In Fond Memory of Norm Flayderman
July 19, 1928 - May 23, 2013
In 1961 I was a kid enamored of every aspect of the Civil War -- its history, its battlefields, its soldiers, and its relics. I eagerly awaited the new six-part Centennial series presented in the pages of the oversize Life magazine that was delivered to our door each week. The final episode, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Pen Warren, featured a wonderful wrap-up to a great series filled with period photos and art by some of the nation's best illustrators.
As I turned the pages I was presented with a full-page color photo of relics surrounding a seated man in a grey flannel suit. It must have taken hours to create the setting for the image. Flags were framed on the back wall, blades were suspended from the ceiling, rows of rifles stood against the wall, uniforms were displayed on stands, and trunks, boots, drums, artillery shells, and books were artistically arrayed in a seemingly casual circle around the man in the center. The man himself was wearing an artillery officer's red kepi and holding a revolver. Gen. Thomas's diamond-encrusted sword lay across his knees.
The guy reminded me of my dad -- same age, a suit and tie, and very serious looking. But, unlike my father, this guy was clearly someone who loved the Civil War as I did.
As I read the caption I discovered that there were 100,000 people who collected Civil War relics in 1961. The caption informed me that this man, Norm Flayderman of Greenwich, Connecticut, owned one of the largest collections of Civil War relics in the world. With those few words this man became a star to me. My pals wanted to meet Johnny Unitas, Mickey Mantle, Fess Parker, or John Wayne. They were all deserving of boyhood hero worship, certainly, but I wanted to meet Norm Flayderman.
Years later I embarked on writing my first book with coauthor Mike O'Donnell. I worked up the courage to call Mr. Flayderman and tell him what we were working on. I asked if he would consent to an interview. He graciously agreed and invited us to his home.
As we waited in the foyer of Mr. Flayderman's spacious home, I examined photos of him on the wall. He some he was pictured with famous people; in others he was autographing books. In still others he posed, rifle in hand, over the carcasses of big game in exotic places in far corners of the globe.
Suddenly there he was, his face bearing a big, welcoming smile. With one handshake, I felt as though I'd known him all my life. From that moment on he was "Norm," which he preferred to "sir" or "Mr. Flayderman."
He took us into a nearby building that was filled with relics on shelves, in stacks, on tables. Guns, hats, uniforms, swords, and flags were everywhere you looked. He didn't just collect -- he also bought and sold through his internationally renowned militaria catalog. We were looking at his current inventory. We were free to look at, handle, and photograph anything we wished.
It was quickly apparent that Norm genuinely loved this stuff. The inventory wasn't just merchandise. It was a collection of sacred relics. He was like a kid as he eagerly showed us pieces that he thought might fit well with our literary agenda.
At one point he announced that he wanted to show us something in particular. It was a peg leg, and at first glance it didn't hold much interest for me. Then he said quietly, "I would like you to listen to this."
He unfolded a faded letter and began to read the solemn words of the soldier who had worn the prosthetic. The wounded soldier was offering to relieve his fiancée of her vow to marry him.
At that point Norm's voice cracked and I saw his eyes moisten as he finished the letter. I knew then that this Hemingway-like man's man, this tough WW II veteran, this shrewd and successful businessman was also a tender-hearted guy who could weep unashamedly at the turmoil of an anguished, crippled soldier from 125 years before.
From that day on I admired and respected him in a way that is difficult to articulate. That was the Norm Flayderman I knew: a collector, writer, teacher, veteran, husband, father, and friend. Norm Flayderman was a man of immense talent and vision who possessed a heart bigger than the fame and success he so richly deserved.
His passing leaves the militaria field both an unfillable void and an everlasting legacy to uphold.
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