A Collector’s Worst Nightmare

Harry Welty

An image clearly foreshadowing his future.
An image clearly foreshadowing his future.

For years my wife has warned me that when I die, she is going to rent an industrial dumpster and throw away everything I’ve saved. I always tell her that I will outlive her. I know. That just means my kids will have to rent the damned dumpster.
In my defense I am not a hoarder. When I become too geriatric, I will not be found crushed under bundles of old newspapers. My habit is more nuanced.  I am a “collector.”
I’ve been a collector since childhood. I first began collecting sea shells with my artist Mother. I collected them until I learned that divers were poisoning reefs with cyanide to send the most exotic shells for export. While still busily engaged with mollusks my Father’s uncle left me his stamp collection.  My Geography loving Dad helped me add to the collection which I continued haphazardly until I had kids of my own. My taste leaned toward canceled (used) stamps which have almost no value. I still have four rarely opened boxes of shells and stamps in my workroom where the space might be more profitably used. I keep them because they were my first introduction to science, nature, history and geography. 

From college on I kept the paper trail of my political career. Later my parents, aunts and uncles began leaving me their family’s treasured documents. Until my Mother died and left me a modest inheritance to turn our cluttered attic into an office these collections were squirreled away in a dozen niches throughout our house.

I may have gotten the idea that collections were important from a visit to the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. I remember seeing a display case there full of small nondescript pebbles that Ike had collected from every place he traveled to. There was nothing fancy about any of them. I guess I thought that future generations would clamor to see every scrap that would explain my life and the times in which I lived - just like Ike’s pebbles.

My life has certainly been enriched by learning about my ancestors fleeing a ruined Ireland only to arrive in the United States on the Eve of a Civil War; or riding a daughter’s horse into Oklahoma only to have hopes and the horse dashed by “Sooners;” or ties to the Mayflower or my descent from the Polk family who’s most famous son was my hero, Abe Lincoln’s, first nemesis.

Even if humankind escapes the rapture and meets its end during our sun’s supernova, a billion years hence, I’d like to think I can preserve my sprawling record on a microchip just in case someone in the next million years needs to put his or her or its century into perspective by looking back at mine. If my better half gets her way that won’t happen.

Over the last decade I’ve been winnowing my collections down even as I add to them. The single biggest addition was given to me by a fellow who was brought low by local politicians not long after I moved to Duluth. What he gave me was a small fraction of his record keeping which was seized by the FBI and never returned despite his repeated FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests. His purloined files were used to jail him and strip him of a small fortune. He wanted them back for vindication. I all but promised to write his story someday. I owe it to him and my conscience to keep his stuff out of that dumpster. 

But I have other demands on my time like keeping up with the news and peering back into the past with my collection of history books. They number several thousand. Some are full of yellow marker lines and notes that I might want to use as a footnote should I ever write a book.
Whether I ever write a book or not I am my own collection of experiences and memories. I resist death to keep them alive. Although I’m not as quick as I used to be in answering the Jeopardy Show’s questions, I now have an augmented memory aid called the Internet. I keep it in my pocket. Why just last week I consulted Wikipedia to discover the name of the KKK leader who committed suicide when I was in junior high because he was outed for being Jewish. His name was Burros.

Maybe my collections will help some desperate seeker of truth dislodge a similar data point in some distant future, if I can just keep that dumpster at bay.
Harry Welty is a local eccentric and perennial candidate for office in Duluth who also pontificates on his blog: www.lincolndemocrat.com.