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The secret museum

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The Observer loves museums, so full as they are of time and history and the residue of the far-distant past. The offspring of a pair of history buffs, Yours Truly was dragged past every velvet rope in nine or 10 states as a lad, where we learned to love yesterday, along with the two rules of most museums: See with your eyes, not your hands, and — while we're on the subject of hands — keep your sticky paws off the glass cases, lest the museum guides scowl at you while fetching the Windex and a rag.

Human beings may pass away, but their stuff remains, and the tendency to want to stick that stuff in a special room with a neat paper label that says when, where and why it mattered is one of the things that show we care. Somewhere, Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat sits in a box or case, only touched with reverent, white-gloved fingertips. There's something like a prayer in that.

In The Observer's office overlooking the crossroads at Scott and Main, we've got a little museum of our own on the wide old windowsill. The Observer is a romantic sort, but — if you can believe it from someone so besotted by the past — we have problems with memory. While some brains are an alphabetized card catalog of high def newsreels, The Observer's past tends to haze over after a year or so.

And so, we keep things to kick-start our cloudy old memory. There's not a lot of stuff on our windowsill, but there's some, most of it related to stories The Observer has worked on over the past 13 years, and all of it connected to something that still moves us, instructs on how we should live:

A note that we received after writing a story, our first story in fact, about the last fight of the late Hurlon Ray, who helped write the Clean Water Act before coming back to Arkansas in his 70s to find the river where he'd swam in as a boy clogged with treated sewage from the gated community upstream.

The blade of a cardboard fan bearing a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., found stuffed into the hymnal slot on the back pew of a church over in East Little Rock, the cardboard folded and worried and cracked by, no doubt, some desperate sinner's hands.

A single brass arcade token bearing the phrase "No Cash Value" that once belonged to the late businessman and philanthropist Jennings Osborne, who pissed off a multitude but died almost broke after doing good works all over the state.

A chunk of storm-colored granite taken from the rim of a flooded quarry near Sweet Home, where the body of a young woman named Paty Guardado was found in 2011. Her killer has never been found.

A CD of music by a young soldier, who killed himself up in Fayetteville after working for years to save others from the same darkness.

A pinecone, picked up in a cemetery down in Hot Springs where a brave young woman once buried the ashes of over three dozen people whose families didn't want them because they had died of AIDS.

A delicate curl of ash — a perfect cosmic spiral, so thin that light shines through it — peeled from a forming chair leg by a master chair maker near Mountain View.

An invitation to the inauguration of the president of the United States, folded and stuffed into a pocket with frigid hands as The Observer walked three miles through the dawn to the National Mall.

A dried holly leaf, plucked in the hell of August from a bush outside the home of a man who spent a decade in prison for a crime he almost surely didn't commit.

A single dried pepper given to me by a colleague, a man who covered the cartel wars in Juarez as a reporter for El Norte and, unlike many of his friends, lived to tell the tale.

A soapstone rhinoceros, bought at a zoo on The Observer's 40th birthday, facing off against a plastic triceratops that was Junior's favorite as a boy.

A tiny windmill, waiting on its ragged knight to appear and tilt at it. Or perhaps he is already here.

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