T.W. Paterson column: Don’t call me Indiana Jones

It still smarts that she publicly accused me of everything short of graverobbing

It still smarts that she publicly accused me of everything short of graverobbing, even flat out linking me with the fictional movie character.

I remember my very first collectible. It was an 1897 American penny that I found in the gravel parking lot of Christie’s store, long a landmark at Saanich and Darwin roads.

I was really young but it caught my eye and my fancy because of the Indian head on the obverse. I’d seen American pennies before but this was the first one that didn’t bear the likeness of Abraham Lincoln.

I was hooked. Not just on coins, which I proceeded to collect until well into my 20s, but on other old things. My father inspired my collection of Royal Canadian memorabilia, which I still covet, when he retired from the navy. I was maybe eight when he gave me everything but his medals (I have them now) and I’ve added considerably to that passion over the years at flea markets, in antique stores and, sometimes, by donations from other ex-RCN who knew of my interest in the navy.

Sadly, I was too young to fully appreciate the value (and I don’t mean monetary) of several items from my maternal grandfather who’d gone down into the coal mines of Durham at the age of 10. (Perhaps this partially explains why Vancouver Island’s ‘black’ past is my number one interest.) Three items stick in my mind: his Wolfe safety lamp (as I know it to be now), a coffee pot (open-flame) lamp, a pool cue, and the face and innards of a clock that was cradled in a basket. These were kept in my parents’ basement.

Both lamps were from Granddad Green’s mining days in the Old Country. The pool cue had belonged to a famous miner (whose name I never did know) from Nanaimo. The clockworks were from a bombed-out church in France, a grim souvenir of his time in the trenches of the First World War.

Happily, I still have the safety lamp, part of my extensive collection of colliery artifacts, but the other relics disappeared. I know who took them but I couldn’t prove it and that was the end of it other than as a bitter lesson for me.

This interest in almost anything old is part of my DNA. it has always been there; I can’t explain it, I’ve simply drifted with the tide. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sometimes, it isn’t a matter of acquiring something because I really want it but a matter of ‘rescuing’ it. There’s something offensive to me about really personal things such as family photos, scrapbooks or family heirlooms being sold as just a commodity, like any other used good.

When that item is part of a family’s history and storyline and should never leave their possession, my blood boils. But I’ve seen this happen time and again and no longer let it get under my skin. I simply decide whether or not to intervene by purchase.

Too, I’ve come to realize that some families die out; there’s no one left to care about these once cherished possessions and, somehow, they find their way to a flea market or an auction.

But the passion for collecting, rescuing, preserving for the future old things, most of which qualify as historical artifacts, burns within me as hot and strong as ever. Which partially explains my hobby of scratching around old mining sites, logging and railway camps, community dumps, abandoned cabins, etc.

This crusade, as I’ve come to view it, hasn’t always met with the approval of others. I was reminded of this nerve-point two weeks ago by an article in the Times-Colonist about an outstanding collection of fossils which has been gifted to the Royal B.C. Museum. The lifelong work of two avid collectors, the late John Leahy and the late Dave Langevin, is now in the public domain thanks to the generosity of their families.

Note that these fossils were unearthed by these amateur archaeologists who recognized their historic value and who cared for them until their ultimate gifting to the public. In other words, private gain, and certainly not commercial exploitation, were ever the object of the game, and Messrs. Leahy and Langevin and their understanding families are to be commended for what will have involved considerable time and effort.

My own efforts at playing archaeologist haven’t been as fruitful as the collection of fossils they amassed but, in their own modest way, have value as part of the Cowichan Valley’s and Island’s storyline. I unearth, clean and ID most items and keep them as part of a private personal collection until, as part of my estate, they’ll be passed on to designated recipients; some of these are private, such as fellow collectors who will appreciate them most, but the best of my gatherings are destined for museums and historical societies.

This wasn’t good enough for the woman who, years ago, took vocal exception to an article I’d written in a Nanaimo newspaper about digging up miners’s tags. These brass tallies stamped with a number, as I’ve explained before, were a miner’s identification, his dog tag and, to me, they’re worth their weight in gold. Tags are as personal as you can get — a man’s ‘pass’ to drawing a lamp or a pick or powder when on the job. And perhaps the only means of identifying him in the event of an underground catastrophe when it sometimes took months to recover the body.

Over the years, I’ve found several hundred tags at abandoned coal mines, often after hours of work and repeated visits to sites now all but obliterated to the uninformed eye.

Why are they there, in the ground, after all these years? Because no one cared enough to set them aside when the mine was shut down; they were just another throw-away after the equipment had been salvaged, the buildings razed. Few miners, it seems, took theirs home when the job ended or, if they did, didn’t worry as to what happened to them. So they disappeared.

As for those in the ground at various minesites, I consider them to be fair game for my campaign to save and to preserve the Island’s coal mining history. And you can be sure that they’ll pass on to good hands, in both the public and private domains, when I go to the Great Dig in the Sky.

But, no, this woman publicly accused me of everything short of graverobbing, even flat out linking me with the fictional movie character, Indiana Jones. I was destroying and desecrating historic sites that should be left untouched, she raged.

Historic sites that had been bulldozed and burned; historic sites that were being developed and built-over; historic sites that were being destroyed by road construction; historic sites that have been obliterated by decades of insensitive bottle collectors who cared little for the mess they left behind them. (I say this as a lifelong bottle collector.)

The woman who accused me of raping our past was so far off the mark as to be laughable if she hadn’t been so insulting. Everything I’ve dug and hauled home I’ve saved from oblivion and is destined to become part of what I perceive as posterity.

In short, I apologize not. And I shall continue to seek out and to save whatever I can of our heritage until no longer able do so. Am I an Indiana Jones? Not in my mind. And when the day does come for them to take possession, some smaller museums are going to be faced with real challenges in trying to accession and to assimilate some of my treasures!

www.twpaterson.com

 

Not quite as early as this one, T.W. Paterson’s very first collectible was an American 1897 penny. (National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History)

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