JAMES CITY COUNTY — Michael McCall collects a lot of historical memorabilia.
From World War I mess kits to garment bags to uniforms, McCall’s basement looks more like a museum than an office. Save for model tanks and a shelf of GI Joes, nothing is a replica.
McCall knows his history well, with the ability to scan over a uniform and pick out the tiniest of details like the origin of a button.
So how on earth does someone come to possess a piece of history from say, Custard’s Last Stand or the Spanish-American War?
“But there are more guys just like me in the area,” McCall said. “And they have even bigger collections than mine. Mine is small compared to some guys.”
As an army veteran, it’s no surprise that he is infatuated with U.S. military history. McCall, who hails from Maynard, Mass., retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2015 after serving over 20 years.
But McCall’s love of history goes even deeper than his military experience.
His father, Charles McCall, was only in the military for a few years and served during the Korean War as a paratrooper. According to his son, those years of service stuck with him throughout his whole life.
“My dad loved military history,” McCall said. “He was always reading about it and telling us stories.”
Now McCall continues the family tradition of reading and researching historical events and people in wars. However, he has taken the obsession to the next level.
Whenever McCall is able to get a hold of a uniform, he does research on the person who wore it.
One World War I uniform he acquired from an estate sale belonged to local figure, Raymond Bottom, Sr., former owner of the Daily Press. Bottom died of coronary thrombosis in 1953. The most shocking discovery for McCall was the old letters he found in one of the pocks.
The letters were correspondences between Bottom and his wife, Dorothy Rouse Bottom. The Bottom family ran the paper until it was sold in 1986.
McCall said that when he discovered the letters, he attempted to return them to the family.
“They didn’t want them,” McCall said. “It’s crazy the kind of things people just don’t hold on to.”
Another uniform among his possessions came from the Oceana Auction and belonged to Edward Jernigan, a B-17 navigator during WWII. Jernigan’s plane was shot down over Germany, and he became a prisoner-of-war until the end of the war.
But not every uniform or item ends in a successful return home. A World War II garment bag belonging to Thomas Randon Opie of Staunton, Va. was sent home to his family after a plane accident in New Mexico took his life. Opie was 24 and recently married when he died in 1944, according to the accident reports McCall found.
McCall was able to track down a nephew, who was named after Opie, and offered to give him the garment bag. The nephew told McCall to keep it.
So McCall does the next best thing any person could do for a veteran. He tells their stories.
With a background of six years of teaching, McCall would occasionally bring some of the items to his kids’ schools depending on the time period they were covering and teach about the people involved in those wars. Some items, like old World War II helmets, he would let kids hold or try on.
“It’s one thing to talk about history with kids, but to actually show them something that belonged to a person from that time, a person who was from the area, that brings a whole new perspective,” McCall said. “I can tell these kids, ‘Hey, it’s because of this guy here that you’re able to go to school.’”