Travel is many things to many people. It is many things to me. But perhaps the thing I cherish most about travel is its ability to imbue meaning into other things. For memories of it to link to those of people and experiences, for it to entwine itself around the roots of who we are. For me, that’s most evident when I go through my coin and note collection and think of my grandfather. Though our paths started 60 years apart, the routes of them meandered through many shared destinations.
I started collecting coins when I was young. My brother and I would collect wheat and Indian head pennies with my dad. He had a coin collection of his own in the drawer of his desk, with many old coins from the early 20th and late 19th centuries. Sometimes, when we were feeling rascally, we’d sneak into his office and rummage through the collection. My dad was inspired by a friend to start his coin collection and by my grandfather to start collecting different medallions, which makes me the third generation of Anderson (that I know of) to be into collecting coins. Sometimes, when I went to visit my grandparents at their home in Lake City, I would bring my catalog of pennies to show off my latest finds.
The years went by, and I grew up. My grandma passed away, and Grandpa had to sell the home in Lake City and move in with my aunt and uncle. I graduated college and left the country for the first time to study abroad. Later, when Grandpa had moved to an assisted living facility in Issaquah, we’d keep in touch primarily by email. Sometimes, he’d mention that he’d found some old coins of his and that I was welcome to come check them out over lunch. Each had a memory tied to it, and it was always fun to hear his stories from when he traveled the world. Every once in a while, when I left, he’d send a coin or three with me to add to my collection.
My grandfather’s early years were hard ones. He was born in 1929 to a rancher and a teacher, an occurrence which precipitated one of the largest economic disasters in modern history. In his words, “My arrival must have caused problems… the stock market crashed, The Great Depression began… but fortunately, everyone blamed President Hoover.” His childhood alternated between working on the ranch with his father and living with his mother’s family in Seattle. He joined the army and set off for Korea in 1951, just after the start of the Korean War. And that is where our distant paths converge…
In 2011, when I decided to leave my corporate job in the US and move to South Korea, my grandpa had perhaps the funniest reaction. “Why would you want to live there?” I still remember the shock and incredulity in his tone.
Grandpa had lived there as a serviceman during the Korean War. He worked in communications and ran telephone wire for the armed forces all over the East Coast of the country. One place he had particular memories of was Pusan (now Busan). “It was filthy,” he told me. “The streets were dirt, everyone was covered in it, and all the sewage was piled up outside the city. You could smell it everywhere.” (paraphrased, but the gist of what he said is true enough.)
“Grandpa, I think it’s different now.”