From The Trenches
Howard R. Crouch --- collector, historian, author
t wasn't an uncommon scene: Howard Crouch and me sitting in my kitchen, shooting the breeze, although I admit that we did look like an odd pair. One of us in a skirt and heels, the other in a well-worn flannel shirt and jeans, one of us sipping hot tea at the kitchen table, the other perched on a barstool swilling a frosty Corona.
Hold it right there. You might have the picture wrong in your head. Yes, I was the one wearing the skirt, but Howard was the one sipping tea. Yes, blunt-spoken, barrel-chested, and occasionally gruff Howard quite unselfconsciously played against type: He loved his tea, and I knew to put the kettle on as soon as I saw him coming.
Ours seemed an unlikely alliance. Howard was an outdoorsman, a trainer of dogs, a hunter, a construction man, and outspokenly macho. I am ... not.
But over the course of several decades, it emerged --- doubtless to the surprise of both of us --- that we somehow sort of understood each other.
Our conversations were sporadic, but there was always a common theme: We could park the bull at the door. I feel certain that was true of all of his friendships. If Howard had baggage, none of it contained tightly packed falsehoods and carefully folded illusions.
He did not believe in unicorns.
Howard sometimes asked the most outrageous questions imaginable, but there was never cause to take offense. The questions stemmed, with unstoppered simplicity, from his innate curiosity.
The questions were so without agenda or guile that one tended to answer in the same manner. He'd have made an excellent reporter --- and, given the quantity of books he wrote, in a sense he was one.
And he loved to talk. I sometimes think that's what spurred him to write Relic Hunter, first released in 1981. At core, the book represented a printed conversation he had with anyone who cared to read the book. It was, as the most deservedly popular works are, approachable.
Relic Hunter was followed by a host of titles, including Virginia Militaria of the Civil War, Civil War Artifacts: A Guide for the Historian, Historic American Spurs, Historic American Swords, and Civil War Sites and Scenes in Northern Virginia.
These represent a broad sweep of a wide range of artifacts and history, but throughout them is a common theme that is conspicious in its absence. None of them feature a big, blown-out About the Author section, and with the exception of the autobiographical Relic Hunter, none prominently feature the personal pronoun "I." Howard was not a braggard --- and he wasn't much on putting up with one either.
In other words, hanging out with Howard was sort of a come-as-you-are proposition. No point in coming as anything else, because he'd call you on it, for which I respected him immensely.
He left this earthly plane on a sunny summer weekend --- the kind of weather that makes you believe God is in his heaven and all's right with the world. Howard had unshakeable faith that the former was true, even if he'd occasionally argue against the latter.
He leaves an eerily silent void where there was once a large and unforgettable character.
I only hope that when he got to the gates of heaven, he was met not only by St. Pete but a unicorn as well. That would have elicited his familiar bark of laughter.
Several of the articles in this issue were selected with Howard in mind. One of the common themes is appreciation of fellow collectors --- see Dan Binder's treatise on an early belt rig and Mike O'Donnell's nostalgic presentation of a relic hunting quest in which Howard himself played a role.
There is also a thought-provoking piece about the spiritual aspects of collecting by the Rev. Robert Alves. Howard would've nodded his head in agreement with Fr. Alves's sensible and amusing observations about the human frailties to which collectors can succumb.
Howard would be displeased with me if I surrendered to any maudlin sentiments here --- I can see him rolling his eyes at the mere thought of it. But I think he'd be delighted if remembrance of him and the articles herein caused anyone to more deeply appreciate their fellow collectors and the higher purpose inherent in honoring the soldiers of the Civil War.
--- Nancy Dearing Rossbacher, ed.
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