The Last Word

The Last WordA Cardboard Box of HistoryTelling a Family Tale with a Collection of Memories from Decades Past 

By Bonnie Haldane Lewis 

You know those orange plastic cones on the flashlights they use to direct aircraft on the ground? Police officers also use them to direct traffic at night. My dad invented those.

Well, maybe invented is not the right word, but he did submit the idea to United Airlines while he was working there as a baggage handler in 1948. He suggested that a frosted plexiglas tube glued to the lens of a flashlight would emit a glow instead of a beam of light. They thought it was a great idea and offered him $15.

This always has been an odd source of pride for our family. I know it’s a true story because I found the letter the airline sent him. It was just one of the many family “treasures” I came across recently.

Mom was moving to an assisted living facility and Dad to a nursing home. The job of sorting through 85 years’ worth of life’s souvenirs fell to us four kids.

There is something magical about a box that has been in the back of the closet for 40 years. It’s a time machine.

I sat on the floor and cut through the brittle masking tape. Inside, I found evidence that my mother and father once were young. Imagine that. There’s Dad at 5 years old, sitting on a rock, with a toy boat. Looking solemnly at the camera, he can’t imagine the adventures the future holds.

Digging down through birthday cards with sweet little 1950s illustrations, I came across a faded, torn and Scotch-taped photo of a man in front of a tent. The back of the photo, dated March 29, 1932, says, “Grandfather Haldane’s brother left home to go west in search of gold.”

Great Uncle John was only 12 years old when he headed west seeking his fortune in 1875. For decades he prospected, writing home from time to time. As the story goes, after this photo arrived, he never was heard from again. I love family ghost stories. Looking at Great Uncle John gazing at me 75 years later, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to him.

Was he murdered? Did he strike it rich and choose not to tell the family? Most likely he got sick and died. My Aunt Peg said she always half expected to open the front door one day and see him standing there with all his worldly possessions on the back of a mule.

As I dug further through letters and postcards, I found more ghosts. A tintype, almost black with age, shows a woman, her hair piled high on her head, blouse collar high on her neck.

She looks uncomfortable. My mother always said people didn’t smile in pictures back then because it was considered undignified.

I always suspected they had bad teeth. Thank goodness for modern dentistry.

More cards and letters. Apparently Mom and Dad never discarded any form of correspondence.

I found a photo of Dad. He looks about 27. Kneeling next to an airplane, he is painting a number on the side of the fuselage. (Dad was a recreational pilot who once sold flying lessons door to door.) This reminds me of a story he revealed at my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.

Just after getting his pilot’s license, he had flown his sister and her baby from Detroit to another city in a single-engine, two-seater Piper Cub. Flying alone on his way back, strong winds made the little plane use more gas than he anticipated. As the gas gauge moved closer and closer to empty, he searched the ground for a place to land.

At last he found a small airport and began his approach. About an eighth of a mile from the runway, the engine quit. He glided in on a wing and a prayer, coming to a stop just a few hundred feet from a gas pump. Bystanders came out and kindly helped him push the plane to the pump.

All I can say is, if I had come home, a 20-something pilot, and told my parents how I had run out of gas and had to make an emergency landing, there would have been hell to pay.

Then again, maybe that’s why he waited 60 years to tell the story.

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