Sometimes, prosaic beginnings lead to great things. But not in my case...
I've always been interested in technology. Especially obsolete technology. When I was an infant, my Dad traveled a lot, and he would always bring me back some trinket from a business trip. And because he was a craftsman and a tinkerer trapped in a businessman's suit, it was always nifty stuff. One time it was a guy wire insulator, which at my age of (roughly) four, was worth more to me than the crown jewels.
Mom and I would visit him at work sometimes on a Saturday. We'd get cinnamon toast at the hotel restaurant across the street, then go over to his store. One fine day he talked the building electrician into giving us a tour of the switch room behind the store's PBX. From that day on, I had to add a Strowger switch to my collection, and I finally got one in the early '70s.
When I was eight (1954), his health forced him to retire from his retail V. P.'s job. [At that time, he was 55 - exactly my age now - in retrospect, it was kind of neat to have a Dad born in 1899 - but I digress.] Guess we'd call it a nervous breakdown now. So the family retired to a 20 acre farm in the middle of Illinois and he milked several cows by hand for a year while he got it back together.
Well, we had moved from the dial-phone age in Kansas City to the wall-mounted magneto phone age in rural Illinois. I remember that our party line ring was three shorts and a long. That old Kellogg phone hadn't been converted to common battery, so it had the two ignition dry cells inside.
And, of course, there were those insulators on the open wire circuit along the road.
The next year, he sold the farm and bought a store in Waverly, Illinois, a town of about 1,200 people. That summer before third grade was spent watching GTE technicians install a small step office and junk the four position switchboard in town. I came out of that with some wall phones and other stuff. I remember what a bonfire that a huge pile of those old phones make when they were burned to salvage the metal - breaks your heart to think about it now.
It didn't take me long to get close to the stationmaster for the CB&Q railroad in town. Steam hadn't quite been phased out, and I remember paying more attention to passing trains in the third, fourth, and fifth grade than I did to my teachers!
One cold winter's day I was hanging out at the station when a lineman came in from his maintenance car to warm himself at the Round Oak stove. He made a vast improvement to my vocabulary while describing just what he thought of the vandals that had been shooting off his insulators with a .22 rifle!
Years later, I went back for the 20th reunion of the Waverly High School class of '64, which I didn't graduate with, as we had moved away to Jacksonville in 1960. The station was long gone, but I did find one Purington Paver brick that the scavengers had missed.
Guess I got bit by the railroad collecting bug as a youth. In the '80s I met up with a crew that was pulling up old New York Central rail between Joliet and Chicago Heights. They let me scrounge all the old vital circuit relays that I wanted from crossing protectors. I wound up with a garage full of great obsolete technology. Alas, most of that had to go away when I went to the Big D (and I don't mean Dallas), but I found a good home for it at the Illinois Railway Museum.
To make this overlong story come to an end, I remarried, went from one child to four overnight, have spent the last decade-and-a-half trying to be as good a Dad to them as mine was to me, and now that only one is at home (in name only - the only time we see him is when he can pry himself away from his girlfriend) I have time to feed my latent obsessions again.
A couple of years ago, I bought an "Am. Tel. & Tel." CD121 at an antique store, thinking it would look nice on my bookshelf at work. (I do networks for a 13,000 person firm near Chicago - the old glass seemed a nice counterfoil for hundreds of routers.)
Then, this past August the old Chicago & Northwestern Railroad was taking down its trackside wires in Lake Forest, IL. I drove by on a Friday afternoon, after the poles had been pulled, and helped myself to a veritable feast of insulators! Timing is everything: when I went back on Monday for more, it had all been cleaned up.
But by then, the collecting obsession was raging! I'd come away with about a dozen Hemi 42s, some Armstrong DP1s, and a few W-T 512Us. My wife spotted the signs right away. But she can't say much, with all of her shelves full of Longaberger baskets!
And now, as Paul Harvey says, for the rest of the story...
We vacationed in the East from Sept. 8 - 24. I stopped at a likely-looking antique shop in Hoosick, New York on Sept. 10, and bought my first Brookfield CD145.
The morning of Sept. 11, our wedding anniversary, we were breakfasting in the dining room of the West Mountain Inn in Arlington, VT, when our server came in with "The News."
Later that day, and further up the road in Shelburne, the proprietor stayed open an extra ten minutes after 5:00 while I nosed around and bought four more, including my first Hemi 19 signal insulator.
My parents have told me that they remember with distinct clarity exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor. Now I know what they mean.
These old lumps of obsolete glass don't have much intrinsic value (at least, not the ones that I can afford to buy!) But they connect me to something timeless and of great value. Something that is really inside of me, and I believe, inside all good people.
They speak to me of men and women who build things that outlive them, useful things that make other people's lives richer and more fulfilling.
In a time of great change, they say to me, "Look at us. We don't do much. But there is great value in lowly-seeming tasks performed faithfully over and over for years, with no hope of ever being more than just what we are."
I would not trade this for anything.
Written by Steve McCollum,
Last updated Saturday, November 10, 2001
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