My father’s yearbook sits on my desk at work, wrapped in tin foil. If you open the foil, you can still smell the acrid smoke. The pages are singed, but readable. The look reminds me of when my kids had a school assignment on “olden times” and would ask my help to set the edges of a piece of paper on fire, quickly blowing the flame out — trying for a look that leaves the sheet looking worn. The results always looked uneven and messy, fine for a school project, but lousy to hold the memories of a lion of a man. The damage to the yearbook breaks my heart in two. Instead of a well preserved memory, the book is tainted by the assault it experienced. I know that feeling and it endures.
The book sat in the trunk of my car because I wanted to frame a couple of old pictures I found of my dad. I had tucked them into the heart of the yearbook so they wouldn’t bend, and intended to get to a framing store when I had the chance. These irreplaceable pictures melted into the plastic sheath that held them for safe keeping, now completely adhered and unsalvageable.
My dad was the principal of an impoverished school on the West Side of Chicago and I was seven when he died of a fast moving cancer. So much of what I know about him comes from the memories older relatives generously share. His 1944 yearbook from Marshall High is filled with expressions of fondness for a young, healthy man going out into the world – a peach, a great pal, the best friend in the world, a fun guy to sit next to in geometry class, a terrific boxer, someone who will go far.
This yearbook was by far my most precious possession. When someone dies and you miss them with an ache that never fully abates, it may be that you begin to love all the things they might have loved. Or, maybe you decide to love with abandon a thing that shows how much other people loved them. The yearbook was destroyed during a dramatic car fire that engulfed my green Toyota Camry when someone prepared an elaborate hoax on the college campus where I work. They called in a bomb threat, stating there were several locations on campus at risk. And for good measure, they lit my car on fire in the middle of the night after dousing it with some sort of accelerant. The car was parked in the lot of the building where I work. I had met my wife for dinner at a nearby restaurant and we didn’t want to take two cars home.
“No problem,” campus police said. “Thanks for letting us know.”
“I’ll get it Monday.” I said.
The car fire wasn’t personal. Someone was hunting for distraction and mayhem and they found it. The car became a target because it was there — wrong place, wrong time. That’s a feeling I know well, too, and it endures.
Some of the inscriptions from his buddies can still be seen, albeit damaged and harder to access. Gil – you are such a sweet fella, remains written large on the inside front cover. And he was. I know, because I’ve read each page hundreds of times. The good news, I suppose, is that now I can worry less that my tears will spoil the yearbook as I try to read the hand written sentiments of deep regard, obscured but still visible through the smoke.