It wasn’t anything fancy, just a small wooden trunk with rope handles and iron hinges, but it fired Arthur’s imagination the moment he saw it.
“Where’d it come from, Mama?” he asked.
“It was my grandfather’s,” Mama told him. “He had it when he went into the Air Force.”
“A wooden trunk?” Daddy asked. “Isn’t that unusual for the Air Force?”
“It’s been passed down for a few generations,” Mama said. “I’d have to do some research.”
“Can I have it?” Arthur asked.
Mama and Daddy exchanged worried looks.
“I promise I won’t color on it, or anything!” Arthur cried. “I will take good care of it. The best! I swear!”
His parents worried about his treatment of a genuine heirloom, but they needn’t have. Eight-year-old Arthur was enchanted. He barely had the arm-span to grasp it by the rope handles and lug it to his room, but he insisted on doing it himself.
Once in his room, Arthur reverently lifted the lid and looked inside. The trunk was empty, save for a large manila envelope that lay on the bottom. Inside, there were labels. “What are they, Mama?” Arthur asked.
“Shipping labels,” she replied, examining them and then passing them to Arthur’s father.
“Wow,” Daddy said. “It looks like they were carefully steamed from the trunk and peeled off.”
“My mother must have done it.” Mama looked sad. Grandma was gone now; it had been three months, and Mama still cried all the time. Arthur hoped this wouldn’t make her start again.
There were no boys in Grandma’s family, and so the generation who might have been drafted into the Viet Nam war had been spared. Mama, too, had no brothers. Arthur was the first boy to be born between all those many years between the Korean conflict and now.
The trunk, however, had stayed in the family.
“Arthur,” Mama said. “I am trusting you to keep your word and take very good care of this.”
“I promise,” Arthur repeated.
Soon Mama made good on her own promise to research the origins of the chest. What she discovered was confirmation that it was a true family heirloom.
The trunk was a present, originally hand made by Arthur’s four-times great grandfather. He gifted it to his newborn son in 1865, soon after the war between the states had ended. All during his military service, he had carried a knapsack, and vowed that his son would have better luggage should he ever need it.
However, the trunk’s first purpose had been to hold the infant’s clothing and toys. As he grew up, Arthur’s three-times grandfather continued to use it as his storage place, and when he was old enough to join the Army, the trunk went with him.
This man, who was also named Arthur, spent several years in the Army, and during his service he heard of combats in resettling the Native Americans, but never engaged in battle himself. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, he was injured when his platoon was traveling on a train that derailed, losing his left leg. He was 33 when he retired on commission, due to disability. They’d been traveling to do battle; it was an honorable retirement.
The trunk had been on the train at the time, and sustained a good many scratches. It took six months for Arthur to locate it again. The treasured chest underwent some sanding and stain to soothe its injuries, but it bore its scars thereafter.
At the time of his retirement, Arthur had three children, including 8-year-old Maxwell. The boy had helped restore the trunk as well as possible, and braided new rope handles for it. As the oldest son, he would be the one to inherit the chest and the items within it some years later.
Maxwell took the trunk with his father’s blessing when he enlisted in the Army in 1917 and joined America in its fight during World War I.
Maxwell’s son, Anthony, broke with family tradition and joined the Army Air Forces. He wanted, more than anything, to fly. He was a well-trained pilot when World War II broke out, and a seasoned fighter a few years later when he ended up in the Korean conflict. Near the end of his life, he’d told his daughter that “conflict” was a stupid word, made up by politicians who no longer cared to admit they’d involved the country in a war.
Anthony carried the trunk with him to his many different stations over the course of his career. H was happy to pass it on to his oldest daughter. “Now,” he said, “it can return to it’s original purpose. Put your baby blankets and keepsakes in it.”
Grandma had used it as a hope chest. She wasn’t old when she passed away, only 50, and she had left it to Mama, who was the oldest of her girls.
Arthur listened with awe as Mama related the military history of his family and his new, beloved trunk. “I will take this everywhere with me, too, Mama,” he said.
That was 1988. My brother was 8-years old.
Growing up, Arthur let me put my stuffed bunny in the trunk for naps and we would hide birthday and Christmas presents for Mama and Daddy in there, too.
Arthur was never selfish about sharing his space. He didn’t even get mad when I put our new puppy, Dingo, in there and he pooped. He did make me help him scrub the wood clean and disinfect it and everything else inside, but not because he was angry. It was so that I would learn a lesson and know better in the future.
I did. I would never, ever put a puppy in a wooden box again. Getting the smell out was hard work!
Arthur joined the Marines in 1998. The trunk went with him.
After training, Arthur and his trunk went to Afghanistan. The day his flight took off was the first time I ever saw my father cry. Mama said having the trunk with him would bring him luck.
Mama was wrong.
When Arthur was flown home to us in the fall of 1999, his trunk and all his belongings came with him. Mama didn’t want to look at it, so I took it with me, back to my college dorm.
That treasured chest has gone with me everywhere since then. For twenty years, I never opened it.
Arthur would be forty now. Just now, this very day. He hadn’t made it to his 20th birthday in 1999, falling two months before that date.
My brother never went to a bar. He never bought his own car. He never married and never had children. The photos we took of him and his date for Senior Prom are the last of the happy pictures. His military photos all show a solemn, serious boy.
My brother Arthur was a man, of course, and the best of men. He gave up his very life for this country. I have always been so very proud of that man. We all have.
Today we gather in my new house, and Mama holds my new baby grandson. It’s my brother’s birthday, and we are going to open his chest and see what treasures he may have left behind.
Whatever they might be, we will deal with them. I have no doubt there will be tears. I hope there will also be smiles.
There will be cake. My husband baked and decorated it, and it is beautiful, almost too nice to cut and eat.
After that, this very treasured chest, now 154 years old, will be filled with my grandson Arthur’s clothes and blankets and toys. While he grows up, he will place his treasures there. I will be sure to tell him that live puppies can’t sleep there, even if he is very careful not to shut the lid.
I pray the trunk never sees another war. I pray that this Arthur uses it only as a treasure chest.
Happy Birthday, brother.
I lift the lid.