Editor’s note: I wrote this column 14 years ago. As Father’s Day approaches, it seems like a good time to dust it off and share it.
The small shed offered little in the form of security. Its door was held shut not by a lock, but by a rusting piece of wire that weaker than the twist-ties that seal a loaf of bread.
We easily gained access through the door and quickly discovered why no one would be interested in the building’s contents.
It was filled with junk. Wooden chairs, separated years ago from their dinette set, stood guard in unruly fashion.
Perhaps they sensed they were keeping watch over what clearly could be labeled as useless stuff: Boxes of old tax receipts, a set of bent forks and spoons, a manual typewriter that hadn’t felt the touch of a human hand for over two decades.
Then I spotted it. A barrel. Not an old-style, sturdy vessel built with wooden staves. This was a more contemporary model, made of thick cardboard rather than wood. It appeared to be something newlyweds on a tight budget would use to pack their belongings as they moved to their first house.
The ramshackle farm shed, which appeared to be ready to fall in on itself at any moment, did a poor job of restraining the elements. Snow drifted through the walls in the winter; rain dripped through the roof in the summer.
That turned out to be a blessing. The wet condition had rusted the lid tightly on the barrel’s top – so tight that I couldn’t convince it to ease its grip, no matter what tool I used.
The barrel’s bottom, however, apparently sat for several years in both melting snow and rain water, reducing it to mush. I gently tipped the container on its side and the search was over.
We had found the china.
The dishes had been purchased by a G.I. who was plucked from his South Dakota farm in the mid-1950s thanks to the draft and the U.S. Army.
World War II had ended a decade earlier, but US troops found themselves on alert once again as the nation was plunged into the Korean conflict.
This soldier, who played sports and grew up hunting ducks and pheasants, no doubt was in the best shape of his life when he finished basic training. He endured a long, slow boat ride, sometimes over rocky seas, across the Atlantic and eventually was stationed in Germany.
During a leave, he and one of his buddies, who spoke fluent German, boarded a train and traveled to a nearby town that was home to a china shop.
I unwrapped a dish from the newsprint cocoon that had been its home for many years. On the back was a crown and an upper case R. Below that were the letters RPM. Two lines of print under that read Krister Germany, and the bottom line was a three digit numeral.
The set of china I had revealed was the second of two sets this South Dakota soldier sent home. The first set was mailed to his fiancé. After some time passed, giving him an opportunity to save up enough money, he and his German-speaking friend boarded a train once again to visit the same china shop.
In my mind’s eye, I pictured the two men, fit and lean, roaming the streets of this city and glancing at all that was offered in a variety of stores.
I wonder how warmly they were greeted by the German shopkeepers. Ten years earlier, thousands and thousands of both German and American soldiers had died in a fierce war.
Were US servicemen viewed as unwelcome visitors 10 years later? Or did German merchants enjoy bargaining with this soldier and his greenbacks, which both gave a boost to the community’s economy?
Each purchase of china was carefully packaged in a crate, with sawdust surrounding the dishes to protect them. The young South Dakotan carried the wooden box on his shoulders from the shop to the train station. Once he arrived at his base, he promptly shipped the crate and its content home, no doubt by the same mode of transportation he used to arrive in Europe – a slow boat.
He and his fiancé, who received the first set of china, eventually married and raised five sons. My twin brother and I are the oldest of this couple’s family and my mother’s dishes have spent over 50 years in her china hutch.
This G.I., who you’ve surmised by now was my dad, sent the second set of his china to his mother, who eventually became my grandmother. She died in the early 1980s and her belongings were cleared from her house shortly after that.
The best place for storing her china back then was the ramshackle shed on my aunt and uncle’s farm.
Soldiers who were shipped overseas commonly received Dear John letters. No doubt many G.I.s also sent their fair share of correspondence back home to sweethearts to let them know that absence wasn’t making their hearts grow fonder.
My dad, however, saved the pay he received from Uncle Sam rather than squander it in a poker game. And he used that money to buy very special gifts to the two women he loved the most.
Today, that second set of china, which had belonged to my grandmother, sparkles in our china cabinet in Vermillion after we gave it a good, gentle washing.
I’m glad that years before my dad died, he had told my wife, Cindy, that he wanted her to have the dishes. Eventually, the china will become the property of one of our daughters and over time the dishes will pass from generation to generation.
Who knows? With time, the dishes may grow in value.
I just hope our family always remembers what prompted their arrival in South Dakota – specifically, my father’s love.
That, alone, makes the china priceless.