Man of Letters

To whom it may concern: The Western History Department archives our past for the future.

After more than fifty years, my father is going through his letters. This daunting task involves unloading a green Army duffel bag full of papers, and probably mice, as well as decoding ancient computer data dating back to a time when floppy discs actually flopped. He's been wanting to do it for a while, and many people have tried to give him a hand. All archiving efforts were quickly abandoned, though -- until a few weeks ago, when the Western History Department of the Denver Public Library asked my dad to donate his papers to its collection.

"I still don't know why," he says. But that hasn't stopped him from hiring a couple of helpers and filling the library's acid-free boxes with press clippings, photographs, letters to and letters from. "I'm known for hanging around with important people," he muses. "How important is that? My father hung around with some really important people, and a college in Boston got his papers, which makes sense."

Although my father's filing cabinet looks emptier than it has in my lifetime, I still manage to find a letter from my dad to his dad, written on onionskin in 1958.

Blair Chotzinoff pauses in his paper chase.
Mark A. Manger
Blair Chotzinoff pauses in his paper chase.

"Oh, that's a terrible letter," he remembers. "We didn't talk for two years after I wrote it."

In some families, this outcome might be cause for concern. Not in mine, however, where not speaking is as common a description as retired and living in Florida.

"Can I read it?" I ask.

"Oh, sure. Go ahead."

I think altogether you behaved quite badly, my 32-year-old father had written. You spent most of the session tooting your own horn and dismissing everything and everyone else as incompetent....You were a flagrant name dropper....He wraps it up with a plea for peace and a final warning that, if not, this must really be the End.

For as far back as I've been able to trace, my family has been obsessive about putting everything into writing. This Is the End is one of the grand old themes running through the correspondence, and I have used it, too. When I was young and stupid and my father was older and not all that smart, we went dove hunting and drove back from Last Chance in a ferocious disagreement about, if you can believe it, oil-rig machinery. Two days later, I received You Have Behaved Badly/Straighten Up or This Is the End! I scrawled off a brilliant counterargument. Twenty-four hours later, he telephoned.

"Why?" I asked snottily. "If you're not speaking to me, why call?"

"Because I got your letter," he said.

"And?"

"And I can't read your handwriting. So listen, you wanna just call this off? You eat yet?"

And that was that, until the next time.

"I loved my father, and I miss him," my father now says. "I was the apple of his eye, unless I wasn't."

I know the feeling. Weirdly, it's a sign of my father's extreme loyalty. Earning a place on his letter-writing roster means you've been accepted forever. Every time you make a mistake, you'll hear about it, but that won't change the way he feels about you, which tends to be optimistic. In addition to This Is the End collections, my sisters and I all have How Wonderful You Are and Let Me Tell You Exactly Why compilations. And, as the Western History Collection will shortly discover, we constitute just a tiny percentage of Blair Chotzinoff's correspondents.

If the boxes contain letters to the guy who sets up the pool in spring, an accountant, a meter reader and Mrs. Fields of Mrs. Fields Cookies fame, it's because my dad is unable to write the words "To Whom It May Concern." With him, it always gets personal. People have either wronged him grievously -- And why? Why? -- or made him unexpectedly happy, which is what Mrs. Fields did with that wonderful rye bread that suddenly appeared on either side of the sandwich fillings at her Cherry Creek store.

He receives mail in the same spirit, treasuring the memory of a thirty-year-old letter from a collection agency.

"It said, 'This is absolutely the last time we will contact you about this matter,'" my dad recalls. "And it was!"

The filing system has become crudely alphabetical:

Gus: my daughter, who can't read but has received mail from my father.

Gehachte: a recipe for homemade chopped liver, sent out -- but to whom?

Gloria: Steinem. Once his fiancée, she founded feminism instead. All her letters begin "Dearest Blair," and I'm embarrassed to read more, even though my father isn't one bit concerned.

"I don't value privacy the way some people do," he says. "I really have nothing to hide unless I've done something illegal or stupid."

This is completely untrue.

One night at 3 a.m., my father awoke with a craving for the kind of ice cream sauce that goes on hot and instantly forms a shell. In his second-floor kitchen, and following a recipe in The Joy of Cooking, he got as far as "measure with a candy thermometer," substituted an oral thermometer that promptly blew up, chased bits of glass and mercury into the garbage and started all over again. The second batch of sauce turned out perfect, and with my dad's first bite, he glued his dentures shut. After attempting to chisel them apart with a screwdriver, he removed them from his mouth, began soaking them in the upstairs sink and went off to take a nap. The water ran until it soaked down to the first floor.

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