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Packrats

07/26/05 12:00AM By Caleb Daniloff
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(HOST) Commentator Caleb Daniloff says he's discovered the secret to time travel: spend the weekend going through boxes of your old stuff.


(DANILOFF) I'm a packrat. There, I said it. No more denials. The newspapers and magazines on the dresser in my spare room had piled so high, they'd blocked out the mirror. My reflection had been buried by increments. Dusty printers perched on bulging file cab- inets. On the floor were boxes that had traveled with me since freshman year in college. An orphaned bureau drawer filled with knick knacks and electronics instructions rested across the tops. The room had become a shanty town.

It was time to make a clean break, or else submit completely. So on a recent weekend, I dismantled the paper wall piece by piece and pulled open countless cardboard flaps. Out it all tumbled: pay- stubs, concert tickets, cartoon drawings, an eighth-grade year- book, scribbled-up pages from a desk calendar, childhood comics, a Soviet militiaman's bag, even somebody's chest X-ray. I had every newspaper from my first job as a reporter ten years ago. I dumped out boxes of old notebooks - pages of unreadable scrawl that had somehow translated into articles.

I turned the items over in my hands, souvenirs from past states of mind. Neglect had rendered them cold. Though there's nothing like the proximity of a garbage bag to make them glow again. Sud- denly I held precious gems in my hands. Gusts of nostalgia blew through me and I was transported. It was hard letting go. And only two boxes made it out with the recycling that Monday.

A few days later, I received a tape from my father, a packrat also. He's writing his memoirs and has been sorting through boxes from a journalism career spanning five decades. He came across an interview he and I conducted with my Russian grandfather when I was nine. This was the kind of stuff we did instead of playing catch. The subject was my grandfather's father, a military advisor to Tsar Nicholas II.

I have no memory of the event and couldn't relate to the small, high-pitched voice anxiously rushing out questions.

What I found revealing wasn't the discussion, but the disconnect between the older men - my father earnestly interested in Russia while my grandfather, a refugee of the Revolution, scoffed at our questions. You'd hardly know they were related - my father profes- sional, my grandfather cold and polite. An unrealized relationship on full display - something I sometimes forget when considering my father.

I honed in on the background noise: feet pounding up the stairs of our old house, the clink of dishes in the kitchen, the muffled ca- dence of my mom's voice. Suddenly I was sliding down the stairs again, slurping a homemade milkshake, teasing my older sister. In my ears long-forgotten sounds of childhood - eerie and eternal.

I was overcome with a feeling of retro omniscience, eavesdropping on my own life. I knew what would become of that tiny-voiced boy. I knew which patterns of the father-son relationship would be re- peated and which would not. It was a potent feeling, one that surged with an uneasy electricity.

When I was done, I placed the tape on the spotless bureau top. I wasn't sure I'd listen again, but there was comfort in knowing it was there. It's such portals through time that will forever keep the packrat in me from extinction. I took a good long look in the now- unobscured mirror - and walked away.

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer and recipient of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill Jr. Literary Prize.
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