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Artifacts of subjective value

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March 29, 2020

Artifacts of subjective value

The things you find in an Ohio basement 

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By Dan Law

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This past week, Gov. Mike DeWine put in place a “stay-at-home” order in Ohio. This affected millions of Ohioans, including my mom, Carolyn, and stepdad, Rusty.

This order, like others throughout the country, has separated us in neatly-defined compartments: The discouraging “essential and non-essential;” the admirable “first responder;” “On-site personnel” and “virtual workers;” “quarantined and self-quarantined;” “Isolated while practicing social distancing.”

Nearly half of Americans are at home. Most of us are doing the best we can. We fill our days with work or tasks that inch us toward a time where, we think, we’ll return to normalcy. Or whatever normal is after a time that seems to have forever modified that definition. 

As retired Presbyterian ministers of nearly 30 years, Carolyn and Rusty are doing what most of us are doing in Postindustrial America: getting by with an earnest, noble endurance which is kind of a settling reminder that despite how disruptive things get, we find a way to cope and persevere. 

And as a stay-at-home order came as no particular change of pace for two introverts who enjoy doing just that, “working on the house” simply took on a more official tone in light of recent developments. 

This past week, I received a now-fairly routine phone call from Rusty. The topic: a status report on cleaning out the “storage room” in the basement. This has been a weeks-long undertaking, clearing out more than 20 years of stuff that was neither deemed important enough to present on a shelf or frame on a wall nor unimportant enough to throw away. 

The campaign began pre-pandemic, and has logically carried on as a useful passage of time during self-isolation. Typical reports come in text form. Significant artifacts are photo-documented: prom crown (thank you), sports jerseys, eighth-grade graduation certificate, and so on. 

It’s a process that is as tedious and unremarkable as it is very grounding as we all wait for the next unsettling news report via push notification on our iPhones.

The latest phone call started like the last.

“So, I’m clearing out the storage room.”

“Yeah? How’s that going?”

“Pretty good. It’s, uh, you know. Pretty good. Lots of stuff.”

“Yep.”

“So, I found something kind of cool.”

A pivot.

“Oh, yeah?”

Pause.

“Which is?”

In a box, stacked amongst other regular boxes, was a manila envelope. In it were old, creased papers tinted slightly yellow from years of exposure.

The folder was full of information from almost 80 years ago. The contents described, in short, a history.

Arthur Justice Griffeth, Jr. (“Junior” or “Art” or “A.J.”) was born in Hutchinson, Kan. in 1922, two years after about one-quarter of the world’s population was infected by the deadly Spanish Influenza and seven years before the global economy crashed in 1929. He grew up during the Great Depression, the youngest of nine children (six survived to adulthood), and was the favorite of his mother, Edith. 

In 1942, at age 20, Art enlisted in the Marine Corps. He would spend the next three years in the Pacific Theater. As part of the 1st Marines, he fought on Cape Gloucester and Peleliu. In December 1945, Art was honorably discharged out of Great Lakes, Ill. at the rank of corporal. He returned home to Hutchinson, never discussing the war again at great length or detail, always avoiding fireworks on the Fourth of July.

A letter, written soon after the war by a one, 2nd Lt. Charles E. Jones, had a request for one, Mr. J.F. Gilliland, principal of Hutchinson High School: a diploma. Evidently, Art dropped out of high school and worked at a lumberyard before enlisting in the Marines. 

Lt. Jones saw it fit to include Art’s “exceptionally high” general classification test score (143) and an “equally exceptional” score on the mechanical aptitude test (130). If Principal Gilliland were able to issue a diploma, given Art’s training and skills evident in his Marine Corps service, it would be of “great service to this Marine.” 

When he returned to Hutchison, potentially with a high school diploma in hand, Art enrolled in night classes at Salt City Business College. Irene Honomichl, the daughter of poor farmers from Wilson, Kan., also studied there. In 1944, she received a certification of completion of a Combined Business Science Course. 

In 1945, she was boarding in a house owned by next-door neighbors to Arthur and Edith Griffeth, and their recently-returned son, Art.

Art and Irene were married in 1946, and move to Venezuela that December — where Art would serve as an accounting clerk for Gulf Oil with a monthly salary of roughly $500. Art loved Venezuela. Irene hated it. By 1949, they “had reached the conclusion” that they were moving back to America.

Rusty found a second letter: another superior advocating for Art.

Mr. H.J. Landis, a New York-based auditor for Gulf Oil, found Art and Irene’s news disappointing. “Serious consideration” was necessary, according to Mr. Landis, that such a “desirable employee” should not leave the “Gulf” service. Art evidently felt the same way but held a clear geographic prejudice about relocation.

“Mr. Griffeth states that he would not be interested in employment in either New York or Pittsburgh, but has expressed a desire for work in either Houston, Tulsa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kansas — or in fact most anywhere in the U.S.A. except in the north.”

Ouch. 

Art and Irene would settle in Houston, Texas and have two children, Carolyn and Gary. He would go on to be the comptroller of Gulf Oil’s U.S. operations. In 1971, Art died at the age of 49 of lung cancer. Irene would outlive Art by 14 years, passing away in January of 1985. 

I was born in September 1985. My mom gave me the middle name, Griffeth. I never met my grandparents, Art and Irene.

They led a remarkable life. The daughter of poor, Dust Bowl farmers and a high school dropout turned Marine carved out a corner of prosperity in a world that is, by many measures, far different than it is today — but perhaps also the same in some ways.

Rusty’s basement archeological expedition may yield more discoveries, none of which will be big news. There will be no priceless Roberto Clemente game bat, or a letter signed by Eleanor Roosevelt, or a $50,000 vase destined for “Antiques Roadshow.”

Ultimately, Rusty uncovered a bundle of artifacts of little consequence for anyone, aside for a family that didn’t expect to find it during a global pandemic. The last authentic memories of these artifacts passed on 35 years ago — leaving us to piece things together for our small sense of remembrance. 

The world is a fast-moving place that has, in just a few weeks, slowed to a halt. If you can, take some time to unpack.

At nearly 70 years old and fundamentally uninterested in engaging with just about anyone he doesn’t already know, Rusty is (shockingly) not on social media. 

Correspondence may be slow to reach the public as the project progresses. 

We’ll keep you posted. Not that you’re asking. Which is cool. Go find your artifacts.

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