March 16, 2012

Photo by Michael J. Kannengieser

A Legacy of History

My Dad was more than a lover of books, he was an amateur historian. His library included titles covering WWI, WWII, steam engines, ships (he always wanted to be a sea captain), birds (he was also a bird watcher), and the Civil War. In addition, he shared his passion for reading with our mother who typically sat in the living room after supper with a cup of hot tea and a mystery. 

My siblings and I became accustomed to shelves of literature and history books crammed into every corner of our tiny Cape Cod style home. My father’s grasp of the subject matter was so thorough, one of my sister’s friends, a professor an esteemed university once told me: “Your father knows more about American History than most history professors where I teach. “

It should have been no surprise the amount of books we accounted for in our parents’ home after dad passed away in May, 2009. Yet, after I probed deep into a crawlspace to retrieve a box I discovered in a dark corner using my flashlight, I found an assortment of documents, relics of his earlier occupation, which are remarkable not only in their subject matter, but because my father possessed of them.

I dragged the flimsy, cardboard box from the eaves and into my old bedroom. Dripping with sweat and covered in dust, I eyed the contents, which at first glance seemed unimpressive. Many were reports, plain blue and gray government documents. One of the titles grabbed me. On the pale blue cover, in all capital letters across the top the title read: The United States Strategic Bomb Survey. Underneath, a subtitle: The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The words Atomic Bombs were printed in a much larger font size than the rest of the text.

Other booklets caught my attention, too. The End of the War in the Pacific, Surrender Documents in Facsimile, Germany Surrenders Unconditionally, International Military Trials, Nuremberg, and most impressive, Charter of the United Nations, in five languages. There were about two dozen of these government publications. Their numismatic value is uncertain, their historic significance indisputable, but their worth as family heirlooms, enormous.

Details about how my father came to own this collection of historic papers are sketchy. He worked for the U.S. Navy at the old Brooklyn Navy yard in Brooklyn, New York, for twenty years. Dad took the job of forklift driver in his late twenties. He was ill for years after his discharge from the army in November of 1944, battling pneumonia and various infections – all complication from his wounds, and much more manageable with today’s medicines. There, he took advantage of the many education opportunities offered both by the Navy and through the G.I. Bill. He studied accounting, management and mechanics. By the end of his twenty-year tenure, he worked in an office as a labor liaison between the unions and the government.  

Records of his employment, such as training certificates and work orders, gave few clues as to how he would gain access to this trove of government journals. In another box, I discovered a newspaper. It appeared to be weekly published by the Navy for its employees. On the front page, in the lower, right-hand corner, I noticed a picture of a group of men and women in business attire. Among the names mentioned in the caption, was my father’s He was in the back row, taller than many of them, smiling, and according to the description, named to the N.S.A. Library Committee.

As a member of a library commission, he would certainly be able to acquire the items I uncovered in his home.  However, I have not confirmed if the N.S.A. organization he worked for was indeed the National Security Agency, or a defunct branch of the government. Perhaps I don’t want to unravel the mystery surrounding my father’s trove of important booklets. The tiny mystery accompanying them adds an aura to the memory of my father as a man who had influence above the ordinary capacity of a lower-middle-class family man. I’d like to believe my father kept these for their historical significance. I’m sure before he died, he knew I’d find and appreciate them the way he did. I wish he’d have told me about them sooner so I wouldn’t have to crawl through the dusty eaves to drag them out of there.