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January, 2007

"Hi. My Name is Larry, and I'm an Habitual Collector." ("HI, LARRY!")

by Larry

The above exchange would be typical of what one might hear at a regular meeting of HCA (Habitual Collectors Anonymous).

I started collecting when far too young to remember, my mom tells me. We won't go into what I liked to accumulate then, but it was organic and not rare.

But my, er... tastes have somewhat improved and gradually broadened since those days of really amateur collecting. While still so small I was hardly talking, I recall collecting the fuzz off blankets by stuffing it up my nose. Later on, I collected records ("Bozo the Clown," Gene Autry songs, etc.), lead soldiers, Cub Scout badges, secret decoders and other paraphernalia ordered from radio ads and stations, caps for toy pistols, balsa wood gliders (of course they broke so easily when played with much it was hard to keep more than one at a time), candy, stamps, coins, bugs of all sorts (mounted or living, including colonies, as with ants in narrow jars, so you could see them racing around in their tunnels... ), black widow spiders, snakes (dead or alive), lizards, neat rocks and minerals, arrowheads, cannon balls, Boy Scout merit badges, aquarium fish, toads, frogs, terrapins, and on and on.

There were times too when I did collecting for causes larger than my own, as with paper and scrap metal drives, in the years of still limited national resources following World War II and as we entered the Korean conflict.

It is fortunate that both my wife, Valerie, and I are afflicted with this malady, for I think if only one of us had the collecting habit the other spouse would probably have long ago ended the relationship. But she is, if anything, an even more avid collector than myself, with stunning collections of skulls or skeletons, photography, taxonomy guides, music, books, stamps, feathers, seashells, fossils, and rocks. (As she accurately and modestly says: "If it's collectible, I probably have a collection of it." It should surprise nobody that for years she wanted to be a museum curator or exhibit developer.)

I have known austere people who have an anti-collecting habit and tend to retain so little on their walls or shelves, or stuck away in cupboards, attics, basements, or garages, that their places scarcely look lived in, by my standards, after they have occupied the same residences for thirty years or more. These folks tend to be among the first to put out, give away, or send off mountains of stuff on large-waste garbage pickup days, brush disposal days, book exchange office party days, Goodwill, ARC, or Salvation Army pick-up days, neighborhood garage sale days, library donation days, white elephant gift days, and such.

And I greatly appreciate such citizens. I get some of my most interesting possessions from them! In fact, the majority of our furniture and many of our garments have been acquired by this recycling method, including two big armchairs with some of the stuffing coming out but that are perfectly functional and so comfortable the dog is perpetually trying to claim them. All each of them really needed was a thick, gaudy blanket or poncho thrown over to be among the finest of our collected furnishings.

Larry, 1946, age 3, San Antonio, TX

I came by this trait genetically, it seems, for both my folks had it, although in the old heredity vs. environment debate there is reason to argue either way: between my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, or all of these, there were collectors of everything from rusty nails to stocks, antiques to stories, dictionary meanings to math solutions, recipes to plants, plus children, pupils, grandchildren, songs, tools, neat pictures, travel locations, multiple states lived in, cars, pets, fun experiences, cattle, new churches established, goats, clothes, friends, and so on.

In my own teenage and adult years, the collecting habit proceeded apace. I collected various part-time jobs, yard customers, paper route clients, a wide range of college courses (if only most of them could have been applied to a degree!), and a host of residences, in WA, NY, VA, TX, LA, CA, and SC.

After collecting decades of work as a government employee (TX Mental Health and Mental Retardation Department, US Postal Service, Department of the Army, University of South Carolina, and TX Rehabilitation Commission), I retired and now continue my collecting addiction with different volunteer gigs, newsletter issues (a collection shared with Val), point-and-shoot camera photos, cool vacation destinations, and so many books they threaten to push us into a larger "retirement home."

My pack rat tendencies do produce another downside. I have at times had collections of things from three or four prior periods of employment. They were handily boxed up and stored away, not even opened in at least 5, 10, or 25 years. After all, you never know! There might be a colossal new economic depression, and I'd have to go back to being a safety manager, postal worker, counselor, case manager, psychological tester, insurance rater, or whatever, and use all those old, out-of-date manuals, teaching guides, and so forth. Yeah, right.

Even in my exercise routines, collecting is on my mind. I remember long ago reading about a foreign political prisoner wanting to keep himself physically and mentally fit in what might be years of incarceration. He chose to "walk across Europe," calculating, from the length of his pace and the known distance, how long he would need to stride around his cell each day to accomplish the task in a given period. He would tally up the miles at the end of each day, and he actually managed to go back and forth across the continent about two and a half times before his release. (Meanwhile, he had kept his mind active by reciting passages of poetry, plays, and everything else he could remember from literature, much as some of the characters in the book and movie, "Farhenheit 451," did to preserve the literary legacy of their civilization.)

A few years ago, I embarked on a quest to be the first person to walk "around the world in 8880 days." I have been collecting the stepped off miles (usually in our neighborhood) at an average rate of 3-4 a day . Since I began this "journey," I have completed over 6400 of the 24,000 mile Earth circumference total. Heading west, I am presently trekking across the bottom of the Pacific, a little north of and about halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines.

Where will it end? To paraphrase Warren Buffett, I hope on my tombstone they'll simply write: "Boy, did he collect a lot of years!"

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