Guiding Lights

Owen Edwards, an old hand at writing our “Object at Hand” column, explains and how he developed a passion for motorcycle racing

Course du BOC 2010
Course du BOC 2010 Wikimedia Commons

I hear you race motorcycles—how did you get involved in that?
I got in very late by motorcycle standards. I had a motorcycle early on when my kids were about 3 and 4, and I had a crash out on Long Island, and so I decided I better stick around—insofar as I could guarantee that—until the kids didn't need me financially. When my son—the youngest—graduated from college and the first August came around, I went right down to the Ducati dealer here in San Francisco and I said, "Give me that one." I like to go fast, so I got into going out on the race track. My wife has asked me how long I think I'm going to be doing it, and I have no idea. I think when all the young guys won't go out on the track with me because they're too afraid I'll die of a heart attack, I'll stop. So far so good.

How many "Objects at Hand" do you think you've written for us?
I don't really know. it's been quite a lot. I can't remember what the first one was, but these are all over the place—I never know what I'm going to be asked to write about. They can be anything from a gold record from the Village People—definitely one of the strangest—to a piece about Amelia Earhardt's flight jacket. I do try to make a connection with why I'm doing something. A good example would be when I wrote about Artie Shaw's clarinet, and I so well remembered my parents being enthralled by Artie's music when they were young and glamorous and I was just a little kid looking on. And then I had the extreme good fortune to be able to have a half an hour on the phone with Artie Shaw.

[An exhaustive count shows that Edwards has written a total of 35 "Object at Hand" columns since October 2003. The first object was a compass used by Lewis and Clark.]

What was your favorite "Object"?
Probably my favorite, and what I consider the wackiest Smithsonian acquisition, is the puffy shirt from "Seinfeld." I'm an absolutely rabid "Seinfeld" fan, and I've probably seen every episode 20 times. And they stay funny, unlike almost everything that's ever been on television. In doing the puffy shirt, I went to the miracle of the internet. You can access almost every "Seinfeld" script, and I read the puffy shirt script, and it was absolutely hilarious—it was as funny reading it as it had been to see it.

There was also an NBC microphone I wrote about that had been used by Sid Caesar. Sometimes these things are not so easy to bring to life—a microphone is, in the end, just a microphone—but I left a message with Mel Brooks asking him to please call me, because I knew he'd worked with Caesar. I was driving down Route 280 [in California] doing 70 mph or something, and the phone rang. Wouldn't you know, it was Mel Brooks calling me back. And I couldn't find an exit. I needed to get off so I could take notes! He was so voluble, just chattering away, and here I was trying to remember it all. It was like seeing a great painter working with a stick on the beach and the tide was coming in. I did remember most of it, though, and he gave me very funny stories about the microphone. It was one of those moments when I realized the great thing about being able to write this column is that all of these things have a fabulous back story if you can find it.

What was the most challenging object?
Sometimes the problem is you think everybody knows the story. When the object is less arcane, I worry. Smithsonian readers know a lot—this is an extremely knowledgeable readership. There are readers out there who know more than any of us. An example of that is the piece I'm working on now about Amelia Earhardt's flight jacket. I have to decide how much of the story of Amelia Earhardt I should be telling without patronizing readers who already know it. But in a way, the most difficult one I do is always the one I'm doing at the moment. I sometimes think [the editors] are playing a game with me. I amuse myself but thinking that they sit around and say, "Let's have him do this—he'll never find a way to do this one." It's always a challenge, but so far, so good, I hope.

What about the one in the June issue, Leslie Payne's airplane?
I'd never heard of Leslie Payne, so this was all new to me. The curator was very interesting, as most of the Smithsonian curators are. The man who ended up preserving these fantastical airplanes was one of those selfless people. He took on this unknown American folk artist—whose family just thought he was slightly nuts—and he brought these things out of weed-overgrown oblivion at considerable cost and energy and labor. That's always, to me, a great story. There's always a hero here—the person who made a discovery or took the effort to have something saved, preserved and into the Smithsonian.

You also wrote about LeRoy Grannis' surf photos in this issue.
I knew LeRoy Grannis' work, and I have friend out here who are surfers. My daughter is a surfer. I've never gotten into surfing, and I guess motorcycles have taken care of that aspect of my life. [Grannis] is close to 90, and he surfed until he was 85. He still goes to the beach every day. That was impressive—I collect guys like that as guiding lights.

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