We can’t save everything.

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It can be a funny world out there. Take for example, the old phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Without too much effort, I can point you to an easy dozen examples that prove that statement as truth. Things of all shapes and sizes that some one looked upon as worthy of being “saved” for posterity. And so these things sit. Gathering dust, rust and who knows what.

Some have managed to keep right on doing what they were originally designed to do. Against the odds, still with us. San Francisco’s vaunted and much loved cable cars come to mind. Climbing the hills of the City at all of nine miles per hour, carrying people up and down since the first car climbed Clay Street in August of 1873. But over all the years, more has been lost than saved. Cars gone on to other lives or simply burned to collect the scrap metal from the wood. And even more ironic, some cars have been rebuilt 3 or more times over their lives, as good wood becomes bad and relives again in a process not far removed from how it all began. Hand labor building and rebuilding. No machines painting mass produced cars here. Lovingly cared for by craftsman, schooled in traditions by those who came before.

And yet, these classic little cars almost ended their lives in the 1940’s. Down to just a handful of lines left in operation, their days were numbered. If it hadn’t been for a vote by a margin of 3 to 1 keeping the cars in place, buses would have taken their place. Cable Cars would be just a memory.

Even with support, the cable cars and the machinery that keeps them moving was just to fragile to last. In 1979, the city shut down all cable car lines and began a mass project of rebuilding. From Wikipedia:

“A subsequent engineering evaluation concluded that it needed comprehensive rebuilding at a cost of $60 million. Mayor Dianne Feinstein took charge of the effort, and helped win federal funding for the bulk of the rebuilding job. In 1982 the cable car system was closed again for a complete rebuild. This involved the complete replacement of 69 city blocks’ worth of tracks and cable channels, the demolition and rebuilding of the car barn and powerhouse, new propulsion equipment, and the repair or rebuild of 37 cable cars. The system reopened on June 21, 1984, in time to benefit from the publicity that accompanied San Francisco’s hosting of that year’s Democratic National Convention.”

So, even though they still soldier on today, this technological marvel of the 1870’s could have been sent off to transit Valhalla instead. In cities around the globe, such was the case and progress marched on.

The same story can be told in the case of aircraft after World War II. Plenty of brand new planes were surplussed after the war. Many never saw use – training or combat. Simply flown from the factory to the surplus depots across the country. Or those combat veteran aircraft? Cheaper to scrap where they were than waste the fuel to fly them home. Stories of planes bulldozed into waiting holes in the ground. One story I heard was of a farmer who flew a brand-new P38 Lightning fighter into a small airfield where he used a chainsaw to remove the engines, leaving the rest of the plane to rust away, until he sold it for scrap. The thought makes me cry…

Today, there are fewer and fewer of them in museums or better yet, flying as intended by their designers and builders. As good as they were, the lifespan of these aircraft was not to have been more than a year a best. If a pilot managed to survive, odds were that his aircraft would transition to another pilot or another command. And in war, damage to aircraft is inevitable at some point. If a plane saw combat, the chances of some damage at some point were high. More than 60 odd years later, none of the aircraft from that era still flying today are the same as they were then. Rebuilt from the ground up in many cases, they best serve to salute the men and women who flew them as well as those who built and maintained them when it mattered most.

It is no secret that I have volunteered at a number of railway museums. Over the years, folks at these places collected equipment that had meaning to someone who funded in the initial acquisition. Well intentioned, these pieces waited their turns in the restoration plan. Occasionally, someone might donate a few bucks toward the project. But it always seems that there is something more urgent or another project comes along that shines brighter in the spotlight. And that caboose, box car or locomotive becomes just another rusty pile of junk, hidden out back. Away from the public eye.

I can’t think of one railway museum that doesn’t have something like this. Sure, ask the right volunteer and he can rattle off the history of the item. Tell you why it should be preserved. The last of this class of equipment owned by the railroad. Only one left. The sad truth is that the railroads got rid of this equipment. Some just because it was worn out. Too costly to repair. And now, most of this junk is just that. It may have meaning to some but in the bigger picture, it’s time has come and gone.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should give up. Preservation is importation. Railways, aircraft, cars, music, theater, structures all have some stories to tell. Important stories. Told by people. For we truly can not understand who we are and where we are going if we do not respect where we have been.

But we need to temper what we expend our efforts to save with what we gain by doing so. For all the Disney theme park fans who want to keep Disneyland as it has always been? A vain and selfish effort. We can never go back to days gone by and find everything as we left it. Things will always change. The mark of one footstep upon that of another can not be taken away. The change of one light bulb or a coat of paint over another insures that what we experienced on one visit will not be the same on the next.

It is not an easy thing to decide what to save and what to let go. If you go to one extreme or the other you either have too much or nothing at all. Not the right choices. Again, find the middle, save the best you can and share. Good advice to the museum or the individual.

 

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