If your house was on fire and you could only grab one possession…

….what would it be? For me the answer came today.  I honestly never had an answer for this.  People and animals aside, the question was always about a material possession.

So what is it?


I have the missing numbers in a different crate, do not worry.  But I realized it today that these books would be the one thing I carried out.  But it is not because of what’s written in them.  I can find that information anywhere now.  No, it is for a very different reason.

I have been trying to organize my life more. So I have decided to tackle my basement.  Boxes upon boxes of material that hasn’t been touched for years. My mind is telling me to let them go, but I convinced myself to be absolutely sure there was nothing of priceless value hidden away in those boxes, who knows, an errant Van Gogh original could be in there. But to be clear, these books were never on the chopping block, they were never even considered to go anywhere, but it wasn’t until today that the attachment to them became clear.

As people do when cleaning out storage areas they often stop to reminisce about an item that they just came across after years.  So there amidst the cardboard boxes was the milk crate containing my “Ocean World of Jacque Cousteau” book set.  I have seen it in its spot a hundred times, but today I noticed something different.  Peaking out ever so slightly from the holes of the milk crate was a very faded, very old, scrap piece of paper diligently holding a place in one of Jacques books for the last 25 years.

I became intrigued, it was literally put there by an 8 year old me and hadn’t been touched since, indicating something I found to be of great importance at the time.  So I picked up the book and flipped to the marked page….

There it is, plain as day.  This literally marks the first time in my life that I learned the single principal that would dictate the rest of my life.  While the term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, the text in the book focuses on Darwin’s theory of natural selection, something I have studied it for years and literally teach a class on evolution. Now, it is not like someone pointed it out to me, or talked about it, it was buried in thousands of pages of a 20 volume book set, but 8 year old me was struck by it, and so marked it for reference.  I sat there, reading over the words, memories I forgot existed came flooding back to my brain.   Then as if scripted I looked up at the rest of the books and saw many more hastingly ripped up scraps of paper marking various pages of significance to a younger, less knowledgable me.

And as I revisited each page and followed the now unrecognizable path of my 8 year old thought process pieces began to fall into place, like watching a bag of jumbled coins fall through their respective slots into an organized structure, my whole life suddenly came into clear and perfect focus.

These books shaped my life.  Going through them as a child, page by page, over and over again, mesmerized by the pictures and intrigued by the words, they began to sculpt and shape my brain.  Sure the initial interest was there before the books, but how many children when asked what they want to be when they grow up say “I want to be a vet” or “I want to work with animals”…..and how many do?

You see, genes are a funny thing.  You can have the gene for something, but if you are never introduced to an environmental stimuli that gene might never get turned on.  For example, the arctic fox is brown in the summer and white in the winter. The simple reason is that the gene that produces melanin (responsible for brown) does not work below a certain temperature and thus no color is produced and you get a white fox.  If you take an arctic fox and keep them in a warm climate they will never turn white.

So I began to wonder, if I never got those books,  would my interest have subsided?

Now there is something I haven’t told you yet, when and how I got those books.

Back when I was younger, around 4 years old, my dad purchased them at a yard sale. This was when we lived in the old two family apartment before we moved to the house I grew up in.  The amazing thing is I remember, clearly, sitting on our couch and flipping through those books before I could even read, and just looking at the pictures.  I have a clear memory of the feeling of joy I would get seeing that shade of green on the cover of the book because I knew that color meant something I liked was in there (is it coincidence my favorite color is green?)

So I began to wonder, where did these books originate? How did they end up for sale in someone’s driveway and how did my dad happen upon them.  I mean think of the hundreds of various things that could have prevented those books from making it to the yard sale.  Think of the hundreds of various things that could have prevented my dad from coming across that yard sale.

Then I began to think, why of all things did my dad choose these books? The answer is simplistic on the surface, you see he did grow up on the ocean, in a family of fisherman and was a scuba diver, even owning the original “aqua-lung” two stage regulator designed by Jacques Cousteau. I began to wonder if I inherited the genes for science and exploration of the natural world from my father, but his career path was exactly the opposite of mine, so I always assumed the answer was no.

But something was in there, because as I just said, he was scuba diving before it was really a hobby, and something made him buy those books. There was a seed in there that just never got germinated.

Then I began to think.  Growing up he did not choose his career path as much as it chose him.  Having to work at a young age and not having a lot of money limits your opportunities, as does having a son at 21, so he didn’t have the freedom to choose as much as the need to support.  He became a laborer, was in a union, experienced injustices in the laborer environment and when he did have the opportunity to choose his own path he became a lawyer.

No doubt, largely influenced by his years as a laborer.

So I began to think even more.  What if when he was barely old enough to read someone handed him a set of books about the natural world. If his parents brought home a set of books form a yard sale about outer space.  Would that have triggered the same genes that are responsible for my inquisitiveness?  Would that have been the water needed to germinate that seed? What if he brought me home a set of books about outer space, would I have chosen a very different career in science?

Perhaps if he got those books on space, he would have purchased a telescope instead of an aqua lung and I would have grown up watching him peering into space instead of disappearing below the water.

So as I sat there, having just realized for the first time the real impact these books have had on me.  I thought to myself, this is my answer, these are without a doubt what I would risk my life for to pull out of a burning building.


Because when I have a son, you better believe these will be the first books he reads.


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2 responses to “If your house was on fire and you could only grab one possession…

  1. Mom

    I remember how much you loved those booKs they were stacked next to your bed
    I hope you kept those pages marked.

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