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The Value of Life
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My grandfather collected every single issue of Life, the weekly magazine that began November 23, 1936, and ended December 8, 1972. He bound most of them in hardback volumes, four volumes per year--127 volumes total, and the rest wrapped in craft paper by quarter year. It's something like sixteen hundred pounds of magazines. My mother inherited them. Now that she's selling her place, I'm in charge of selling the magazines. But for how much?

On eBay, I found many single issues sell for $10 each. Some issues can be had for as little as a dollar, and others, hundreds of dollars. Most collectors don't want them bound but as single issues in archival envelopes. Libraries like them bound, but I've learned most libraries already have the whole collection. Here's a collection that's nearly pristine as can be.

What can't be put in the price are the memories I have of them. As children, my cousins and I would pull out volumes in my grandfather's humidity controlled basement. He told me that if a nuclear bomb were to go off in Minneapolis, as he worried in the sixties, his Life magazines would be safe.

Great. What about the people who might read them? For his wife and any visiting grandchildren that were around a nuclear blast, he had another room to live in, filled with bottles of Coca-Cola and canned fruit. That didn't seem like a great future to me.

I never quite understood, either, why his so-called bomb shelter had a single-paned window to the outside. Even as a ten-year-old, I knew about powerful nuclear blasts. After all, in second grade my class had to practice "duck and cover." We had to put our nonwriting hands over our heads to protect our heads. I always assumed this was because if our nonwriting hands melted off, we could still do homework with our other, good hand.

As for poring over the magazines, my cousins and I would be awed by the advertisements mostly, such as the one that said, "Four out of five doctors recommend Camel cigarettes." Another ad showed Ronald Reagan happily sending out boxes of Chesterfields at Christmas. My brothers, male cousins and I particularly liked the Maidenform bra ads because, beyond the occasional glimpse of my mother in a bra, we didn't see bras. A bra seemed as close to being naked as could be, and there were women right there in Life magazine covorting in Venice or the Acropolis in just a bra and skirt. Wow.

In the late mid-nineties, I came across an article in a 1962 Life magazine about an anonymous committee in Seattle that was selecting only a handful of people dying from kidney disease for an experiment. The lucky few brought into the experiment might live, thanks to the newly perfected kidney dialysis machine. The committee had to select these people. Who would live? That became the inspiration for my play, Who Lives?, which was recently staged in Los Angeles again. (To read about that staging, go to http://www.wholivesplay.com/.)

It's occurred to me there are probably many other ideas for plays, novels, and movies in those thirty-six years of weekly magazines. They are gold. Then again, where would I put them all?

Thus, I'm not eager to do anything with them yet. Besides, it all feels odd that I'm selling Life as my mother struggles with living. I can't deal with it now.

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I once gave my wife as a

I once gave my wife as a birthday present a framed cover of the LIFE from the day she was born. She liked to think of her mother lying in bed reading that issue.

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Bob, that's a great gift. Several years ago I researched what happened on the day I was born. Lucille Ball and Dezi Arnaz were on the front page, looking worried. She had gone in front of Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She testified that she had briefly been a member of the Communist party in 1936 to please her grandfather, but that she fully repudiated it. That wasn't the greatest period of America.