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Column

The day I found a ‘time capsule’ up in the barn loft

Suitcase filled with newspapers conjures memories

RIVERTON — Last week, I found a time capsule of sorts stashed away in the loft of a barn.

I climbed up into the loft on what had been my wife’s parents’ acreage.

It was a salvage mission. I was looking for things to keep before we sold the land. I loaded an old wheelbarrow, a spade and a couple of old gasoline cans into the back of my pickup.

And then I came across an old suitcase covered with dust and bird droppings stashed away in a corner amid rusting sickles, saws and farm implements.

It looked like a piece of luggage from the 1940s with a brass lock and leather trim. My wife calls it the “Indiana Jones suitcase.”

I popped the lock open and found myself staring at a Chicago Daily News headline: “BURY KENNEDY TODAY; OSWALD SHOT, KILLED.” That’s right. Kennedy’s dead, Oswald, too, and so is the Daily News.

I reached into the case and found it was filled with newspapers from that fateful week. Someone back in 1963 knew history was unfolding and wanted it to be saved for perpetuity.

Journalism is the first draft of history; or so the cliché goes that professors drive into the idealistic minds of would-be reporters and editors.

As I looked  into the suitcase, history felt tangible.

I took the newspapers home and showed them to my 10-year-old daughter, Anna. She had just finished a report on John F. Kennedy and the yellowing broadsheets made what she learned in school come alive.

My wife’s family was hardly unusual in saving back these fragments of history. My grandmother, Eva Reeder, had a similar stash of newspapers and magazines from that same week. Knowing that I was heading into journalism, she gave them to me several decades ago.

And I have my own cache from 9-11. When I was a kid, I had the Galesburg Register-Mail 
headline “Nixon Decides to Quit” thumbtacked to my bedroom bulletin board. Even at age 10, I could sense this was history.

I’ve learned in my years as a reporter and an editor that newspaper readers are far less tolerant of graphic images than television viewers. The best reason I can come up with for this is that newspapers have more permanence.

Of course, death and memories go hand-in-hand.

After my father died, my sister and I waded through boxes of memories and newspaper clippings: Our parents’ 1954 wedding announcement, a 1964 business story on the construction of my dad’s new veterinary clinic, a feature on my teenage sister heading to Germany, an obituary for my brother.

It seems just about every family has a cache of yellowed newspaper clippings like this. As much as I hated writing obituaries as a summer intern in the 1980s, I imagine those are the only articles of mine that are tucked away in family Bibles.

As newspapers make the transition from print to online, I’m left wondering what future caches will look like. I suppose folks could print things off the internet and save them. But it seems hard to imagine they will conjure up the same nostalgia as ink on newsprint.

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. He may be reached by email at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.

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