Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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Today we have another installment of Charlene Dodds's rephotography project, in which she's visiting places shown on old postcards sent to and from her great aunt, her grandmother, and their friends. (In case you missed it, further details on the project are spelled out here, and Charlene's first report from the road is available here.)

Here's the latest from Charlene:

After my first stop in York, Pennsylvania, I headed north on I-83 to Harrisburg. I wanted to visit the state capitol building, which is shown on a postcard sent to my great aunt from her aunt in 1907.

Some quick background: This is actually the third capitol building in Harrisburg. The first one was destroyed in 1897 by a fire, and a second one was left unfinished due to lack of funds. The Capitol Building Commission was formed in 1901 to hold a competition open only to Pennsylvania architects. They selected a Beaux-Arts design by Joseph Miller Huston. Known as the Huston Capitol, it was designed in 1902 and dedicated in 1906, a year before this postcard was sent [for all of these images, you can click to enlarge]:

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Here's a roughly equivalent view from when I visited more than a century after the postcard was sent:


Obviously, something's missing. What became of the Washington Monument-like obelisk that's show in the middle of the postcard image? It took quite a bit of research to uncover the answer. The Dauphin County Veteran's Memorial Obelisk was originally erected in 1876 in memory of the county’s Civil War dead. It stood 110 feet high and weighed over 600 tons. After decades of exposure to traffic and the elements left it looking a bit grim, it was refurbished and relocated to Third and Division streets, where it remains today.

Next, I headed a few miles north of Harrisburg. My designation was the Rockville Bridge, the “largest stone arch bridge in the world,” according to this postcard sent to my grandfather in 1922:

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The bridge was completed in 1902. Although it's no longer the world's largest stone arch bridge, it remains the world's longest stone masonry arch railroad viaduct, with a total length of 3,820 feet. You can learn more about the bridge here.

The bridge is still in use today. Here's how it looked during my visit:



Very, very nice. Thanks for the great material, Charlene -- keep it coming.

Friday, October 26, 2012

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Who's the guy with the mustache? His name was Dominic Vadini, and he was the owner of the varsity-style speedskating jacket that I recently wrote about. The photos were provided to me by Dominic's son, Steve Vadini, who I was able to track down thanks to some sensational research by Permanent Record reader Barbara Zimmer.

As you can see, the jacket Dominic was wearing in the top two photos isn't quite the same as the one I ended up buying on eBay, but it's similar -- same color scheme, similar chest patch. Apparently he had a lot of these jackets. (But he sure liked that one hat!)

As you can also see, Dominic was a middle-aged man when these photos were taken. That's one of the surprises that have emerged from this story -- I had assumed that the jacket had belonged to a high school or college student. The trajectory of Dominic's athletic career turns out to have been much more unusual than that of the typical student athlete. I'll have more to say about all of this soon, hopefully in the form of a big feature-length article (maybe with accompanying video). Stay tuned.

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Slate update: The next full-length PermaRec article on Slate, which I had expected to run this week, has been delayed due to logistical logjams on Slate's part (grrrr). Should run next week.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


What you see above is an entry from the Boulder Yellow Pages in 1971. The circled listing is for Hodel's Drug -- the pharmacy whose owner produced the amazing ledger that I recently wrote about. I'm a little surprised they had such a no-frills, bare-bones listing -- in part because I imagined them having a higher profile in the community, or maybe just because I can imagine Oscar Hodel writing "Renewed Yellow Pages ad, paid extra for boldface type" in the ledger.

The phone book entry is one of several Hodel-related clippings that have been sent my way. I'll get to that in a minute, but first let me back up a bit to the week when my original piece about the ledger ran. Soon after I posted that piece, I heard from PermaRec reader Gregg Fanselau. He said he had attended high school with several Hodels, and he gave me the contact info for one of them -- a guy named David Hodel -- in case I wanted to get in touch with him.

So I sent David Hodel a note, explaining how I'd acquired the ledger on eBay, asking if he knew how it ended up there, offering to return it to the Hodel family if they wanted it, and showing him the what I'd written about it. Here's what he wrote back:

Oscar [the guy who filled out the ledger] was my dad's older brother. I'm thinking probably one of his kids put the ledger on eBay. Ockie was a bit of an artist and I'm sure the illustrations [in the ledger, like the little turkey for Thanksgiving] are that side of him coming out. They always kept a record of the weather because it affected traffic at the store and gave a way to compare like days to like days.

We don't have any sentimental attachment to the ledger so the Boulder History Museum is probably a good start. My dad [who, like Oscar, was a pharmacist] gave some trays and other pharmacy-related items to the University of Colorado. They were from the era when pharmacists had to make their own capsules rather than have them pre-counted and packaged.

Hmmmm. I like that Oscar's nickname was Ockie -- that's a nice detail. Aside from that, though, David didn't offer me that much information, and I was surprised by how disinterested in the ledger he was.

Fortunately, it was around then that I heard from Wendy Hall, manager of the Carnegie Branch Library for Local History in Boulder, who had seen what I'd written about the ledger and generously offered to do a bit of research for me. The phone book clipping at the top of this page is one of several things she sent me.

Wendy also sent me this newspaper article published in August of 1956, shortly after the store opened (and about six and a half years before Oscar began keeping notes in the ledger I eventually acquired). It describes the physical layout of the store, provides background on the Hodel family, and gives us our first glimpse of what Oscar looked like (click to enlarge):

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The article mentions that Oscar's brothers, Ron and Merv, operated another Hodel's Drug outlet in Denver, and that Merv "was a stellar member of the football and other athletic teams" at the University of Colorado. That sounds like boilerplate praise, but Wendy sent me some clippings showing that Merv (whose full name was Merwin) wasn't just a collegiate standout -- he actually played pro football, albeit briefly, in the NFL! Here are some items charting his athletic career, beginning with a 1949 article touting him as the most promising U. of Colorado athlete "since the days of All-American [and future Surpreme Court justice] Whizzer White":

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Now fast forward to January of 1952. Merv has graduated and is drafted by the New York Yanks, a short-lived NFL franchise:

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As you can see, the Yanks promptly traded Merv's contractual rights to the New York Giants (good thing, because the Yanks folded before the start of the ’52 season). But by May of that year, Merv had decided to forego a football career in favor of entering the pharmacy biz:

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Now skip ahead another year and a half, to the fall of 1953. Merv has apparently had a change of heart and is preparing to play for the Giants:

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Several weeks later, however, Merv had been sidelined with torn knee ligaments:

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That's the last clipping relating to Merv's football career, and I'm pretty sure he never played pro football again after that. He apparently saw very limited action during his time with the Giants: His career stats show that he appeared in two games, carrying the ball five times for 11 yards, and somehow managing to catch two passes for minus-15 yards (a fairly remarkable, if unfortunate, achievement). Still, that was enough for him to be immortalized in the form of a football card, as you can see below:

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Of course, Merv wasn't the one who created the amazing ledger -- that was Oscar, Merv's brother. And Oscar had a son, also named Oscar, who worked with him at the pharmacy. The father was Oscar A. Hodel; the son, Oscar M. Hodel. Our last clipping finds Oscar M., the son, entering the real estate business in 1973:

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Note that he had "previously managed Hodel's Drug in the BaseMar shopping center" -- the same shop whose daily records were kept in the ledger by Oscar A. Hodel. As you may recall, the final month recorded in the ledger was March of 1972, and there were indications that the store's lease was about to run out. Looks like they did indeed shut down, forcing the younger Oscar to find a new line of work.

That's enough Hodel family history for today. Big thanks to Wendy Hall at the Carnegie Branch Library for Local History in Boulder for all the clippings.

Monday, October 22, 2012

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I want to talk a bit more today about The Flat, the new movie I wrote about yesterday. The photos above show the major players in the film: The top photo is a shot of Gerda and Kurt Tuchler, a pair of German Jews who emigrated to Tel Aviv in the late 1930s. The other photo shows Gerda and Kurt's daughter, Hannah Goldfinger, and her son, filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger, who were surprised after Gerda's death to discover that Gerda and Kurt had maintained a friendship with a Nazi SS officer both before and after World War II.

The film had a bit of extra resonance for me, for reasons I've never discussed before here on the PermaRec site, but maybe now is the time. (No, the story does not involve any Nazis.)

One of the film's themes is that Arnon and Hannah have lived their lives with very little sense of -- or interest in -- their family's history. As Arnon puts it at one point, the family "lives only in the present." Throughout much of the film, Hannah (Aron's mother, and Kurt and Gerda's daughter) seems largely indifferent to the issues being raised. But this isn't the over-vehement indifference of someone who's in denial or willfully trying to avoid facing up to hard truths -- it just seems like she honestly doesn't much care one way or the other. Arnon repeatedly asks her, "Why didn't you ask grandma about [whatever]?," and the response is always, "I don't know, it never really occurred to me." She seems genuinely content with this answer. No discomfort, no tension, no sense of denial, just a lack of curiosity. Arnon acknowledges that he himself shared this mindset until his grandparents' friendship with the Nazi came to light.

Some of this, I'm sure, is the standard coping mechanism of Jews from Hannah's generation. If you ask too many questions or look too hard at the past, you're going to get mired in some very difficult emotional territory. But as I've discovered in the course of Permanent Record, there are also people out there who just don't take much of an interest in family history.

And here's the kicker: I'm one of those people. I know very little about my family aside from its nuclear core, I've never much cared about genealogy, and what little I've been told about our extended family over the years has largely gone in one ear and out the other. So it's odd that I've built a creative project based on other people's family histories. My Mom is a big PermaRec fan (she doesn't use a computer, but I make printouts of the Slate articles and send them to her), and I often wonder if she finds it strange -- or even hurtful -- that I spend so much time exploring and documenting the histories of other families while taking so little interest in my own.

Why have I led such an unexamined life regarding my extended family? I've thought about this a fair amount over the years, and here are some possible reasons:

• I didn't grow up with much sense of extended family. I never knew either of my grandfathers (one of whom had been a bootlegger and gone to prison and was rarely even mentioned), my father was an only child, and my mother was estranged from her brother during my childhood, so I never knew my uncle or my cousins. (My limited interactions with them at the occasional wedding or funeral suggested that they were, frankly, rather unpleasant people who I was glad not to have in my life.) My two older brothers married but did not have children. Our family was not religious, so there were no bar mitzvahs or holiday gatherings with relatives. Our family was essentially self-contained, and there was very little discussion of the extended clan. Even my grandmothers, who were a big part of my childhood, rarely talked about their own extended families.

• My parents changed their names from Lewkowitz to Lukas shortly after getting married -- your basic assimilation move. I remember at one point I got a school assignment to create a family tree, and I was struck by how nobody else in our extended family was named Lukas. It definitely made me feel like I had less of a connection to my roots (yes, I was a bit of a literalist), and reinforced the notion that the concept of family, at least as it pertained to me, began and ended at our house.

• I've always known that I don't want to have kids. I knew this even when I was a kid myself. I'm not anti-kid, but parenthood has never appealed to me. I'm not sure which is the chicken here and which is the egg (like, am I not interested in family issues because I don't want kids, or is it the other way around?), but I suspect the two issues are related in some way.

I'm sure some of you are already thinking, "That's why he does Permanent Record -- to fill a gap." But I don't feel a gap, or a loss, or anything else along those lines. Just indifference -- much like the sincere indifference I sensed in Hannah. And if I wanted to explore my own family history, nothing's stopping me. But for some reason it doesn't interest me as much as the stories I examine as part of Permanent Record.

Part of this may be the sense that other people's lives are inherently more interesting (or more exciting, or more titillating, or whatever) than our own. In other words: the voyeurism factor. Also, I've always been fascinated by objects and artifacts, and Permanent Record is an object-based project -- the rabbit hole starts with a report card, or a pharmacy ledger, or a speed skating jacket. I like using the object as the point of entry for finding and telling a story. (Too bad there are no old report cards or evocative coins floating around in our family archives -- I've asked.)

No doubt there are other factors at work here, but I can't spend all day on the self-psychological couch. Instead, I put this question to you: Do any of you out there fit this same profile (not particularly interested in your own family histories but very interested in the family stories I explore in the course of this project)? If so, please post your thoughts in the comments, or drop me a line. Thanks.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

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What you see above is a coin with the unlikely combination of a swastika on one side and a Star of David on the other. It's the symbol of a seeming contradiction at the heart of a new film called The Flat, which I saw on Friday night. It's something I think most Permanent Record readers will want to see.

Here's the gist: Arnon Goldfinger is an Israeli filmmaker. After his 98-year-old grandmother dies, the family gathers at her Tel Aviv apartment to go through her belongings, and Goldfinger decides to film the proceedings. Things take an unexpected turn when the family discovers old letters, photographs, and other evidence indicating that his grandparents -- German Jews who had emigrated from Berlin to Tel Aviv in the late 1930s -- had been friends with a fairly prominent Nazi SS officer both before and after World War II. The relationship baffles Goldfinger, who spends the next several years trying to understand this Nazi/Jew friendship.

Along the way, he tracks down and befriends the Nazi's daughter and her family; learns for the first time that his grandmother's mother had been murdered in the Holocaust (making the friendship with the Nazi even harder to comprehend); finds references to the Nazi in Adolf Eichmann's trial transcript; finds a whole dossier on the Nazi in the German national archives; and so on. Coming along for most of this ride is Goldfinger's mother, who somehow had no idea that her parents had been friends with a Nazi or that her grandmother had been a Holocaust victim.

The result is super-duper-powerful film with lots of PermaRec-esque elements -- old objects with stories to tell, sleuthing, family histories, family secrets, and so on. There are also several points at which Goldfinger finds himself conflicted about whether to ask certain potentially explosive questions, which is something I've experienced quite a bit during the course of Permanent Record (although, thankfully, I've never been in the position of having to ask someone, "So just what kind of Nazi was your father?").

It's an excellent film, one that I'd recommend to anyone, but that I'd especially recommend to PermaRec readers. You can see some reviews here and here, and here's the trailer:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


When I recently wrote about the note that 13-year-old hiker Tim Taylor left on a mountain in 1972, I didn't give much thought to the scrap of paper on which he had written the note. But several Permanent Record readers recognized it as an old version of Western Union Form 1207, which is the form used to send a telegram. If you look closely at the lower-left corner of Tim's note, you can see that the fine print reads, "WU 1207 (R 5-68)," which means the form had been revised in May of 1968.

What you see above is a much earlier version of Form 1207. The date line at near the top right corner reads "191__," so it was obviously meant to be used in the 1910s.

That photo comes from the excellent blog Stuff Found in Old Library Books, which is produced by a seminary student named Charles Featherstone. It's similar to two other sites I've written about: Forgotten Bookmarks (which I wrote about here) and Together, as Always (which I wrote about here).

Those other two projects are both based on things written and found in used books, but Featherstone's site documents the things he's found inside books while working at the seminary library at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. At the end of the day, it's all the same thing -- ephemera found in books -- but for some reason the distinction between used books and library books feels important to me, although I can't quite articulate why.

Anyway: Here's the page where Featherstone describes finding the Western Union form in a book (although he doesn't recall which book -- grrr). As you'll see, he's maybe a bit too fond of the sound of his own voice, but it's still good stuff. So is the rest of his site. Definitely worth poking around in.

(Special thanks to Paul Deaver for pointing me toward Charles Featherstone's site.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


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I guess it's not surprising that there's a record store called Permanent Records -- or, as it turns out, three record stores called Permanent Records. The one at the top is located in Brooklyn and has been open at least since 2011. The one in the middle, with the annoyingly hard-to-read sign, is in Chicago and has been open since 2006. And the one on the bottom, which is a spin-off of the Chicago store, is in Los Angeles and opened in June of 2011.

It makes sense that all of these shops opened relatively recently. A record store called Permanent Records wouldn't have made sense in, say, the 1980s. But now, with vinyl records and even CDs seeming like antiquated audio formats, the name "Permanent Records" registers as a statement of defiance -- like, "Okay, most of you may have moved on to MP3s, but we're still not going away."

As it happens, vinyl records (and, to a lesser extent, CDs) can have stories to tell, just like the other objects we examine here at Permanent Record. Personally, I never wrote my name on any of my records, but I know some people who did -- sometimes on the jacket, sometimes on the inner sleeve, and sometimes on the label. I specifically remember one kid I grew up who always wrote "Property of..." and then his name on all his records, which seemed like a bit much to me at the time. I've come across lots of these personalized LPs and 45s in used record stores over the years; maybe you have too. Not sure if I still have any of those records (I've pared down my vinyl collection pretty significantly in recent years), but I'll check. It would be interesting to try to track down the record's previous owner and find out why he or she chose to part with it.

In any case, this is a good reminder that Permanent Record -- both the name and the concept -- can extend in some unexpected directions.

(Special thanks to Heather McCabe for the inspiration on this one.)

Monday, October 15, 2012



When I'm not working on Permanent Record, I spend a lot of my time writing about sports uniforms, logos, and athletic gear (yes, it's a very geeky niche). Occasionally those two worlds intersect, as they did back in March when I wrote about an old, unusually evocative baseball jersey. Now it's happened again.

The photos you see above are of a varsity-style jacket that I purchased on eBay a few years ago. It was apparently worn by a speedskater in Parma, Ohio, which is a suburb of Cleveland. Back in 2010, I posted those photos, along with close-ups of the patches and inner label and a description of the jacket, on another blog that I maintain.

That prompted a note that I recently received from Eric Adler -- great-grandson of Rube Adler, the name of the sporting goods shop on the back on the back of the jacket and on the label. The Here's what Eric had to say:

I just stumbled across the post in which you featured a varsity jacket from my family's store. Rube was my great-grandfather so that makes me fourth generation. After Rube retired, my grandfather took over the business. Now my grandfather is retired (although he still hangs out at the store and helps us out) and my father, another manager, and I run the place.

Please let me know if you would like more info about the jacket. I will ask my father and grandfather if they remember it.

Pretty cool, right? I'd love to know who owned the jacket before I did. If you look again at the label, it appears that the skater (or maybe the skater's mother..?) stitched the name Adini -- perhaps with an additional letter at the beginning that has since unraveled -- into the label:

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I told Eric that I'd love to hear more about the jacket and/or the skater. No further updates yet, but this has already been a fun, interesting interaction. Just goes to show that anything can qualify as Permanent Record fodder, as long as it has a story behind it.

Update: Thanks to some sensational research by PermaRec reader Barbara Zimmer, I was able to contact the family of the skater who wore the jacket. The skater, unfortunately, is now deceased but I had a lengthy conversation with his son, who was very excited to hear about the jacket (and who clearly loves talking about his dad). Interestingly, the son has no idea how the jacket ended up on eBay, although he's asking some other family members about it. I'll definitely be writing more about all of this -- stay tuned.

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Slate update: I'm about to deliver the next feature-length Permanent Record article to my editor at Slate. It should run either this week or next. This will be the last PermaRec article to appear on Slate for the foreseeable future. If my research (read: Cate's and Samantha's research) turns up a particularly powerful story lurking in one of the report cards, Slate will be happy to let me write about it, but they no longer want to commit to an article every month, or every month-and-a-half, or whatever.

I can live with that, at least for now. Meanwhile, the project will remain active here on the blog as long as there are interesting things to write about (i.e., forever).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Back in July, I wrote about a guy named Russell Ries, who had acquired a cigar box full of old snapshots, all of or pertaining to the same person, along with the person's military medals and some other personal effects. He purchased them from a flea market vendor, who had obtained them at an estate sale. The person in the photos was deceased, but Russell was thinking about tracking down the person's relatives and giving them the photos and other objects. (If you missed this entry or want to refresh your memory on the particulars, look here.)

Russell recently got in touch with me because there's been a new development, as follows (Russell doesn't want to disclose the name of the person shown in the photos, so I've changed it to John Doe, and have also changed the names of John Doe's children):

A few weeks ago I met a couple named Larry and Donna Conzett at the farmers' market where I work on Saturday mornings. After talking for awhile, I got to telling them about the photos in the cigar box and how I have a bunch of John Doe's military medals and other stuff too. It turns out that the Conzetts are passionate about genealogy and other historical research. ... Even better, they enjoy returning lost personal items to the families to which they belong. They generously offered to help me find out more about John Doe and help track down his relatives, so I sent them all the information I had on him. They've now given me the results of their research, and what they've discovered has left me dumbfounded.

The very last John Doe photo I posted on my Flickr account was one that shows John Doe's mother standing beside a grave site in a cemetery [which you can see at the top of this page — Paul]. The grave is for Joey, John Doe's second son. All along, I thought this was the saddest photo in the set and I wondered what caused Joey to pass away at such a young age. But now the Conzetts -- the researchers who offered to help me -- have discovered that Joey died of malnutrition brought on by child neglect at the age of two.

According to a bunch of newspaper articles the Conzetts found, John Doe and his wife (who was pregnant with their third child at the time) were charged with and convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Joey's death. They then appealed and were granted a new trial due to juror misconduct. That's as far as the information goes. I don't know what happened in the second trial, but I'm not really sure it matters, because the coverage of the first trial doesn't paint a very pretty picture. It all gives me a better guess about why John Doe's personal possessions were not kept by his family after his death. [Russell provided me with copies of the newspaper articles. They portray John Doe and his wife in an extremely unflattering and upsetting light. — Paul]

Another thing the Conzetts discovered is that John Doe's oldest son, Andy, is his only living relative and he happens to live here in the Nashville area -- where I live. [John Doe's family was not living anywhere near Tennessee when the manslaughter trial took place. — Paul] Based on what I now know, I very much doubt that Andy would want to have his father's possessions. Still, I'm wondering if I should locate him and offer them to him anyway. That way it would at least be his decision to reject the items, rather than some stranger (me) deciding for him.

How would you play this? Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or should I seek out Andy? (The fact that he just happens to live in the same place as me kind of seems like a sign...) If I am to approach him, how should I go about it?

For now I'm going to give this info time to settle in my brain, rather than take any action. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Wow. I sent Russell a lengthy response, the gist of which was basically "It's complicated." If it were me, I'd probably go ahead and contact Andy, because that's part of what I do as a journalist and storyteller -- I follow the rabbit hole, even if it leads in potentially uncomfortable directions. And as I mentioned to Russell (who readily agreed), there's no getting around the fact that this is now a tantalizingly juicy story, even if the juiciness is rooted in tragedy. It feels like a puzzle that wants to be solved, a mystery that wants to be resolved.

But it's certainly possible that Andy -- John Doe's son -- doesn't want any reminders of an unpleasant past, especially not from a stranger. So I can see a strong argument for not contacting him. Indeed, maybe Andy is the one who sold John Doe's belongings at the estate sale in the first place.

One of Russell's big motivators here is that he wants John Doe's military medals to have a proper home. Perhaps he should give them to a veterans' group and leave Andy out of it..?

I suggested to Russell that it might be good to ask for feedback and advice from the Permanent Record readership, so here we are. What do you think? Post your thoughts in the comments, or e-mail them to me and I'll pass them along to Russell. Thanks.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

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A canister containing the note you see above was recently found by a hiker in Sequoia National Park in California. As you can see, it was written by a 13-year-old hiker named Tim Taylor in 1972, which means Taylor would now be in his early 50s. The hiker who found the note, Larry Wright, is hoping to find Taylor but has so far come up empty. (The house at the address listed on the note has been sold several times since 1972.) You can read more about this here. Unfortunately, there's no photo of the canister, which I'd like to see.

Leaving a message near the top of a mountain (sort of like putting a message in a bottle, except the message stays in one place) feels like one of those things that are instinctual but unexplainable. On the one hand, it seems like a perfectly logical thing to do (the marking of an achievement, creating the seeds of a story that will grow and bear fruit later on, etc.), and on the other hand it seems sort of ridiculous. That's a potent combination, one that I've found often leads to particularly rich experiences. I hope this one plays out for Taylor and Wright, and that this note eventually brings them together for what I'm sure will be a very interesting meet-up.

Update: Tim Taylor -- the 13-year-old kid who wrote the note -- has been found. He's now a San Diego County Superior Court judge. Interestingly, the article says Taylor and his family had a habit of leaving notes behind: "Whenever [my family] would go to Catalina, my dad would have us put a note in a bottle," he said. "It's kind of the same idea." Indeed.

(My thanks to Eric Neel for tipping me off to this one.)

Monday, October 8, 2012



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Remember the mental hospital patient ledger that I recently wrote about? I'll have more to say about that shortly-ish (it's a lot of information to process, plus I'm still assessing the ethical implications), but in the meantime that ledger has gotten me curious about the larger world of vintage ledgers in general, so I've been seeking some of them out.

One of the most interesting ones I've acquired, which I found on eBay, is shown above. It tracks a little over nine years' worth of daily revenue figures (and lots of other things, which I'll get to in a minute) for Hodel's Drug, a now-defunct pharmacy in Boulder, Colorado. The ledger 152 pages and fairly large -- 13" by 15" when closed, and 30" wide when opened. The hardcover binding is thick, and the whole thing feels heavy and substantial, almost indestructible. If my apartment burned down, I feel like this is one of the items that would survive the inferno.

I wanted to know more about Hodel's Drug, so I did some rudimentary Googling and came up with this obituary for Sonja Hodel, who died earlier this year. The obit says she "was married to Oscar A. Hodel, longtime proprietor of Hodel's Drug in Basemar Shopping Center, who died in 1979." Based on this, and on a few other clues, I'm pretty sure the ledger was filled out by Oscar. (I've tried to find an obituary for Oscar but have so far come up empty. Update: PermaRec research volunteer Cate Bloomquist has turned up this obituary for Oscar. It doesn't add much to the story, although it does prove for the umpteenth time that Cate is a much better researcher than I am.)

The ledger begins in January of 1963 and goes through March of 1972. For the first few years of the ledger, each month got its own two-page spread, as shown in the second photo at the top of this page. But in April of 1966, Oscar changed the format to one page per month, instead of two, as you can see here (for all of these photos, you can click to enlarge):


The ledger's primary function was apparently to track the shop's daily revenue in a variety of sales categories -- magazines, tobacco, liquor, beer, prescriptions, non-prescription drugs, sundries (always a great category), and so on -- along with daily figures for sales tax, excise tax, and the like. I'm sure someone could analyze the numbers and discern assorted business trends and sales cycles. Maybe I'll get around to doing that myself one day.

For now, though, I'm much more interested in the other information and notes scattered throughout the ledger. Cumulatively, they suggest that the ledger was really more of a personal journal, and that Oscar was a bit of an obsessive diarist. I'm a bit obsessive about documenting certain things myself, so I felt something familiar and even comforting as I explored the ledger -- the sense that I was encountering the work of a kindred spirit. Still, Oscar took things a lot further than I ever have.

For starters, Oscar appears to have been rather fixated on the weather. Every single daily ledger entry begins with the day's high temperature and a description of the weather, with atypical or severe conditions noted in dramatic lettering:



I'm sure Boulder's daily weather history is easy enough to find on the internet these days. Still, it's kind of amazing that Oscar's drug store ledger also serves as a de facto meteorology archive for the city. I happen to have been born during the period covered by the ledger, so I looked up my birthday -- March 21, 1964 -- and found that it was an unusually warm day, but that it snowed just a few days later (not that I was anywhere near Boulder at the time, but it's still interesting):


I especially like the top of the page for June of 1965, where Oscar noted that a tornado had taken place in Colorado Springs and then drew a little twister to punctuate the event:


But weather wasn't Oscar's only obsession. Looking through the ledger, several other themes become apparent:

1. Current events. Significant news events were annotated at the top of the pages for the months in which they occurred. Here, for example, is the top of the page for November of 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, along with the ledger entry indicating that the store was closed on the morning of his funeral:



When Lyndon Johnson was re-elected a year later, this too was noted on the top of the appropriate page:


April of 1968 was a particularly busy month, with Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, a total eclipse, Johnson's announcement that he would not seek re-election, the start of Daylight Savings Time, and more:


And here are the notations for Robert Kennedy's assassination (June of 1968) and the Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon (July of 1969):



2. Holidays. Oscar had a fairly consistent protocol for denoting holidays in the ledger. The entry for Valentine's Day, for example, always included a little heart:





As you can see, sometimes the heart was red, and sometimes not. Maybe this was just a function of whether Oscar had a red pen within easy reach, but I doubt it. Almost everything about the ledger feels programmatic, like it was done for a reason, so I suspect there was a color-coding system for the hearts, but I haven't cracked that code yet.

The hearts are nice, but my favorite thing about the entire ledger is the crude little turkey that Oscar drew each year to designate Thanksgiving:




How great is that?! Other holidays got their own symbols, but the hearts and the turkeys are the best ones.

3. Traffic. The ledger has repeated references to traffic developments in the Boulder area (presumably because they might affect business at Hodel's Drug), such as this newspaper clipping:



Some of the daily entries also have traffic-related notes, such as this mention of an intersection being closed:


4. Family. There are many, many notations regarding family developments. Fortunately, that obituary for Oscar's wife, Sonja, lists the names of many of the family members, so I was able to decipher many of the relationships and references.

Let's start with Sonja herself. If you look again at that obituary, you'll see that the headline lists her as "Sonja" but the text refers to her as "Sonia." Interestingly, this inconsistent spelling also appears in the ledger:




There are also many references to Oscar and Sonja/Sonia's daughter, Gloria, most notably the announcement of her marriage to a man named Dave in August of 1971:


The wedding note was good to see, because Dave had apparently been involved in a serious motorcycle accident a little over two years earlier:


In a somewhat more mundane development, Oscar put snow tires on Gloria's car in December of 1968, which I mention only because it shows the degree to which Oscar used the ledger as a personal journal:


My favorite family-related notation is from August of 1969, when Oscar managed to combine several of his passions (family, weather, cars/traffic, etc.) into the following note:


In case you can't make out the handwriting, it says, "Temp 8/8 Friday officially 101ยบ -- Sonia, Gloria, boys + I go to Colorado Springs (Cave of Winds). Air conditioning not working in Cadillac."

5. Sports. There are assorted references to sports throughout the ledger -- mostly football, but not exclusively. For the January 1964 page, for example, Oscar listed the winners of the various New Year's Day bowl games:


Note that Oscar also listed the temperatures for the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl. He really liked his weather.

Sports and weather intersected once again in this note about the 1967 Indianapolis 500 being rained out:


Oscar also attended some sporting events in person, as you can see from this note regarding a Broncos/Jets game in Denver:


As you can see, Oscar went to the game with "OCKd." That abbreviation appears many times in the ledger, but I'm not certain who it refers to. According to Sonja/Sonia's obituary, she and Oscar had a son named Oscar -- maybe "OCKd" is him? Not sure.

6. The shop. As you'd expect, there are lots of notes relating to Hodel's Drug itself. Some of these are explainers for certain sales figures. The prescription revenue at the beginning of February of 1966 was higher than usual, for example. Why? Here's why:


Similarly, when tobacco revenue spiked in July of 1964, Oscar provided an explainer for that as well:



There are also some notes regarding the maintenance of the shop, like these mentions of taking out a wall and pouring a new floor:


Hodel's Drug apparently underwent a remodeling for the Christmas season in 1966. It must have been deemed a success, because it was repeated every subsequent year except for 1969:







Hmmm. What happened in 1969? Why no Christmas remodeling that year?

There are indications that Hodel's Drug either closed or moved in the spring of 1972. The first sign of this comes at the bottom of the page for December of 1971, where there's a note about giving up the shop's longstanding beer license:


The reference to the beer license is repeated at the top of the following month's page. But the bigger news is at the bottom of that page, which indicates that Oscar had given his landlord a three-month notice of lease termination:



References to the impending end of the shop's lease are repeated on the pages for the next two months:



And that, rather maddeningly, is where the story ends. After March of 1972, the ledger was full, with no pages left for what was apparently the shop's final month. Did Oscar purchase another ledger for April, just to record the numbers for that last month? I'd like to think he did, if only because he was such an endearingly compulsive documentarian that it's hard to imagine him without his journal. Surely he must have kept tallying sales figures and jotting down weather conditions down to the very last day, no?

— — —

The Hodel's Drug ledger is an amazing document of a business and a family. My initial instinct was to track down some of Oscar and Sonja/Sonia's children or grandchildren (should be easy enough, since I know their names and at least some of them are probably still in the Boulder area) and see if they wanted this family heirloom returned to them. But first I wanted to know the route that the ledger had taken on its way to me. How had it ended up on eBay in the first place?

So I contacted the eBay seller (who, judging by his eBay profile, is an experienced seller with tens of thousands of sales) and asked how he'd acquired the ledger. The answer surprised me: "It was a consignment." In other words, someone was in possession of the ledger, figured it might have some value, and gave it to an experienced vendor to sell.

It seems likely that this person was a member of the Hodel family. Sonja/Sonia died just eight months ago, so perhaps the ledger had been stored in her home and was flagged as a likely resale item when her family went through her personal effects after her death. Or maybe the family held an estate sale and the ledger was purchased by someone who figured it might have resale value. Either way, it suggests that the family didn't care about holding onto the ledger, so maybe I shouldn't get in touch with them after all. Hmmm.

The eBay seller wouldn't tell me the consignor's identity but offered to pass along my contact info to the consignor. I accepted that offer. No response from the consignor so far, though.

So now I'm rethinking my original plan of getting in touch with the Hodels. Instead, I think I'll contact the Boulder History Museum and see what they have to say. Stay tuned.