Over the last couple of weeks, I have written two articles about my evolving relationship with technology. In the first, I discussed the reasons for my reluctance to purchase a cellular telephone for my middle-school aged son while, in the second, I talked about why I am opting to use what many people have told me is a substandard workaround to play digital audio through the factory stereo in my new-to-me Nissan Hardbody. Although both essays were intended to be short and simple, I found them difficult to write. The second piece was especially so as, to get at the truth, I had to acknowledge the fact that I have a history of making poor choices and that I have, over the years, been incredibly wasteful.
But even though I struggled to write that second piece, I understand that many people my age are in the same boat. To paraphrase one commenter, the entirety of Generation X came of age during a period when, thanks to the pace of technological advance, our music collections became obsolete again and again. He’s not wrong. Virtually every machine I included as proof of my poor decision making abilities was superseded by improved technology and, because I am not an early adopter, that happened only when the machines were so outdated that it became difficult to find new releases on the old media. It turns out, then, I had hung onto things! But that led me to another question: Which of my possessions is the oldest?
It might seem a simple question, but to get the right answer, one needs to define what “oldest” really means. If we are talking about the oldest item I possess in terms of raw years, I can say that without a doubt there are rocks in my driveway that are millions of years old. Case closed, thank you, but that solution is particularly unsatisfactory so I kept on asking. Should the oldest thing I possess, be the oldest human-made object? Should it be the oldest object that has significance to me and my family? Should it be an item that I personally purchased new or something that was purchased for me specifically as a gift? Where should the count begin if I purchased an antique?
In my case, it turns out that these questions required very little extra thought because, even as I sit here surrounded by an entire house filled with “stuff,” I realize that very little of what I own today connects me to my personal past. One reason for this is easy to understand, my family and I frequently relocate for work and, because of the limited amount of household goods we are allowed to send, it is impossible to drag around things like heirloom furniture.
The other reason is uglier and requires me to examine a time just before I came to Japan as an English teacher in 1999. While I was struggling through an extended period of unemployment, living with my mom and resigned to sleeping in my childhood bedroom, I sold almost everything I owned in order keep gasoline in my tank and my job hunt alive. As the weeks turned into months, I sold away much of my youth – hundreds of books I had managed to collect over the years, my music collection, musical instruments, most of my firearms , my home stereo equipment, old toys and God knows what else as I tried to keep my head above water. The process left me embittered and, even today, I feel the sting when I recall those times.
Without a great many things to consider, I can confidently say that the oldest item that I own, that would have been purchased new either by or for me, is a Hot Wheels Porsche 911 that came into my possession sometime in the mid-1970s. Today, my son has a large collection of Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Tomy cars, but even in the midst of so many others, I know this exact car is mine because, as a kid, I meticulously scraped away the creamy coat of perfect white paint and then left it in bare metal. It remains that way today, a true survivor of the very worst that the 8 year old me could dish out.
If we expand the scope of my question to consider the few heirlooms and antiques I own with special meaning to me and my family, the calendar rolls back further. In the closet, still in the original tube addressed to my maternal grandmother, is a certificate dated November 16, 1944. Next to it, in a velvet box, is the Purple Heart that accompanied it, awarded to her son, my uncle, who left his life on a battlefield in France just six months before VE day ended the killing. It is, perhaps, the most important thing I own. Predating that by somewhere around a decade, although when it was manufactured is hard to be sure, is an antique mantle is a clock that my brothers, sisters and I purchased for our parents in the 1970s from a man at church whose hobby was restoring antique clocks. The oldest personal item, however, is a British Mark III Lee-Enfield, chambered in .303, with a 1916 date stamped onto its barrel that I purchased as my first rifle sometime in 1991. It is not with me at the moment, of course, but it is safe in storage back home and awaits my return.
While the oldest actual item that I have owned and used in a familiar way is just slightly older than a century, the oldest human crafted items I have go back almost two millennium. In those days, of course, everything had to be handmade so items are necessarily few and far between. But it turns out that I do possess some things that were mass produced – coins. Ancient Roman coins to be exact, but it’s hard to recognize them as what they are because all that remains of most of them is little more than a jagged metal slug. They were given to me in the early ‘90s by a little old lady I worked with whose husband’s hobby was buying and meticulously cleaning ancient coins frozen together in large concreted chunks. He kept the best for himself, of course, but his wife was thoughtful enough to offer some of his cast offs to me. I have preserved them, along with coins from every country I have managed to visit across the years, in a large beer Stein that my sister brought home from Germany when I was in high school.
But that’s where my search ends. Any of the old cars I’ve owned over the years have long since gone to the bone yard, their parts and pieces scattered to the winds. My childhood clothing would have been passed on to those who needed it while virtually everything else I have ever owned sent away to be buried in a land fill or, more hopefully, recycled. In my weaker moments, I still think about the things I’ve lost and struggle with the urge to replace them. I’m fighting that urge but sometimes feel as though I spent the first half of my life using things up and am about to embark upon the second half wherein I try to replace them. You know, for old time’s sake…