Thursday, October 02, 2008

Glimpse (Updated)

Coblenz, Germany
July 18, 1919

Dear Jay,

Just received your letter of July 14 and shall answer at once, as I know Uncle Sam never moves very quickly and you may still be in Brest...

Neatly typed words on this sheet of paper:

This is a letter from Frank Stewart, a son of Price, Utah, to his brother, who was awaiting transport home from France after their Army service in World War One.

The Mormons have a very active church welfare system, and one of the key components of that system is the Deseret Industries chain of thrift stores. These facilities serve as employment centers for unskilled workers, locations for job training and job seeker networking, recyclers on a massive scale of unwanted and gently used household products, and oh by the way are nothing short of an adventure if you are into treasure hunting.

Last year I picked up a mint first edition of Tregaskis' "Guadalcanal Diary" at the Provo store. It still smelled of printer's ink and had a flawless dust jacket. The closing paragraphs of the book were poignant; since they were written in 1943, the cost of victory, if not its certainty, was very much in doubt.

Common to most thrift stores, there is a section of locked cases set aside for higher value items. Today, in the Provo store again, I found a battered steamer trunk with a hand drawn sign that said "World War One Memorabilia $1500" inside one of the cases.

One of the key carrier ladies let me remove the trunk (very carefully) and said I could look at the stuff, but under no circumstances was I to "unroll anything".

How would you like some history? How about a Yank Army newspaper, with front page stories about American success against Bolsheviks, and German negotiators signing preliminary peace terms? Okay - here's your issue of "The Duckboard" from July of 1919, and I apologize for not writing down the date. I really must get a real camera, because my phone just doesn't get the job done:

The trunk is full of brownie photographs of scenes from Mr. Stewart's service. By full I mean they are jumbled in loosely between the twine-bundled stacks of letters and postcards, the old newspapers, the French/English phrasebook, the LDS devotional books printed for the war, and the three tubes containing what must be either class or unit photographs. The trunk itself is roughly a foot wide by eighteen inches long, and eighteen inches deep. The lid is hanging on by the remnants of one hinge, and the bottom metal has worn away, leaving what feels like a paper thin sheet of mahogany plywood as the last bit of protection for the contents.

I intend to go back tomorrow at the opening with a better camera and spend some time trying to put together a package sufficiently persuasive to get a local museum to pick up the collection.

Were the times not so tight, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. It looks like a battered old box.

But it's really a time machine.

Update 0900 3 Oct: I have just gotten off the phone with the Reference Librarian of BYU's Library Special Collections section. I started to explain what I'd found at DI and she exclaimed "Oh, I saw that, too!"; the price tag influenced her to pass it by. She is passing my description of the contents on to the Documents and Photo Archival curators and expects they will be down to look at the box this morning. There is great interest in Saints at War - there is an entire section of their exhibits based on it, actually.

Desert Industries opens at ten; I'll be there, too, for a closer look.

Update 1200 3 Oct: Here are a couple of the pics I took this morning:

After looking through top portion of the trunk for a bit, I realize that most of the photographs don't have much historic value. The little two inch snaps were sold by photographers to soldiers as souveniers. There are many of them in the trunk, though. No journal that I could see, but I didn't disturb any of the envelopes or bundled letters.

I was contacted by one of the BYU folks on my way back home. He was on his way out to look at the exhibit. I hope he finds the collection worthwhile enough to acquire for the school; perhaps DI will bargain.

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