We’re going through our annual ritual of “The Winter Purge”, a room-by-room rummaging to unload and donate old “essentials” we previously thought we would have a need for.  It never ceases to amaze me how much “stuff” that survived the previous attempts to downsize.  Sometimes I rationalize that the kids “might need it”, sometimes I just can’t decide, and then sometimes, there are certain touchstones that somehow tug at my heart strings and I just can’t bear the thought of saying goodbye.

This time it feels more relevant.

Over the past year helping my father downsize and relocate has given me glimpses of both Dad’s sentimentality, as well as my future if I don’t continue this purging ritual. While packing up his San Diego home of 30 years, I found a dried-up fountain pen I was about to toss in one of the large plastic garbage bags on the floor of his loft office. I casually leaned over and said, “What’s this from Dad?”

He slowly reached over , carefully examining it.  “I can’t let that go yet; that was a farewell gift from the Chiefs on Sargo” (Dad had commanded the nuclear powered submarine, USS Sargo (SSN-583) from 1972-1975).  As his gently shaking hand took the pen, his eyes drifted back to a memory and he quietly smiled,  placing the pen, with reverence, into the  “keep” pile.

This scene played itself out over and over again during that week in San Diego.  To me what were seemingly innocuous knick-knacks that were inadvertently stashed in an old Dutch Masters cigar box were real, warm memory triggers for my father; welcome diversions from his daily  grapple with aging and with his progressing Parkinson’s Disease.

Although I committed to myself (and my kids) I would continue to thoroughly purge items, I keep coming across my own small mementos that whisk away dusty cobwebs in my brain, acting as touchstones of my own history.  Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry; mostly I just smile.

A few perennial survivors of my annual cleaning:

1970.  6th Grade, Boebligen, Germany. A letter from a speech therapist to my teacher, one Miss Whitehill, speaks for itself.


“Dismissed on trial”.  I have no idea what that means.

What I remember about Miss Whitehill is she had enormous breasts on which she would regularly place the class Guinea Pig on and pet him/her while she taught class.  I’m not sure if this contributed to my ‘lisping’ which required my evaluation and subsequent speech therapy.

1986. I was the Supply Department Head on the USS Fairfax County.  Our ship sailed up the Adriatic Sea and docked in Trieste, Italy.  As was our Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) I was directed to accompany the Commanding Officer, CDR Ray Mach, on an advance reconnaissance mission of local cathedrals and museums prior to allowing the crew on liberty.  It was tough duty.

Within minutes we found ourselves in a bar on the piazza talking with a local named Bruno.  As his story went, Bruno had lived in Greenwich Village as a musician for 7 years (the first 3 were actually legal on a green card) before he was asked to return to his home country.  After three or four Peroni’s we were like old friends.  He gave us his card and invited us up to his restaurant.


We were welcomed by his  his brother, Fabio,  and sister-in-law Patrice.  They restaurant name – Fapabru , was the combination of their names.  I can’t possibly let this go yet; but feel free to use my name to get a good table.

Our money was no good at Al Fapabru’s .  We ate, we drank, we laughed.  What I remember most was the stories of German, Russian and U.S. occupation during WW II.  The consensus of the elder patrons was they loved the American’s the most because they brought ice cream.

On this same port-of-call a group of us quietly traveled across the border to Portorosz, Yugoslavia. In 1986 we were still in ‘The Cold War’, and the US was not real big on its military officers casually visiting communist countries.  I vaguely remember a dinner with a group of Marines and Navy officers from the ship, don’t remember much other than the credit card receipt from the Palace Grand Hotel for 53,300 Yugoslavian Dinar. I have no idea how much I spent that night, and it is quite probable the details of the evening’s festivities were just as cloudy the following morning in 1986 as they are right now in 2017.


I had left the Navy in 1989 and worked for Rite Aid Corporation.  Not appreciating the tremendous value of benefits afforded Military personnel, I was stunned at my inability to maintain an equivalent lifestyle after leaving life in uniform.  In August 1990, with two children, two car payments, and a mortgage,  I got into commercial real estate as a 100% commission salesperson because I wanted “to get paid what I was worth”.


In my first eight months, from August 1, 1990 until April 18, 1991,  I had made $1400; showing me precisely what I was worth. While a combination of Leigh’s part time preschool teaching job, a home craft business, and her immeasurable support and patience, we did survive those early years.

As a constant reminder for gratitude in all things, I keep this bank notice on my home desk.


In 2012, two years after I had left an international company that ultimately declared bankruptcy, I received notification I had to pay a $12 fee for a $8.71 check from my former company that bounced. A good reminder that spending less than I make is always a sound business plan.

It’s always tough to look at my library full of motivational, inspirational and meditation books with a purging eye.  Someday, perhaps.  The opening Sanskrit Prayer from Twenty-Four Hours a Day that has one of my all time favorites.


And finally, there is my ZZ Top keychain.  It came free with the MTV purchase of three ZZ Top albums from MTV in 1983.  I just wanted to be a sharp dressed man. I still do.


Like the dried up fountain pen Dad got from the Chiefs on Sargo, these are some of the touchstones of my life that I’m not quite ready to cast away. Maybe next year. Maybe not.

I wonder how Miss Whitehill is doing?

2 thoughts on “Touchstones

  1. My dear friend Peggy Spatz recommended you for me to read. I love all of the writings I read so far! Look forward to reading more! Karen Herman

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