Friday, February 2, 2007

How History Disappears

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #305, February 2, 2007)

This issue’s column is about a leather pioneer. But it’s not the column I thought I would write. And it’s not the column I wish I could write.

This issue’s column was supposed to be an interview. Instead it’s an obituary.

This issue’s column was supposed to celebrate one man’s life and share his stories. Now he can’t share his stories with me, and I can’t share them with you.

Several years ago I received an e-mail from Bob Guenther, a long-time leatherman, asking a favor. He told me of a friend, Gus Trenkler, who was one of the last surviving members of the legendary but now defunct Cycle MC, a motorcycle club based in New York City. Trenkler had been the club’s last president.

Gus had retired from his job as a court administrator in New Jersey and was now living in a Twin Cities suburb. Would I be interested in interviewing him for the Leather Archives & Museum’s Oral History Project?

I expressed interest and in return received an e-mail from Guenther with a list of things to ask during the interview. But then I received another e-mail: “He doesn’t want to talk about years gone by.” Trenkler evidently did not want the people he called his “appointed parents,” who controlled his finances, to find out about some of his past activities.

I was sorry to hear this and felt bad that Gus was not in a position to savor his life, but instead had to effectively disown it. I filed the e-mail exchange for future reference, hoping Gus would change his mind and allow me to interview him.

Recently I received another e-mail from Guenther. His Christmas card to Trenkler had been returned as undeliverable. Would I please check my local resources and see if I could find an obituary? Sadly, I found one—it had appeared in the Star Tribune on April 30, 2006.

This is how our history disappears.

Over the years I have interviewed many people for this column. I have collected their stories on cassette tapes and published portions of the interviews in print. It’s been a fascinating undertaking.

Other folks are preserving our stories and our history, too. The members of the Knights of Leather have devoted great attention and many hours to putting together scrapbooks containing the history of their club. Now I understand they are taking the next step: they’re not just making scrapbooks—they’re Scrapbooking, in the best soccer-mom tradition.

And, of course, the ongoing Oral History Project of the Leather Archives & Museum has been collecting stories and reminiscences from leather community members. This is the project for which I would have interviewed Trenkler.

This is how our history is preserved.

You, dear reader, also can help preserve history. Spend an afternoon, or even longer, getting your own stories down, whether on paper, audio tape or video. Then send them to the Leather Archives & Museum in Chicago. Do it now, while you still can.

Or ask someone else to share their stories with you, and have a tape recorder or video camera running while they’re sharing. You’ll both enjoy the reminiscing and you’ll get their stories down for posterity.

There are stories in memorabilia and mementos, too. Perhaps you have photos, programs, tickets, t-shirts, title sashes or other artifacts that tell a leather story of years gone by. Those pieces of our history are too important to disappear into a dumpster when you’re no longer able to enjoy them. Make your plans now—and I stress now—to get those treasures into trusted hands when the time comes.

We need these stories of the early years of our community. There are people coming after us who will need those stories, too. We have a community institution, The Leather Archives & Museum, set up to preserve them, conserve them and make them available to future generations.

I have no doubt I would have enjoyed interviewing Trenkler. And I’m sure, had circumstances been different, he would have enjoyed being interviewed. Instead, tragically, he found himself in a position where he couldn’t be open about, and proud of, his life and his stories. In the words of Bob Guenther, “Who knows how much New York City leather history was lost as a result.”

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