It has been wisely said that we devote the first half of our life to accumulating “things”, and the second half to getting rid of much of that ”stuff”. We refer euphemistically to that process with such terms as “cleaning house”, “down-sizing” or “simplifying life”. My wife reminds me frequently of the need to start doing this. (In fact she routinely refuses to allow strangers to even enter my office, let alone pay a visit to our basement.) From where I sit as I write I have merely to turn a few degrees to gaze upon a canteen that rode on my side every day during a period that stretches back 61 years, a defused hand grenade whose story is tied to one of the most frightening nights of my life, an array of fire and police badges, each of which reflects a unique set of professional epics, and a much worn canoe paddle which has plied the waters of numerous wild rivers, the wilderness lakes of two countries and the shorelines of three oceans. A model of a P-51D Mustang fighter exact in every detail stands where its image is reflected mystically in the glass covering an original Don Troiani print of a Civil War trooper of the 14th Brooklyn Zouaves in colorful 1862 gear.
The picture I have drawn for you should leave no doubt that I suffer from a syndrome recognized by a small clique of maverick psychiatrists as “the endowment factor”; a malady which identifies an inordinate attachment to the possession of “things” assigned a high sentimental value. For me the enterprise of “cleaning house” is a painful affair, even to contemplate.
Since I am already in the confession mode, I might as well tell you about the disparate and seemingly valueless contents of a small, foil-wrapped box I call my “treasure trove” which has its own nook on a closet shelf I can reach easily and often. Lying flat on the bottom is my student pilot flight logbook, and the direct copy of a letter, found under the pillow of a six-year-old granddaughter who is today a mother of two herself. It says “Dear Thooth Fary. . .I want to thank you for giving me monny evry time I loos a tooth So I gave you some mony to give all my thanks, And I hope you will remember me. Love. . . Tiffany Jean Cooper”. Taped to the folded page torn from a lined legal pad were two dollar bills, a nickel and a penny. Under a small piece of paper labeled “My Tooth” was taped the subject of the missile.
In one corner of the box reclines my first wrist watch, a “pilot’s model”, purchased with money earned from pushing wheel barrow loads of cement sufficient to build a neighbor’s foundation for fifty-cents/hour at a time when kids my age were lucky to own a three-dollar pocket watch. In another corner are a musket ball and minié bullet picked up from the battlefields of Fredericksburg, a pair of meteorites from a strewn-field in Indonesia, and some Boy Scout memorabilia dating back to 1946. A small glass containing crystals of frankincense and myrrh are brought out and admired every Christmas, while my father’s 1917 Marine Corps dog tags are worn around my own neck every June 6th.
Born into a family of letter-writers, I have determined that the earliest piece of correspondence in a boxful is a business letter addressed to my great grandfather, and dated October 6th, 1862. Holding it in my hands reminds me that it was delivered at a time when Americans were just beginning to learn that more than 25,000 casualties had occurred weeks before at a place called Antietam, and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had been signed by President Lincoln. Right next to that item, is a hand-cancelled envelope which was carried on the first air mail flight ever to fly from coast to coast with two refueling stops via Winslow, Arizona nearly 83 years ago, on Oct. 25, 1930.
Of course other parts of my “endowment inventory” take up much more space, even before we get to the book shelves which hold literal “treasures” of the written word, cabinets groaning under the weight of music engraved in wax, on vinyl, on reel-to-reel tape and later formats, and much, much more.
The word “touchstone” came into our lexicon as a description of a physical object used to measure the authenticity and confirmation of precious metals and gems; a standard by which to assign intrinsic value. If you were to remind me that the things I have enumerated here cannot ultimately be “taken with me”, you would not alter my view that it is often such TOUCHSTONES that remind us of who we are, how we got this way, and why the dawning of every new day presents us with the opportunity to be true to the times in which we live, and the legacy which others have given to us.
More than 140 years of family, personal and national history look down on an office setting which helps the author to focus on a wish to reflect daily on a legacy worth remembering.
Sometimes it is the small objects of a lifetime which have the power to become the “Touchstones” which bring a respect for our history and a sense of continuity and purpose.