chicken Bridge Run across the Haw River and back into Pittsboro for pancakes), and a mini-triathlon outside Greensboro. For about a decade I could boast of not having paid for a t-shirt (“free” with the entry fees). What I did start buying was outdoor gear, backpacking gear to replace my basic Boy Scout equipment. I joined REI in Seattle with a low 6-digit member number due to the dearth of outdoor gear shops in North Carolina at the time. I purchased my first Patagonia products and convinced my parents to give me a climbing rope for Christmas, a gift they always regretted and about which I never heard the end of their disappointment. The rope remains with me over four decades later (I would never climb with it now) as do my original brass Svea camp stove and Tournus Le Grand Tetras aluminum French candle light along with a couple of Austrian carbiners.

My t-shirts defined me as a runner in a similar way that my backpacking gear defined me as a lover of the outdoors: hiking, canoeing, backpacking, campfires, tents. In many ways, this age extended the Boy Scout ethos without being a member of a group with a uniform, rules and regular meetings, gatherings and prescribed goals measured by merit badges and other patches. Running, cycling and hiking all created the basis for conversation with new people, other students, at college. As we each shared our interests and passions, we exposed ourselves to unfamiliar worlds that attracted us (or not).

In the biggest departure from my past, I discovered poetry and soon began collecting books. Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, Robert Creeley. I steered away from the more routinely notable poets such as Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. The initial collection paralleled the textbooks I needed for college courses like Chemistry, Economics, Ancient Irish, and Calculus. My American History final essay gave me a reason to buy and read all of Kerouac’s novels. It was a few years before the love of the books themselves precipitated a theoretically unlimited budget for acquiring new writers as I learned new names. And years more before I sought rare editions when I could afford them.

As I completed my post-secondary education and entered the working world, I found that certain of my collecting preferences continued and deepened. Deer skulls, pre-historic whale vertabrae, odd stones, and photographs (that I shot) assembled with memorabilia connected to family. A faded green and blue plaid flannel shirt worn soft that had belonged to my Scottish great-grandfather. A ceremonial Masonic (Scottish Rite) sword that had belonged to my maternal grandfather, a man I never knew. A silver belt buckle with matching watch chain and fob that had belonged to my paternal grandfather who I also never knew. I received these items mostly in lieu of actual memories. I remembered my great-grandfather, though mostly his rough Scottish brogue that came on the immigration ship with him, my great-grandmother and their daughters, the youngest my maternal grandmother. My unknown grandfathers never had a chance to tell me tales, and neither my father nor mother were old enough at their parents’ deaths to recall much of their history because their fathers died so young.

In addition, I found antiquated items that appealed to me as many of the goods sold in our country were of lesser quality than the older goods, those made of solid wood and high grade steel. In the days before the business theory of planned obsolescence, in the time when hardworking people valued their labor and their earnings and expected to purchase only goods and products that were durable, only to be acquired once, not every few years. When I could find the better quality products for less at antiquities shops, I acquired them even when I did not have the skills to use them. Old was superior to new in tools and furniture, something I knew but failed to practice consistently, something I learned again as I aged.

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