My friend Charlie, a martyr but no saint, collected relics, principally by stealing them. To his credit, he always chose objects far too small to be missed. Once, in the Smithsonian Air and
, pre-renovation, he reached up and pinched off a tiny scrappet of rubber gasketing from the fuselage of the Space Museum bomber Enola Gay. Hiroshima
Another time, he found a little deposit of paper bits in Emily Dickinson's writing desk at Harvard's Houghton Library. They were broken-off corners and edges of her writing paper, maybe her poems. It was sacred confetti. Charlie swept it into a plastic bag and kept it for years.
Soon after I married Ann, Charlie presented her with an orange smidge of broken brick, the size and color of an unripe cranberry. He told us it came from the rubble of
's ancient jail, where Ann's ancestor, the witch Martha Carrier, was held before her execution by hanging in 1692. Cambridge
Charlie had so little and wanted so much that I naturally wished to contribute to his collection of micro-relics. One day, on a walk, I picked him up a pair of sea pebbles from one of his holy places,
, by Marconi Station in the Cape Cod National Seashore. Nauset Beach
Charlie was from
Cape Cod. He was estranged from his family, and wasn't keen on human beings generally. But he honored this particular place for being uninhabited, bleak, and windy. He would have lived there if he could, tenting in the lee of a dune, free at last from the tyranny of landlord and roommate.
Marconi chose Nauset for his radio experiments for similar reasons. It was barren table land overlooking the sea, with an unobstructed path to
, and it was vast. England
Marconi's signals, his radio waves, were big and floppy. By wingspan, if you think of today's compact little frequencies as sandpipers, Marconi's emissions were wandering albatrosses. Coming in for a landing, Marconi's trans-Atlantic flocks of di-di-dit could not be expected to perch comfortably on much less than a quarter mile length of aerial wire. His frequencies were so low, in fact, and their wavelengths so long, that for decades afterward, any useful frequency shorter than a football field would be known as "short-wave."
In Charlie's pantheon of higher beings, Marconi was in fact what Charlie himself wished to be, a truly important self-educated tinkerer. No higher calling could exist, unless it were friend or parent. Charlie would rather have invented a new ice-ax than find a cure for cancer, or war, especially not war, which intrigued him as the human activity calling tinkerers to their most heroic feats of ingenuity.
In his mind if not in fact, Charlie could field-strip and reassemble a Panzer tank. If you left him alone in your basement, he would find a tool you had thought was lost, and take it apart for cleaning and polishing. He would never tell you he was about to do this, or that he had done it, but he did usually attach a note. Years later I am still finding posthumous notes from Charlie, tied with sturdy tent-repair thread to the handle of a wire stripper, or tucked inside the leather case of a voltmeter.
One day, exploring the Houghton Library treasure
room, he found a pair of dueling pistols that had belonged to George Washington. They were not, in his opinion, being properly cared for. He did not steal them--they did not fit his collecting strategy.
But he did immediately appoint himself as their rightful curator and conservationist. (This would have shocked the trusting library director who had hired him as a part-time security guard and issued him the key.) Charlie unpacked the pistols, cleaned them as thoroughly as if he were seconding a duel at daybreak, and left them shimmering with preserving oil.
Back from the
Cape, I ran into Charlie on the street, and pulled the two stones out of my backpack. They were flat, round, surf-polished cookies of dove-gray basalt. He took one in each hand, and squeezed them for a long time, with his eyes closed.
"Uploading," he said. "Uploading."
"Uploading," he said. "Uploading."
In memory of Charles A. Reynolds, 1945-1997