ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She found the cardboard box several weeks ago, tossed like trash in an alley near Marquette and San Mateo NE.
The box, strapped with duct tape that had long lost its grip, had once shipped Del Monte bananas. Now, there were no bananas. And this was not trash.
Inside was someone’s life, measured out in old photographs, volumes of letters back when people wrote volumes of letters, and newspaper clippings, yellowed and delicate like old leaves.
It seemed an odd thing to discard, all those archived memories and mementos.
“My mind wanted to create stories about how the box came to be, intact, in this alley,” she told me. “A theft? A nugget of remorse driving the choice to set it gently down? Someone overwhelmed with a tugging past, leaving it behind to lessen the load? It seemed a shame to just leave it there to be thrown away.”
So she brought the box to me.
For hours, I pored over the box’s contents, looking for clues as to who owned the unkept keepsakes.
What emerged was a fascinating glimpse of a Nebraska man, whose trajectory through life was serendipitous and unpredictable and unrelated, as far as I could tell, to Albuquerque.
We’ll call him John E., the name scrawled on the back of a drawing of a house colored neatly in crayon and kept from first grade.
He would be 83 now.
Records in the box show that he was born in Aberdeen, Wash., but raised in the farming community of Columbus, Neb., predominantly by his mother, a woman whose abundant handwriting so overwhelms her letters that the pages take on the look of lace.
She called him Darling, called herself “Mom,” curiously in quotation marks.
As a youth, John E. was a good student and a good athlete. He acted in a school play, played piano, performed in the band.
That was good enough, apparently, to interest prestigious universities. By the time he graduated in 1954, he had received letters of acceptance from Harvard, Yale, Duke, Cornell and the University of Nebraska.
But he had scored too low on his civil service exam to obtain an appointment to the Naval Academy.
So he chose Harvard.
He kept a meticulous schedule, apportioning 40 hours a week to studying between classes, eating and football practice.
But by the end of his first year, his poor grades landed him on academic probation.
In sophomore year, he pondered whether to change his major from geological science to psychology, philosophy or social relations. He took up crew, or rowing, finding it less “messy” than football. He had a girlfriend named Barbara, though he assured his mother that he didn’t expect the relationship to get serious.
By the end of fall semester 1955, he was not sure he was serious enough to be at Harvard.
“I’m not unhappy here this year like last,” he wrote, “but it still seems to be a rather false existence and I don’t think I should remain here just on account of crew even though I thought so once.”
He dropped out in January 1956 and that spring embarked on his next endeavor – the Marines.
That meant shipping off to California, far away from Barbara. The relationship was serious after all.
“I really do think I will marry her someday,” he wrote his mother.
During his two years with the Marines, John E. wrote letters nearly every day to his mother and sisters. In one letter, he explained how he planned to return to Harvard once his enlistment was up in 1958.
A letter dated April 1961 to his mother from a family friend indicates that he graduated with honors and was getting married.
News clippings report that he went on to receive his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley and studied primates during a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford. He became something of an international expert on primates, in particular the white-handed gibbon, which he studied in Malaysia.
Somewhere along the way came a daughter named Caitlin, who in a handmade Father’s Day card wrote that he was the “Smurfiest dad in the world.”
That’s when the John E. trail grows cold. The latest item in the box is dated 1965.
But I have become invested in this man of many letters and many life changes. I wondered, what happened to Barbara? What is he doing now? How did his things end up in an Albuquerque alley? And how is a dad like a Smurf?
I found a few answers in a front-page story published Aug. 15, 2009, in the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star.
The article centers on John E.’s Harvard crew days, but it also details how he had changed his life again by walking away from academia and primates, moving back to Nebraska, growing his hair long and going off the grid.
He was a single dad of a gifted daughter whose gifted teacher Elaine fell in love with him the moment they met. Together, they had built a house out of sod, salvaged bricks and solar energy near the Platte River.
They looked happy in an accompanying photo, two aging hippies living a simple, sweet life.
I might have expected them to be living that sort of life still, but John E. must have taken another turn in the road. That road had led him – or at least the box – here.
I have a few leads to follow. Until then, the mystery continues.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.