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Moriarty Museum

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

The story of the Leningrad Cemetery will have to wait—falling into place as it sees fit I suppose. I want to speak of a recent trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to visit with my three children who all live in the area. It was to be an agenda-free visit save for a few days of camping near the northern New Mexico town of Tierra Amarilla. One other note: In this posting I had hoped to explain what The Forum is all about—the purpose that will drive the interactions I hope will come from our time together. After rereading the following, I believe I may have done just that.


Our campsite was hot, dry, and windy, with dust and smoke from distant wildfires settling on our tents and in our hair and food. A lovely time, and one that left my brother-in-law Al—who had joined me for this adventure—and I happy to return three days later to our tidy air-conditioned hotel for showers. Al also took this time to plan out a day’s worth of highlights to visit in the neighboring town of Moriarty, there on famous Route 66. I was less than thrilled, but wanted to be a sport. So, the next morning, off we went.


Al is a retired Boeing Aircraft engineer, who worked with engines and traveled the world for Boeing. Of course his first stop was a glider museum which, after a long search, we found to be closed. I tried to smile—beneath the gathering desert heat—and we crossed Old 99 to rendezvous with our second planned stop, the Lewis Antique Auto and Toy Museum. I am always ready for the surprise adventure—the event that happens unexpectedly and leaves you with either an answer, or a provocative new question. But like the desert rattlesnake, you never encounter one when you are looking for it. This museum—which touts 700 antique autos and over a thousand old metal toys—waited until I was well within the coolness of the covered and dimly lit garage to strike.


An elderly lady politely welcomed us, took our four dollars each, and indicated that we might enter for a look around. Almost all of the vehicles are Ford products: Model T’s, model A’s, and later model T-Birds, Children’s toy trucks, trains, and cars fill every available space. You have to turn sideways to move through all this, being cautious not to touch the cars or knock over the faded play toys. Every vehicle here—every child’s treasure—holds onto a story. A faded story, yes, but with so many gathered so tightly together there is a faint smell of whispers, like old perfume. Little moves in this silence, but I notice something and tried to make my way—like walking through a maze—toward this motion. It is an old man with a heavy auto duster in each hand, walking slowly between his cars while gently passing his dusters over them. It is as if he is patting an old dog he had known, and loved, for a lifetime. He politely says that he used to do this every morning, for decades, but now he just can’t get through them all. Still, he gently touches the ones he can.


I could try to tell you how this made me feel, for in that instant I experienced a very real sense of gratitude—a trust and love existing there between the collector and his charges. But I cannot find the words, and so will simply leave the moment with you. Yet from then on, until we left almost two hours later, all I wanted to do was sit with this man. So when Al left to investigate the cars outside, I sat down opposite museum owner Mr. Archie Lewis, there on his ancient and worn rose-colored couch, and listened.


He spoke about his collecting that began when he was nine years old. How he bought his first truck long before he had a license. It cost him fifty dollars. About how he is known worldwide, but never sells a single item. About how so many vehicles came his way, often from people who called him with some relic they had found. He calls them “shed cars,” automobiles people have kept sometimes for generations and finally decide it’s time to let go. And Archie takes them in, these library books of information—if only they could talk. Once he would restore them, but as the years went by he now just adds them to the rows of rusting vehicles, each with it’s own forever silent story, under a high and relentless desert sun.

Beth, his partner of 23 years, joins in, all of us warming up to each other. She shows me books of her lovely photography, most all of which feature some aspect of the vehicles that surround her life. Archie speaks of how he had thought he had perhaps ten years left of dusting his cars. But now he simply has so little energy. And he wonders where they will go when he is no more. He does this quietly, staring off, but without self-pity. I look in the direction of his eyes, but do not see what he does. Yet I do see that he was, and is, a collector, and for him to live this is enough. He is a gatherer, and sharing this with others is only a bonus. Archie Lewis simply had the courage to long ago give himself permission to follow his purpose.


Al returned and we exchanged farewells. On the way to our final stop, a brewery with a cool beer garden, he said that the museum had almost made him cry. Al, my mathematical brother-in-law for almost 50 years now, has never spoken to me of crying. But we both realized something had happened today. And that may be summed up in the final event that occurred just before we left. Archie had almost fallen asleep, his head back on the couch and his eyes closed. Beth answered the phone and spoke with someone who wanted to sell an old Cadillac. At the mention of this Archie’s eyes flickered, but did not open. Beth related the story, and Archie asked the year and model—still with his eyes closed and head back. Beth asked the man, and passed on his response. Archie said to get his address and tell him we’ll try to come by tonight. So here is the collector, dusting his charges slower now but collecting still. Bringing strays together, and providing a home among friends—fueled, perhaps, by the simple fact that he once chose the path laid down for him.

 

Afterwords: I expected very little when I entered this museum; and left ashamed for so limiting myself. I can only suggest that Archie radiated something simple and clear: that following your heart will one day return you to yourself, fulfilled. That, and to expect phone calls.



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