Genesis of a Military Collector

You just never know who will be a kid's "history influencer."
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This doesn't "just happen." It took years of influence, tolerance, and indulgence for this 12-year-old geek to gain the confidence to modify one of his mother's 1940s jackets into a "Civil War" jacket, add a blanket roll, and Mike Yeck-made kepi to produce this look. 

This doesn't "just happen." It took years of influence, tolerance, and indulgence for this 12-year-old geek to gain the confidence to modify one of his mother's 1940s jackets into a "Civil War" jacket, add a blanket roll, and Mike Yeck-made kepi to produce this look. 

An old mahogany trunk with its lid folded back. Issues of Life magazines intermingled with crumbling issues of Stars and Stripes surround a kid of about five or six years, wearing lace-up brown ankle boots, grey wool shorts with a striped tee-shirt tucked in around the waist. An oversized olive wool Army visor cap is falling over one ear, the visor pushed back so he can examine the black-paper backed photos inside a leather-covered album. Some old “lead soldiers” are propped up on the surveying the scene...

How did I get my start? Actually, there was no “beginning.” I was just born into it and raised with it--and was only possible because of many different influences.

The Old Family House

I grew up in the house my great-grandmother built after her husband was killed by a bull. She raised her family in the house and in her old age, her daughter, Magdalena--my grandmother—moved in to take care of her. When my great grandmother passed away, my dad was old enough to remember his aunts “keeping wake” for her in what was then the “side parlor.”

Page from the baby book of John Milton Graf, Caledonia, Minnesota, ca. 1921

This is a page in my father's baby book that I found in the attic. The house in the photo is the one my great-grandmother built around 1906. Four generations of my family lived in it before it was torn down about 80 years later.

Eventually, my grandmother became old enough that she needed someone in the house with her. My dad, now a grown man and veteran of WWII, moved his young family into what had been his childhood home. And, a few years after that, I entered the scene, the youngest of five kids.

John Milton Graf and his mother, Magdalena, on the front porch of the old house, ca. 1921.

My Dad, John Milton Graf and his mother, Magdalena, on the front porch of the old house, ca. 1921. 

As the youngest, I got away with a lot. So much so, my older brothers really didn’t want that much to do with me. So, when they ran off to do their paper routes, work at our family’s store, or just do whatever it is teenage boys did, I was left alone in that big old, three-story late-Victorian house. But I never felt alone. There was an attic full of ancestors and history!

In the winter, it was too cold to go up to the attic. In mid-summer, it was too hot to be up there. But, boy, spring and fall? The best place to be was exploring the boxes on shelves, the contents of trunks, or unzipping the plastic hanging bags protecting century-old wool coats, suits, long dresses, and, of course, UNIFORMS!

As family members returned home, they relegated their “nice clothes” to the attic, in one of many hanging bags. Even though I wasn’t supposed to bother those bags, I soon figured out which one contained my Dad’s WWII uniforms. Pulling the long zipper down on the bag revealed a Class A with 7th Service Command and 104th Division patches on the shoulders, half a dozen wool shirts with First Sergeant’s chevrons, and three or four pair of OD wool trousers.

Next to the bag was a shelf that held a hat box with Dad’s visor cap inside. A pair of high, triple-buckle cavalry boots, and some field gear filled out the shelf.

With my brothers off doing whatever it was they did without me, and my mom busy two floors below, I wasted no time in trying on Dad’s uniform. Of course, the Class A almost touched the floor, but it didn’t matter to me. I loved the coarse feeling of the wool and the deep aroma of what was surely a mix of mothballs and WWII. I practiced marching in the boots that, when buckled, went up to my butt. I threw up salutes to dressmaking forms and covered mirrors.

4-year-old John Adams-Graf wearing Milton Graf's American Legion cap and jacket holding a flag.

The idea of dressing up in Dad's uniform was not original. Dad delighted in me wearing his stuff--in this instance, his American Legion jacket and cap following a Memorial Day parade when I was 4. Dad took this photo on the same porch his mother posed him forty years earlier.

ca. 1966 photo of John Adams-Graf holding toy gun. Brothers Joe and Jim in the background.

My big brothers didn't hang around me much.  Joe was probably the most tolerant though he recently revealed to me, "Dad really worried about you--always living in your fantasy world." It was true, I couldn't pose for a photo without having a toy gun in hand. 

After my promenading, I wanted information. So I pushed open the trunk that I knew was full of old magazines and papers. I fanned through the Life magazines looking for photos of soldiers. I glanced at the Stars and Stripes and wondered if Dad had held them while he was stationed at Camp Hale during the War. I didn’t recognize the flat lead soldiers as something my brothers played with, so surmised that they had been toys that my Dad used to fight imaginary battles when he was a boy…in the same house, maybe up in the attic, just like me.

So you see, I can’t cast a pointer at a single moment in time. Where did I get my start in a hobby that I have followed for more than fifty years? I got my start the day Dad and Mom brought me home to that old house…the one where my Dad got his start and his mother, her start.

John Adams-Graf, ca. 1966, shouldering a double-barrel pop gun.

To this day, I am not real comfortable sharing this photo of me wearing my sister's pajama top. Just let it suffice, I felt the need to get a double-barrel pop gun out of the toy box before I would consent to Dad taking my picture. 

And the truth be known, I suspect that each of you have a similar story to tell. It might not be the same house or the same circumstances, but the common denominator, I am sure, is the support you received from others when you were young.

NO SINGLE "INFLUENCER"

Having a curiosity about history doesn’t always translate into the coolest persona for a young kid. Take from me, a chess-playing, model-building, army-playing geek of the 1960s and 1970s. For me, having a bike that was olive drab was way more important than having a Schwinn Sting-Ray with a sissie bar and gear shift on the frame. Cool was not hanging out at the swimming pool sporting a summer tan (I am still pale as a ghost). Heck, the only reason I played baseball was because I thought the uniforms were neat.

Those are not the characteristics that makes a kid welcome. Thank goodness, a few adults saw past that and nourished my interests in history.

Like my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Russert. I must have bored her to tears telling her about the Battle of Gettysburg, the Monitor and the Merrimack, or the D-Day invasion. She didn’t shut me down or push me to the back of the room. Instead, she encouraged me to draw all of my military interests on a long stretch of butcher paper. When finished, she hung them over the chalkboards in our room and asked me to explain each picture to my classmates.

My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Pat Becker, was the “cool teacher.” He was young, athletic, and popular. He also liked history. In fifth grade, my long wait was over…we were going to study the Civil War. Not a day went by during that unit that I didn’t raise my hand and “correct” him or make comments on some small detail. His patience had to have touched surreal levels. Instead of shutting me down or pushing me to the back of the room, he asked me if I wanted to “give a talk” on the Battle of Gettysburg. His intention was good. My talk, however, just a bit too geeky…I gave what is probably still remembered as the most boring hour of instruction at St. Mary’s Grade School. But, I didn’t realize it at the time, and I felt empowered.'

By the time I hit high school, my interests expanded to girls and blowing up things. One did not promote the other. Without realizing it, I shot out  even further to the edges of my peer group. Thank goodness a substitute teacher, Mrs. Wright, recognized my interest in history, and in particular, German history. 

At her invitation, she began teaching me French and German after school. We talked about European history and art, although she resisted my attempts to turn the conversation into something about WWII. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Mrs. Wright threw me a lifeline…something that I grabbed hold of and pulled straight into college where I continued my formal study of languages and history.

I was attending the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, when the Director of the Swarthout Museum contacted my history professor to offer an internship to a deserving student. Again, I was so fortunate that my professor steered me through the application process. Without his help, I would never have benefited from the museum guidance of David Henke. He taught me the basics of museum work, but more importantly, encouraged me to go to graduate school to pursue a career in the profession.

So, you see, from the day my parents introduced me into the “family home” until the time I finished my schooling nearly 23 years later, this history geek survived and benefited from really decent, patient people. Without them, I don’t know if my hobby would have had a “start.” But because of them, my hobbies have just been a part of me.

Rather than discouraging my granddaughter when she asked me to draw her a picture of a "Mermaid riding a Unicorn," I swallowed my Angst...and encourage her passion.  I am not much of an artist, but I think she loves it (pretty cool saddle blanket, though!)

Rather than discouraging my granddaughter when she asked me to draw her a picture of a "Mermaid riding a Unicorn," I swallowed my Angst...and encourage her passion.  I am not much of an artist, but I think she loves it (pretty cool saddle blanket, though!)

I love my collections of old photographs, uniforms, weapons, and my personal library that supports all of it. These things all represent a passion that was not just mine, but one that was nurtured by so many. For that, I am truly grateful.

And because of that blessing, when I see a kid on the periphery today, I don’t think, “Oh he isn’t popular” or “She isn’t a good athlete.” I try to find that “thing” that makes them feel good—comfortable –intelligent—and in control. I am sure the shrinks have a name for it, but from my perspective, it is just helping them to discover their hobbies—the passion that fulfills each of those roles for them.

I encourage you to nourish the passion within young people near you. Who knows, one day he or she may grow up to be the next great collector!

Preserve the Memories

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