Like a lot of dads from his era, mine was barely knowable. He was a WWII veteran (Army Air Corps), and went to trade school on the GI Bill. He talked rarely of his service, but enjoyed showing us his photos of his Air Corps mates and of the Senegalese soldiers with whom he’d served long before I was born.
He was around us so little. He’d leave for work early in the morning, before anyone else was awake (except that one time he woke me up to see the funnel of a distant tornado at 5:00 a.m.–an amazing, terrifying sight). He’d return from his job as a construction electrician just in time for a shower and dinner, and then retire to his rec room lair to listen to the stereo, or watch his favorite Western, documentary series, or WWII drama TV sprawled on the living room carpet.
We went on only two family vacations–one to Washington D.C. when I was ten, and the other to visit my drafted brother when he was stationed at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma in 1968. Memories of Dad during those two vacations are still vivid. Especially the trip to D.C. (On the other hand, the vacation to Ft. Sill was punctuated by Dad’s purchase of an enormous set of antique Texas steer horns, which sat on the laps of my sister and me and out the back windows of the Chevy the entire way from Oklahoma to Chicago!)
The drive to D.C. was a wondrous trip through the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains. The first time I’d ever seen mountains, and the beginning of my fascination with them. (Despite my ever-present terror of falling from any height, I will always prefer to vacation and hike in them (albeit staying on the “safest” trails, much to my family’s consternation!). But that trip up and down and through tunnels and up summits on the road meant so much to my young, curious eyes. Strangely, perhaps, I can still hear the distant thunder as it echoed through the mountain valleys as we paused for the night in Western Pennsylvania.
The trip home was a journey back into history as my dad threaded us through Civil War battlefields and graveyards, snapping hundreds of photos on his beloved Roleiflex Twin lens camera, creating his own personal history book of Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas and more.
To him, it wasn’t just a tourist jaunt. My dad was a bona fide student of history. Although he never went to college (his father would not let him accept a football scholarship to the University of Illinois because he was needed at home), I believe that my father might well have taken a degree in American history, if he’d had the opportunity. He was certainly a collector of it.
His rec room shelves were lined with books and artifacts from the Civil War. As a gun collector, he collected mainly rifles from that era, all meticulously kept, disabled and locked in a handmade case that now sits in my living room to hold books and CDs. But he didn’t only collect; he read voraciously, learning the history of his acquisitions, and the history of this country.
As I think about him on this father’s day, I think the thing I most remember is his appreciation for history, for antiques, and antiquarian books. Maybe it was something he got from his own father, a Russian immigrant junk dealer whose barn in Aurora, Illinois was filled with treasures big and small. We rarely visited my dad’s parents, who seemed to inhabit another world far from our middle class North Shore suburban life, past cornfields and silos, cows and horses, highways and tollroads. But a trip to my grandfather’s barn always yielded some prize from another era, some 100-year-old magazine, a first-edition book even older than that. I still have many of them tucked away in drawers and on shelves in my own home.
And so, Dad, as I savor memories of you, separating some difficult times in our home life from the good, I understand the real legacy I inherited from you–a love of history, an appreciation for those discarded bits of junk that link us to the past, and I smile as I remember that first guitar you bought me–a decades old Martin in a wood “coffin” case, discarded and left to die. I remember the Bausch and Lomb microscope–all brass and black metal–you brought home with pride from one of those endless house sales with which you filled your Sundays. You thought I’d love it; after all, I was a biology major, and the thing worked. Perfectly–and still does.
Because of you, Dad, I can never pass by an interesting piece of junk, a battered old book, a peculiar trinket without needing to know more about it–its history, its legacy, its importance and beauty.
As I write this on Father’s Day 2016, I have to laugh, thinking about my forthcoming novel, and how much our history together, Dad, influenced the creation of my character–Gaelan Erceldoune, apothecary–and knowledgeable dealer in rare books and antiquities, doing business in a little shop, so much like the ones to which you introduced me, so many years ago.