Signature or Selfie: Each is a Window to History

“Dear General Dayan, After we saw you on the news, my Dad said you are one of the greatest tank officers who ever lived,” began a letter I wrote when I was about ten years old. Written in blue ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper, the letter continued, “If it is not too much trouble, I want to ask you for your autograph.” Carefully folding the letter, I placed it in an envelope that I addressed, “General Moshe Dayan, Jerusalem, Israel.” The next day, I posted the letter with the hope of connecting with a great military general.

A PERSONAL CONNECTION

I never received a reply from General Dayan, though the idea of establishing a “personal connection” always lingered in the back of my mind. For example, when my big brothers took me to the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp in Mankato (I suppose in attempt to get me to pursue more “normal” interests than military history), I quickly perked up when I heard there would be opportunities for getting autographs from the players. I stood in line to have the likes of Stu Voight, Dave Osborne, and even the coach of the team, Bud Grant, sign a page of paper one of my brothers hastily pulled from a notebook.

Though I really hadn’t been a Viking fan—or even a football fan—those few autographs hastily scribbled on a page of perforated paper catapulted me into a life long thrill of watching football on Sundays as well as a life long disappointment in the Vikings’ performance. Those autographs led me to learn about the careers of Bill “Boom-Boom” Brown, the Purple People Eaters of Page, Eller, Larson, and Marshall, and Fran Tarkington That single piece of paper with those captured seconds in ink provided a window to a whole new area I never would have otherwise visited.

Remembering the power of those few autographs, I was surprised, then, when I recently heard a presidential candidate say, “I hardly ever am asked for an autograph these days,” adding, “But everyone wants a ‘selfie’ with me!” Being the collector I am, that admission caught my attention and got me thinking about how our hobby evolves and survives.

In the past, autographs served as a path to enlivening moments in time. George Washington’s autograph provided a tangible connection to the great general and statesman. Holding a signature made by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer provide a tangible link to one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century—that of the “father of the atomic bomb.”  Signatures opened doors to facets of history that people may not have otherwise opened to explore. Representing but a few seconds in a person’s life, a signature conveyed a sense of personality and connection that we couldn’t find through reading a biography or even holding a photograph.

WHAT WE DO

As collectors, we try to understand the present by establishing links to the past through objects, photographs, and ephemera. Whether you collect autographs, helmets, Jeeps, or any other historical object, you are providing a tangible link to the past. If you use that link for further exploration, is up to you. Some are satisfied with the “hunt” and “display of trophies,” but for those who have a true passion for understanding historical events, all of those items are just conduits to the past.

So it might be understandable, or at least I feel justified: Even though I have often repeated the short lesson my Dad gave me, “Moshe Dayan was one of the greatest tank generals who ever lived,” in the 40 or so years since I wrote a letter to the General, I have never explored the history of his life or military career. I wonder how my studies would have gone had General Dayan received my letter and answered with his signature?

As we scan auctions, walk shows, or visit other collectors, all in the hunt for the next object, keep in mind…it’s not the object—or even its monetary value—that is important. Rather, it is the power of the object to motivate a person to explore the historical events it represents, and perhaps, better understand the world in which we live.

Preserve the Memories,

John Adams-Graf

Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

 

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