THE FIRST WORLD WAR SOLDIER IN MY SHOP - A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE OF REMEMBRANCE
ANTIQUE DEALERS COME TO EXPECT UNUSUAL EXPERIENCES WITH HERITAGE ITEMS
IT WAS JUST WEEKS BEFORE REMEMBRANCE DAY. I WAS WORKING THEN, FROM A SMALL BASEMENT ANTIQUE SHOP, ON THE UPPER END OF BRACEBRIDGE'S MANITOBA STREET. SO THAT PUTS THE TIME FRAME AT AROUND 1993 OR SO. I'M A LITTLE FOGGY THESE DAYS, WITH SO MUCH HUDDLING OVER THIS INFERNAL KEYBOARD…..AND STARING AT THIS WHITER THAN WHITE MONITOR. I PREFERRED, OF COURSE, WATCHING OVER A SHEET OF PAPER IN THE ROLLER OF MY OLD UNDERWOOD, THAT IMPACTED REAL INK ON REAL PAPER….FROM STRIKING METAL KEYS. AYE, THOSE WERE THE DAYS.
ON THIS PARTICULAR OVERCAST FRIDAY AFTERNOON, RAINING AND WINDY, I WAS LISTENING TO SOME FIRST WORLD WAR VINTAGE MUSIC, I HAD RECORDED EARLIER, TO PLAY IN THE SHOP DURING THE WEEKS LEADING UP TO REMEMBRANCE DAY. WE STILL DO THIS WITH WITH OUR PRESENT SHOP HERE IN GRAVENHURST. OFFER MUSIC TO SUIT THE OCCASION. AS WE HAD SOME CANADIAN MILITARY PHOTOS AND A MINOR AMOUNT OF MILITARIA ON CONSIGNMENT FROM OTHER COLLECTORS, THE MUSIC PROVIDED AN INTERESTING MOOD TO THE LOWLY LIT SHOP, THAT BY ITSELF, SEEMED TO BE A PORTAL BACK IN TIME. JUST THE BUILDING ITSELF, PROMPTED PEOPLE TO ASK IF IT WAS HAUNTED. OF COURSE IT WAS. WE DIDN'T MIND IT AT ALL. SPIRITS MAKE GOOD COMPANY. WE CHAT IN THOUGHTS SO IT'S NOT INTRUSIVE CONVERSATION, THAT MIGHT BOTHER OTHER CUSTOMERS BROWSING THE AISLES.
I SHOULD FOOTNOTE THIS POINT, THAT ALTHOUGH WE HAVE HAD MANY MILITARY PIECES FROM BOTH THE FIRST AND SECOND WORLD WARS, WE AREN'T MILITARIA DEALERS BY DEFINITION. SOME TIMES WE JUST RUN INTO ESTATE SALES AND AUCTIONS, WHERE THESE MATERIALS ARE OFFERED, AND BECAUSE OF OUR RESPECT FOR ITS IMPORTANCE, WE ARE LIKELY TO BRING IT ALL HOME…..AT LEAST WHEN WE HAVE ENOUGH MONEY TO MAKE THE PURCHASES. THESE ARTIFACTS CAN GET PRETTY EXPENSIVE. I ALSO DON'T WANT TO MISLEAD YOU. THERE IS A HUGE MARKET FOR MILITARIA, AND IF YOU'RE A GENERAL ANTIQUE DEALER, IT'S JUST DAY TO DAY BUSINESS TO OFFER THESE HEIRLOOM PIECES FOR SALE. SUZANNE AND I, FOR DECADES NOW, HAVE REMAINED ON THE PERIPHERY OF THIS COLLECTING FIELD, AS I HAVE NO DESERVE TO INVOLVE MYSELF SELLING MEDALS OR MORE PERSONAL WAR-TIME ITEMS. I HAVE SOLD SUBSTANTIAL AUCTION LOTS OF MILITARY LETTERS, FROM BOTH WARS, AS PART OF AN ESTATE WE WERE EMPLOYED TO DISPERSE. I WOULD HAVE LIKED, IF IT HAD BEEN FISCALLY POSSIBLE, TO PURCHASE ALL OF THEM FOR MY OWN ARCHIVES, BUT THE FACT WAS, THEY WERE JUST TOO VALUABLE FOR MY BUDGET. THEY SOLD ONLINE FOR A COMBINED PRICE, IF MEMORY SERVES, OF ABOUT A THOUSAND DOLLARS.
THERE WAS AN OCCASION, WHEN I ACQUIRED AN ORIGINAL AND COMPLETE WORLD WAR I UNIFORM, ONCE BELONGING TO A FORMER CANADIAN SOLDIER, WHO AFTER THE WAR, CAME TO RESIDE IN THE BRACEBRIDGE AREA. IT WAS A WONDERFUL PIECE, AND WE USED IT FOR OUR REMEMBRANCE DISPLAYS, WHICH WE DID EVERY YEAR WITH WHAT ARTIFACTS WE HAD AVAILABLE AT THE TIME.
THE UNIFORM SUITED THE WEARER!
The problem for me, was whether to hold onto the uniform, which would likely be the only one I'd ever own in my life, or sell it to a collector as the antique dealer I was supposed to be. There is a fine line between collector and dealer, and sometimes our homes are far more jammed-up with stuff, than our actual shops. So I had pretty much decided, that following this particular year's Remembrance Day, I would finally attach a price sticker. Reluctantly, but it had to be done. I couldn't collect everything after all. Suzanne still calls me a collector instead of a dealer.
I looked up from my desk, that late October afternoon, and there was a chap I knew standing in front, with one hand fondling the uniform, which hung just above our counter showcase. It was a teacher I knew from one of our schools, and he seemed fascinated by the rough texture of the good condition uniform. "Ted," he said. "Is there any chance that you would be willing to loan me this uniform for a Remembrance Day play we're putting on next week?" As we were regular suppliers of theatre props, it wasn't an unusual request. The problem with this uniform, was its size. It was for a man of modest proportion. The young Canadian who had worn it, wasn't tall or heavy. I stopped myself from explaining this to my friend, because he was of the perfect size to don the uniform. I agreed that it would be great to have the uniform in use again, for a peace-time play…..especially as a Remembrance Day event. "I'd like to try it on first," he said, and I pointed him to a bathroom upstairs.
He was gone quite awhile and I wondered if he had just decided to leave after trying it on. That would have been okay, as he thanked me in advance, before he even went upstairs. So I just settled down with my writing work again, which at that moment was a war-time story for The Muskoka Advance, a Friday paper at that time. The music was sentimental and tear-jerking, and my story was pretty heavy and a little depressing, so when all of a sudden, my friend startled me again, I nearly fell off my chair. When I looked up, he had every right to ask, "Looks like you saw a ghost Ted." "I did," I replied. "I did." I really can't explain, just how ghostly he appeared in that Canadian soldier's uniform. It was as if it had been tailored for him. It had an aura that he couldn't have seen, as if the uniform itself was haunted by the past……but somehow, some way accepting, of this new body with a strong heart, re-animating history. Right in front of me. It seemed as if he had just then walked right out of a military portrait, to stand in front of me, for inspection. He even saluted. I'm very seldom at a loss for words, as you can attest, but I was spellbound by the way the uniform fit this man, who had literally, just come in off the street. He didn't know I had the uniform before he walked into the shop. He was just looking for a military hat or regimental photograph, his theatrical group could use as props on stage. Then he found the uniform that no one…..not a soul, in two years, had been able to fit into…..and yes many had tried and failed. It was eerie how it all came together that afternoon. Sort of reminded me of Cinderella and the special slipper. They were made for each other.
He was planning to wear it for the variety show at a local church, I believe, and I couldn't have been happier. But just seeing him in that uniform, made me appreciate the relevance of having kept it for those years…..gathering dust as Suzanne reminds me of my collections. This was just one of those poignant antique-dealer moments, that we all have in this trade, from year to year, that is a strange but adequate pay-off for our own brand of historical preservation. We don't get a lot of credit for this kind of conservation, because our critics only see the profit-taking as motivation. If that was the case, there would be a lot fewer dealers, because the "rush" we get from the trade, is largely "the discovery," from all the energy we expend embarking upon adventure after adventure. It is a grueling enterprise at times. Cut-throat. Indiana Jones type aggressiveness, to make the big finds. The profit aspect is necessary, of course. Show me a business that prospers without it. But to know dealers the way I do, is to appreciate that profit is never as important as experience and odyssey. This gentleman, wearing my World War I uniform, once owned by a brave Canadian soldier, brought the history I adore, back to life for that fleeting but memorable moment, down in a dimly lit shop, I used to call my adventurer's work space. It even gave me something more to write about, for my weekly newspaper column. My friend looked great on stage and he got lots of compliments from the audience. By all accounts, it was a hugely successful fundraiser, and a nice community-spirited show of Remembrance, for the sacrifices made by our citizens, in defense of home and country.
Had I seen a ghost? I don't think so. But as to whether or not, I saw the glow of an old spirit, when that uniform was full of life again……I think so. I don't see auras, but I do feel them. This one was warm and contented. As an antique dealer, it was just one of those important moments, when you give a little sigh of thankfulness, that you've once again, had a rare opportunity, to experience history all over again……but without bombs going off and machine gun fire over the battlefront trench.
A LITTLE HISTORY SHARED FROM MY COLLECTOR FRIENDS, JUST FOR YOU
This afternoon, friends of ours, who we deal with in the antique hunting enterprise, came in with a cigar box full of stereo cards from the vintage of the First World War. The "two parallel image" cards, which appeared as one view, when placed on the holding bracket of a stereo-scope, were mostly British, but there was one American, showing workers at an aircraft factory, and there may be a couple of Canadian troop photographs from the battlefield……although I haven't confirmed this. You could buy these general cards readily, but ones depicting world events, especially war, are very scarce these days……., and are coveted by collectors, especially of vintage photographs. I have included a sampling of these images, which I will carry-over several blogs, so you can have a chance to see what antique dealers get to handle on a fairly regular basis. Fact is, these happenstance discoveries keep us hanging onto the business, even when we become excessively old farts, who should know when to retire. We don't. We die on the job. So here are some of the images, including photographs taken of the trenches in France, and some timely news photos, which likely would have run in the international press, at the time. I don't know how long they have been in this old cigar box, but it's the perfect time to bring them out in recognition of Remembrance Day. Hope you enjoy them. Keep in mind, many were taken under adverse conditions, and while the men were under fire, making some of the images, taken with shattered nerves, less than crisp. Some are a little faded but we think you'll be able to appreciate the circumstance, and situation, of the photographer capturing the image. And just how nervous they were, half expecting their next photograph, may have also been their last. There are a few images that are artistic impressions of war scenes, done by front line commissioned painters.
In 2014 it will be centennial of the commencement of the First World War.
Thanks so much for joining me for this little story of personal Remembrance. Please come and visit again soon.