Len Augsburger passed along this Veteran's Day weekend story from Sylvia Baer, a professor of literature at Rowan College of South Jersey. Thanks.
Wow, that's just overwhelming! It was 1959 and my grandfather, Max Kuhner, was showing his coin collection to nine year-old me.
Overwhelming? Sylvia I love how you gather new words and play with them, he chuckled. Then he continued,
Yes, I've been building this collection ever since I came to America in 1925. I researched and saved and started.
He had come from Germany and as a new immigrant had many challenges and hurdles to his career as an engineer, but he persevered and rose to great prominence in his field. Along with many patents, he was also a designer of water systems for California, dam projects in the mid-west, and he was on the Manhattan Project where he was involved in the development of atomic power and the atomic bomb. We found out about most of these accomplishments (in locked drawers and filed documents) after his death because he was sworn to secrecy for much of his career.
In 1958, he retired. After decades of flying all over the world and being responsible for life and death projects, he decided to settle on 100 acres of wooded land in central Massachusetts. He lived simply and tried to work with the rhythms of nature cutting wood for the fires of winter, tending vegetables to enjoy and to can, clearing two small ponds to canoe on and— after hard frosts—to ice skate. I loved the weekends we would travel from our apartment in New York City to spend there. I would scamper about in the woods and come back with treasures that my previous city-dwelling life had not shown me.
See, grandpa would say to me as I showed him my recent find,
that's an acorn. From that tiny little nut-like thing a giant tree will grow. It'll take time, but so much of the power is right there in that small beginning. Like you, Liebchen. And he'd smile and gently, awkwardly, pat my head.
So when, in November of 1959, he took me into his newly built home office for the first time, was stunned. On one wall there was a lighted cabinet full of carefully displayed coins. He explained his collection to me as I held, one by one, ancient Egyptian, Roman, Chinese, coins. Gleaming metal and rough clay. Each piece with a story.
This one I bought in 1937… Each one with a history.
At that time Egypt ruled much of the region. The king… Over the next few hours he would show me treasure after treasure and tell me so many stories.
Inevitably, my nine year-old self asked,
So do you have a favorite?
I couldn't imagine it, but still I was compelled to ask. So much beauty! So much history! Could he pick just one?
Yes, right here, he said as he reached his hand onto the far left shelf where a light shone prominently. And he held out, to my astonishment, a simple American dime.
What's so special about that one? I sputtered,
It's just a plain old dime. I have those at home. It's not even about a king or anything. I was confused.
No, he said,
but it's about life. All of these coins are about life. This one is no different.
And he continued,
Jeremy worked as a night janitor in my building many years ago. It was 1941. He was a young man, maybe 20, whose father had come from Ireland and mother from Lithuania. They were very poor. Jeremy was so bright and so interested in ideas and in history. I would see him many evenings when I worked late. We would talk and I would bring books for him to take home to read. One day I was in my office examining a coin I had just gotten—an ancient Roman one—and I showed it to him and told him about it. He was in awe. I told him I was starting to build a collection, and that one day I would display them all and I would invite him to see it. Oh, he was so happy!
Now Grampa paused and looked out the window briefly. I thought maybe he saw something fly by, but his attention quickly came back to the dime in front of us.
I traveled a lot in those days and when America went to war, I became involved in a number of projects that kept me away for long periods of time. One day I came back to my office late at night and found this dime and a little note of explanation on my desk. It was from Jeremy who told me that he had enlisted in the war effort. He was going overseas to fight for our country. To fight for freedom. Now my grandfather stared down at the coin and seemed to read Jeremy's words as he continued,
‘until I get back home again, I want to be part of your collection, so I leave you this coin. I'll be back to get it when the war is over. Then I'll get to see all of that history you are gathering.'
So why do you still have this, Grampa? Why is it still here? And he answered,
Because, small one, he never came back. It is the cruelty of wars that many are killed in battle. Many die. They do not come back. That is all part of history. Wars. Killings. Battles. Freedom. Oppression. Power. People fight and many die. And everyone—every single one—is valuable. So you see, Jeremy's dime is as important to me as this gold Egyptian coin because it represents a human being who was part of the history of our country—of the world. My way to show honor is to collect these coins. Maybe, Sylvia, you can collect something too. Honor people and their lives—all people.
Max Kuhner did not hug. He was not an outwardly affectionate man, but when my father walked into the room to summon us to dinner, he found my grandfather's arms wrapped blanket-like around me with both of us standing silently.
Are you two, OK? my stunned dad asked.
We're fine, I answered,
and I'm an acorn right now, I began as with fierce determination I met his eyes,
but I'm going to grow into an oak. And I'm going to collect stories, and tell them and write them because people's lives are important. Gently but firmly, my grandpa took my hand and we walked slowly together, in step, to the sit with our waiting family at the table.
And so here I am today sharing all of these—my leaves— with you.
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