My father, who has been gone now for 11 years (this month), is still teaching me! The Bible says “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal;” (Matthew 6:19-20, NASB). My daddy was many things, among those, a pilot, a sailor, an intellectual person, but also and most significantly for this discussion – a collector. Dad collected many things. He was the type of person who was interested in everything, valuing knowledge perhaps higher than anything else.
Anyhow, one of the things he collected was insects. One never knows just how a “hobby” will start. My aunt got me a book for Christmas when I was 3 years old called Curious Creatures. I was apparently quite taken with the book (I still have it), so my folks got me a book on Butterfly collecting when I was 5 or 6. The kit came with a net and simple preserving and mounting supplies so very quickly you would see me chasing around the neighborhood and at swim meets and such with this butterfly net dashing after anything that flew and had a touch of color. My dad, it seems, quickly got interested as well.
You had to know my dad in order to understand how he did everything “the best.” I’m not entirely sure why that was, I’ve not fully explored his psychological makeup in the book I’m writing about his life, but I’ve decided there must have been some insecurity or other he was trying to account for in his character. He always bought the best, most expensive of whatever it was he was getting. Nearly everything he bought, he had to have the biggest and flashiest of it. It was especially important for us kids to have the best too. It’s just one of those things I guess, he grew up with very little in the depression, and went to war when he was still a kid, that’s who he was.
So, one way or another, my dad was soon collecting insects along with me, his young son, and we had this collection together. Dad always had a great deal of spare time on his hands because he was an airline pilot. He was around a lot when I was a little guy. For those of you who know, that’s both a good thing and a bad thing, sort of a blessing and a curse. The blessing side of things was that he always had plenty of time to get interested in whatever it was we kids were doing, and he was always willing to invest his time to help us learn and explore. The bad part was he always set his expectations for us way too high, and was hard on us when we didn’t “measure up.” I am who I am today as a result of all that, and in reality it’s not too bad a childhood to look back on.
The net result of dad’s attention in the “insect collection” became that he found a local Entomologist where we started to spend exorbitant amounts of time and money advancing our collection to become one of the “best.” It wasn’t but a couple of years and our collection rivaled many Natural History Museums. The collection had butterflies, moths, beetles, dragonflies and damselflies, we even had some spiders including a Tarantula we caught out in the desert of California. Dad found a local supplier of beautiful cases that were quite large and could accommodate quite a number of nicely mounted specimens. I can remember as a kid how we’d have my entire school class come over to the house to view the insects and hear a presentation by my father for “Show and Tell” day.
I really don’t know, but I would estimate dad spent 10’s of thousands of dollars on the collection. It was quite fantastic – colorful, exotic, and even a bit strange. Everything was carefully preserved, mounted with identifying tags that gave the Genus and species, the collection date and location, along with any other information that may have been relevant. Dad developed this technique using drafter’s pens for writing up the tags using print that was so small you almost needed a magnifying glass to read it! I’m not sure if all that identifies dad as an Obsessive Compulsive type personality or not, I just know that he enjoyed spending his free time on his “hobbies.” The insect collection was to be only one of many collections dad had in his lifetime.
The end of the story, and today’s lesson is that dad eventually gave up the insect collection, when he and mom divorced in about 1974, he left it all here, mounted on the walls of the front room of my mother’s house. Mom left it there for many years, but eventually, it either got to be kind of creepy or she simply decided it was time to take the boxes down off the walls and redecorate that part of the house. I’m not sure who exactly it was that took the cases down, it’s irrelevant because whomever it was – they were not a trained professional that could deal with the collection properly. It’s not really a big deal either, the preserved specimens always did have a limited “life expectancy” in terms of how long they would last as displayed curios.
So the collection was removed from the walls of the house and stored in the garage of mom’s house. Preserved specimens of an organic nature such as these insects are actually quite fragile, in spite of their beauty and often surprising appearance. What happened to the collection is that because the boxes had become “compromised,” having been removed from the walls and not properly resealed (closing the mounting holes on the backs of the cases) and because there were no preserving crystals added to the cases as well (very nasty compounds that kill everything from bacteria to fungus) the insects in the cases started to deteriorate according to the natural progression of dead things.
My first wife and I left Los Angeles for Seattle back in the early 1990’s. I’ve been back for many visits since that time, but it was not until the last few years that I realized somebody should have checked on those cases to make sure they were properly sealed and preserved. Sadly, even by a few years ago it was already too late. It’s one of those things where nobody is to blame really. Only dad and I understood the requirements for preserving those specimens, and I wasn’t here when they were removed from the walls, and nobody else realized the damage was done before it was too late.
Today, they are all gone. The “moths and rust” of The Bible have done their work. The “Treasure” that was stored in that collection is wiped out by the ravages of time and decay. There are a few cases left that have relatively less deterioration, and I took pictures of those to “preserve” the memory of what was once a collection to be envied. But those cases too, are already in an advanced state of decay and are beyond repair. The bottom line is that dad’s lesson for me is right out of The Bible, and is extremely practical for those who can hear it. Don’t waste your time and money on stuff that just rots away here on earth, but do put your time and resources into caring for and being with those you love. Dad accomplished that I think because, as I said, he did start the collection as a result of my interest, and he kept it going to hopefully have some kind of impact on me later in life.
The most amazing thing about that collection is the impact it’s having on me today. As I took the cases down from where they were stored in the garage and saw the damage done to the collection, I was very sad. I was able to reflect on my values and the differences between me and my father. I’ve often wondered what made me so different from dad, I seem to be at a near opposite on the spectrum of human values and character from him sometimes. Other times I wonder if I’m not exactly like him in some ways. I’m an observer and a collector too, it’s just that the longer I’m a Christian, the more I realize that we are not to be tied down to earth by “stuff.” It’s not important the “things” we have or collect. The only thing that is important is to do as Jesus said: “Love God, and love one another.” That’s a pretty bad paraphrase of what Jesus actually said, but it captures the essence of what He meant I think.
The good things my father taught me about collecting are that you should spend time with those you love, appreciating their interests and showing that you truly care about them and their growth. The flip side of the lesson is that we should not devote our time and effort into becoming mere acquirers of “stuff.” Everything is interesting in this world, there’s lots of things to study and learn about, we should always be students. But most of all, we need to put first things first and value people above things, or bugs.
As I get some of the pictures online of what’s left of the collection, I will post the link here so stay tuned!