There it was, almost finished - A short subject Vietnam documentary made from the two 8mm reels and the one audio reel that I had purchased just before Christmas 2018. I had even created a simple original score and a few sound effects to augment the silent footage. The only left to was press "Share to YouTube" and .... I stopped.
I realized my excitement for finding the story had caused me to overlook the cardinal rule of Urban Archeology - Never share people's personal lives without permission. It pained me to stop but posting something that a family member might see and not understand my intentions. So, I stopped publishing and began searching.
You've seen these site all over the web when you want to look up a phone number: "Get their prison records!" "Do a background check!" It all feels like a rabbit hole I don't want to go down, but I had to find someone to give me permission. Often, these sites won't give you all the information you need, but will hint around at more detail. Knowing the name of the soldier lead me to confirm the estate sale was due to his passing. Searching his name with the background check site "Spokeo," gave me the name of a relative by posting "may be related to ________." That was the key. I had a name and went to facebook to see if she was there.
I guess I was so desperate to connect the dots that I want as far as to message the first person by that name. A long way geographically but electronically I found a Hawaiian resident to explain my story to. Amazingly, she was one of the daughters of the Vietnam veteran. Additionally, she seemed to support what I had done but needed to give this information to her sister. I waited half a day to hear back.
"Bad news." she reported, my sister is upset that some stranger has our family memories and is going to post them online. I almost didn't need to explain my side to my contact because she really understood what I was doing. However, I extended another offer. I first shared the audio reel by attaching the digitized file to an email. Then I posted a private link to the film reels to show that at least they did not reveal any personal information about their father. Again, I waited for a reaction.
I knew I would not be able to publish the audio reel, it contained personal messages from the soldiers parents and his brother and sister. It was all very innocent; they had bought a new car and a dishwasher, his sister had been visiting colleges and even mom got on the mic to say a few words.
Finally, I heard from my contact. The family had responded, and...they were floored. The audio reel was precious to them and the footage was very special too. She explained why. Her father served in the signal corps and while stationed in Vietnam he was working to rebuild an orphanage. The footage shows the restoration and construction of an orphanage inside the Hue Citadel. The audio reel is where they had broken down, listening to what would be their grand parents and aunt and uncle at such a young age was precious to them. Here's the grand coincidence, their aunt, who can be heard on the audio reel, was actually at that moment visiting the orphanage their father had helped build. Serendipity strikes again.
In he final tally, I was given permission to do whatever I wanted with the 8mm footage, but to please not share the family audio recording on the internet. No problem. The icing was the following "Thank You" note I received from Mara, the daughter of the veteran who had been my main contact. Now, it was my turn to be "floored."
"It is rare to have a complete stranger present one's family with a precious gift of a lost, irreplaceable family heirloom. That is exactly what happened to my family in December of 2018. My father, a Vietnam veteran, had just passed away. We had thought that we collected all of his memorabilia from his house in Connecticut before the estate sale. Fortunately, Greg Van Antwerp, a kindhearted historian and estate sale buyer, got a hold of some forgotten film reels at the estate sale. He located me across the world, using people finder software and he contacted me on social media. Greg digitized the reels in excellent quality even though they had experienced years of damage. He immediately shared my dad's Vietnam footage with me and I was able to share it with my family. He also digitized and shared with us a 1960's talk-a-tape sent by my grandparents and aunts to my dad in Vietnam. I cannot even capture how special it is to have the voices of my now deceased grandparents forever memorialized in digital version. Greg did this for my family, he presented this treasure to us, as a complete stranger.
After some conversations with Greg, I came to understand him as a person who really understands what its like for families to lose a family member and the irreplaceable memorabilia. He gets satisfaction from learning and preserving the history of people like my dad, a veteran who worked in an orphanage in Vietnam, and he gets the most satisfaction from helping reunite people with the long forgotten. Greg said that my Dad is hero that he wishes he had a chance to meet. Greg said he goes to estate sales looking for the story, the man, the person. I think that is so beautiful!
At first, my family was wondering why a person would go to great lengths and spend money to help reunite strangers with lost items from estate sales. Now knowing the good that Greg does to bring these stories that he finds of ordinary people doing important work throughout history to historical societies, libraries, and assisted living communities, we understand. It is a niche of community outreach and historic preservation that is very often overlooked. It one way that a good person can reach out to people in the community, inspire others, and preserve the lost.
I am a second hand store digger myself and have always thought how sad it is to see lost pictures of families in second hand frames in the stores. It is so refreshing to see someone reaching out to people to reunite them with these irreplaceable items. I feel so fortunate that my family was able to be reunited with long lost memories through Greg's work.