"CONGRATULATIONS upon buying such a fine product! You have chosen wisely upon procuring our very fine patented (Pend) devices. The guarantee which ac¬companies herein is unquestionably good for one year or less. If fuse is not twisted? Note base of green color is not easily found to be trackable. To operate correctfully merely plug into standard S. (A.C.) two pronged electrics (110 V.). Immediately your Deluxe Yuel A-Go-Go Tuneful Musical Revolving Puncture-Proof Table-Model Aluminum Xmas Tree should begins function. (Deluxe Model 2-A is capable of being folds. If excessive care is observed. This provide storage.)"
1 reread the directions, which must contain some¬where a clue to the technical trouble I was experienc¬ing with my sparkling little Japanese-made aluminum beauty, a triumph of modern science over the tune¬less, nonreusable, old-fashioned Christmas tree of yesteryear. The only trouble was, the damn thing squatted there dark, mute and unrevolving in the mid¬dle of my winter-streaked picture window overlooking my beloved wasteland of Manhattan, even though I had taken every precaution to make sure it was plugged into the correct electrics. Maybe my Yule A-Go-Go is polarized, I thought, with my usual technical know-how, on which I pride myself as an ex-GI.
Dropping to my knees, I crawled laboriously be¬hind my Danish Folding Swing-A-Ding Coucherama, inching forward toward the only electrical outlet that my entire high-rent, three-and-a-half-room apartment supported. I plunged my hand into the giant rat's nest of three-way, five-way, nine-way extensions and plugs, by dint of which I managed to squeeze out enough electricity from my one outlet to run my entire life. From somewhere in the distance. deep in some murky air shaft, came the faint strains of recorded Christmas music. 1 jiggled the plugs, reversed the green one from my Yule A-Go-Go and crabbed backward from behind the couch.
Nothing. Returning to the tree, I picked it up and examined it from all sides in the gray light that filtered in from what passes for a winter sun in the big city. There were no knobs, no switches, no unseemly mechanistic protuberances. Aha! Again my brilliant technical mind leaped in excitement as I spotted on the underside of the Christmas-green polyethylene base what appeared to be the head of an embedded fuse. Quickly I scanned again the thinner-than-tissue ¬paper sheet of instructions. A single phrase leaped out at rue: "If fuse is not twisted?" Do they mean to twist the fuse or not to twist the fuse? Since my Yule A-Go-Go wasn't yet playing carols and suffusing my apartment with a festive aura of soft Christmas lighting the way the ad said it would, I deduced that they must mean to twist the fuse.
Squinting closely at the base, I ob¬served that the fuse was recessed well below the surface. It would require more than my fingernails to do the job. In a frenzy of creativity, I rushed out into my kitchen, where I kept my meager supply of tools, fished out my dime-store pliers and returned to the fray. As I grasped the base firmly in one hand, the pliers in the other chomped solidly onto the head of the fuse. I gave it a smooth and clean twist.
For a single instant I felt the Christ¬mas tree stir under my grasp, its tiny red, yellow, blue and green lights flar¬ing brightly. The high, thin notes of "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" bounced off the ceiling. Then a dull, roaring sensation boomed up my arm, crashed into my shoulder, down my spine, hovered for a moment in my pel¬vic region and then whinged out through my other arm. For a moment, I stood frozen; then I toppled through a cloud of billowing smoke—striking my head smartly against the arm of my burnt-orange Naugahyde Barcalounger—and lay for a full minute, during which I had the clear impression of being on a skiing trip in the Alps, which is rather odd, since I am resolutely anti skiing. Tentatively, my mind gradually groped back into focus and I knew the worst. I had just voided another guarantee.
I crawled to my feet, my silken dress¬ing gown still smoldering slightly, and staggered over to the couch. I sat down heavily, flicking my wrists, attempting to restore some circulation. It was a little early in the morning for shock therapy, I reflected. Christmas decorations lay scattered about me. Absent-mindedly, I examined a plastic bag containing two sprigs of neoprene mistletoe. In red, Christmasy lettering, PLASTOKISS splashed across the gay bagging. Well, at least you don't have to plug this stuff in, I mused.
Little did I realize that this fiasco was but a prelude to an electrifying pre-Christmas trauma that would set the tone for the entire yuletide fortnight. Wisps of blue-gray electrical smoke ed¬died about my bookshelves. The shock had given me a more than moderately nasty headache, which, piled on top of my usual Saturday-morning hangover, should have been enough hint of im¬pending events. But we live from mo¬ment to moment, rarely perceiving the vaster plans that contrive to undo us.
The doorbell rang. My mind, slowed by its unexpected jolt of Con Ed juice, at first did not respond. It rang again. Finally, I heard a disembodied voice that I dimly recognized as mine call out:
"What do you want?"
From beyond the door, I heard the surly, guttural tones of the doorman: "A package."
A package? Instantly the cobwebs fled. There is nothing that brings the roses to the cheeks of a man quicker than to announce he is receiving a pack¬age. Leaping to my feet, I lurched for¬ward, barking my shins against my free-form coffee table, and limped to the door, oblivious of the thin crimson trail of blood I left behind me.
LIFE—THE COMPLETE CEREAL. Sweat poured down my brow as I read the green block letters printed on the huge, lumpy, battered cardboard carton as I struggled to drag it over the sill of my apartment door. Slowly I inched the monster burden over my $700-a-yard, mocha-shaded wall-to-wall carpeting and into the living room, my Sulka dressing gown sopping wet with honest perspira¬tion. Even the monogram drooped.
Painfully, I toppled the hulking mass end upward, hearing from inside a muffled clinking and clattering, a tin¬kling, rolling, sifting, grating mélange of sound from within the battered carton. Even as I eased myself down into my magnificent alligatorskin Pakistani sling chair to rub my shattered shin, which was now beginning to throb, the box continued to emit muted noises, like sand filtering down through a mess of broken Christmas-tree ornaments. From deep inside came the low whir of a spring suddenly uncoiling. It stopped, ticked twice and was silent. Somehow, that spring and the sound it made were vaguely familiar. Then began a faint, derisive quacking, as of some demented duck calling to its lascivious mate. In-stinctively, I struck out at the carton with my clenched fist. The duck quacked once again and the giant carton lapsed into an ominous silence. Only the sound of distant sirens, keeping the citizenry at bay, drifted in from the outside world.
I knew that damn duck! Which is not an easy fact to accept before lunch. Awkwardly, I. struggled out of my chair and stood looking down at my prize. For the first time, I noticed that there was an envelope taped to the top. It was ad¬dressed to me, hand-written in a familiar script:
Merry Christmas. I was cleaning out the basement the other day and I came across all kinds of junk you had when you were little. I figured rather than throw it out, I'd send it on to you. A lot of it is still good and you might want to play with it, especially the Kangaroo Spring¬-Shus that Aunt Min gave you for Christmas.
With an involuntary groan, I plumped down on my rickety camel-saddle seat and read the letter again, finally letting it fall to the floor between my feet. Seven tons of kid effluvia! What a master stroke of sadistic Christmas gift giving! Already my apartment was loaded to the gunnels with grown-up mementos—my complete library of first-edition Peanuts paperbacks, my matched set of souvenir pillows from 37 Army camps west of the Mississippi, my matchless, nationally known collection of rare swizzle sticks, all personally earned. My life was already overflowing. And now this! I thought briefly of throwing the whole mess down the air shaft.
Then, from deep inside the box came another sound, a faint honking, as of some ancient flivver caught in a long-forgotten traffic jam. It stopped. Maybe it was the duck, maybe the horn, maybe Christmas itself; but I found myself ris¬ing slowly from the camel seat, picking up my pair of shears and standing over the vast carton. From some remote apartment came the unmistakable beat of that new smash Christmas hit The King Wenceslaus Rock by the Bullwhip Four. Taking a deep breath, I plunged the shears into the top of the box. There was no turning back. As I sawed away, I began to be conscious of a rising twinge of apprehension. What was in this box? After all, as a kid, I had had a lot of things in my possession at one time or another that I would not want my mother to know about. Furthermore, it came as a somewhat nasty shock that this stuff was still in existence.
Finally, the shears chewed through the last strand of baling wire and the top of the battered receptacle stood ready for the final assault. Unflinching, I grasped the flaps and ripped. Instantly, an odd, indefinable odor rose from the muddled moil: musty, basementy, a slight touch of rust. I think I detected even a bit of residual ancient sweat mixed with other scents so subtle and ephemeral as to be unclassifiable.
Inside the cover, my mother had crumpled large sections of the editorial page and want-ad columns from an old copy of the Chicago Tribune that she had picked up, probably, from a pile of old newspapers in the basement. One faded headline read: "8-24 SQUADRON HITS SICILY IN DAYLIGHT RAID; REPORT SUCCESS; THREE PLANES LOST." The crumpled panels of a comic strip caught my eye. I smoothed it out and once again was face to face with Harold Teen. He was trying to get Lillums, his little lettuce leaf, to go to Pop Jenks' Sugar Bowl with him. Then Beezie Jenks said something that will be forever lost, since that
part of the strip was ripped away. I noticed that Terry had not made second lieutenant yet but was still a struggling air cadet.
Ruthlessly, I crumpled the papers, tossed them aside and peered down into the gloomy morass within the box. It was worse than I thought. A rich, moldering compost heap lay like sonic archeological treasure-trove before me for a fleeting instant, I felt like King Tut would feel if he came back and somebody insisted he take a tour through the Egyptian section of the Museum of Natural History to look at all his junk in the glass cases.
Gingerly, I reached down into this sorry mess of pottage—I must admit, with a certain amount of uneasiness, because there was no telling what was in there, and I've always been worried about getting bitten by things. Warily I grasped a round, furry projection that barely topped the surface of this sea of trivia and slowly began to pull from the rubble a battered, fuzzy, brownish, trun¬cated form, which, as it began to emerge from the wreckage. I recognized with growing horror. Great Scott! There, star¬ing - insidiously up at me, hanging front my fingers by one ear was something from so Car gone in my dim past that at first I thought this was just some nasty trick of my mother's. But no, I knew it was mine.
I don't know how to say this, but there, right in my apartment in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by my paper-backs of Kafka, Nietzsche and Rona Jaffe, was—please don't think too harsh¬ly of me—my Teddy bear. Yes, I confess it. There was a period in my life when I would no sooner have gone to bed with¬out Brownie than I would have thought of saying bad things about Santa Claus. And there he was, looking up at me, one black button eye hanging loose, the other peering right through me with the stead¬fast, baleful glare of one who knew me when and knew me all too well. And clinging to him, so help Me, was the faint but unmistakable aroma of what is euphemistically called baby -"urps"— vague remains of ancient pablum, petri¬fied oatmeal and insinuating touches of Fletcher's Castoria
I held Brownie out at arm's length be¬fore me. Ile dangled, revolving slowly in lie ambient air-immutable, imperish¬able, eternally cuddly, wanting only to comfort me in the dark hours of slumber. Discreetly, I turned his good eye away front me, since lie scented to be trying to tell me something, laid him down on the sofa and wandered over to the window to stare for a long, gloomy moment out over the teeming city. If the word ever got out in certain circles that my pad housed a Teddy bear named Brownie, it would do Inc no good at all. The mere fact thin I had ever owned a 'Teddy bear would have been enough in some quarters!
Bracing myself with a drink, I re¬turned to the box. Taking a little more care this time to guard against undue shock, I slowly withdrew from the en¬tanglement a flat, stuffed, cutout figure made of colored oilcloth. It stood ap¬proximately 12 inches high. For a long moment, this strange apparition and I confronted each other without a spark of recognition. Dusty, a hit faded, a little round oilcloth man wearing a derby and sporting a ragged mustache and a pot-belly. he smiled enigmatically over my shoulder toward the kitchen. Somehow lie looked familiar, and yet. . . then, from sonic far-off rubbish heap of memo¬ry. I heard a voice, a cracked, comical voice on the radio, asking, beseeching, demanding, wheedling, whimpering, for more hamburgers. My God! Hurray! It's my Wimpy doll!
It will surprise many historians to learn that at one point in American his¬tory there was actually a Popeye radio program. Popeye, Olive, and Castor Oyl, Ham Gravy, Wimpy and the whole crowd came into the living room everyday. They offered you a choice of a Wimpy doll, a Popeye doll, an Olive Oyl doll or an Alice the Goon doll if you ate enough soup and sent in the labels. We were a canned-soup family, so there was no problem collecting enough labels. but I was probably the only kid in the United States who didn't order a Popeye doll: I went for Wimpy, a down-at-the¬-heels moodier who lived only to stuff his gut with hamburgers. I identified with him; and I'll never forget the day my Wimpy doll arrived. He immediately outranked Brownie; and for one hectic era. I was one of the very few Americans who went to bed every night with a guy wearing a derby and smoking a cigar. I must admit I was glad to see the old freeloader again. His oilcloth was a little seedy: the stuffing was edging out of his frock coat, hut somehow that was as it should be for Wimpy. Carefully. I laid him alongside his old rival and returned to the hustings.
A thin leatherette strap caught my eye and carefully, so as not to break any of these precious artifacts. I dragged forth a strange, dusty. dangling black object covered with snaps and buckles and exuding the heady aroma of musty sheep-skin. Faint silver letters could be seen through the basement patina of grime. Dipping a finger in toy drink, I carefully wiped off the grease and dirt. B-U - one letter was missing - K - another missing letter -O-G-E. . . Bless my buttons! My genuine Buck Rogers Space Helmet! For intergalactic flight. With sheepskin lining and -uh-oh, don't tell me! My old lady's lost them or thrown them out! I hurriedly scrabbled through the tangled mess and, with a great sigh of relief, pulled out my precious space goggles. Oh, wow! Their scratched, yellowed
plastic lenses were curling at the edges, hut I reverently pulled them down over my head and snapped them into place—after first carefully shaking out three dead cockroaches and an elderly retired moth. I tugged at the ear flaps of my space helmet, squeezing it down over my cranium, marveling in how it had shrunk. Finally, I snapped the chin strap shut and rushed into the bedroom to admire myself in the mirror, as I had done so many times in the past. Ah, yes, the same intrepid traveler to the 25th Century. the fearless, flinty-eyed protector of the beauteous Wilma, old Dr. Huer's trusted friend, stared back out at me. But there was one thing missing.
Instantly, I Was back at the box—and, sure enough, there it was, a little rusty. a little pock-marked, but still excitingly dangerous-looking. Made of imitation blue steel, it was my faithful Flash Gordon Zap Gun, the same gun that had destroyed Ming the Merciless with its deadly Disintegrator Rays. I leveled it at my Black Forest Persian Water Clock and pulled the trigger: Twaaaannng! The achingly familiar sound of the dead¬ly rays with which I had gunned down my kid brother, disintegrated Flick, Kis¬sel, and Schwartz thousands of times over echoed weakly in the room. The scratchy sheepskin tickled my ears the way it had so often in the past. This hel¬met and I had been through hell together —not to mentions giant snowstorms through which I had burrowed, trusty goggles protecting my eyes, as I pre-tended that I was on a space flight to Venus, Buck Rogers Space Rockets strapped to my hack, on my way to trap the vile Black Barney, who was now in league with Zog, evil master of the Swamp Planet, to subjugate the entire known universe.
Faintly, through the leatherette, the sounds of the 1812 Overture from my stereo-FM tuner reminded me of one of the bloodiest battles I had ever fought in my kidhood. It directly involved the honor and reputation of my idol Buck Rogers. Without provocation and entire¬ly without grounds, Schwartz had alleged that Flash Gordon could take Buck Rogers any day and that if it wasn't for Flash, Ming the Merciless of the planet Mongo would have us all in his clutches. This slander could not be brooked by any Buck Rogers fan, so we mixed it up under Schwartz' front porch for the better part of an hour, rolling in the dirt, tearing our shirts, banging each other's heads on the rocks, sweating and crying. But he didn't convince me and I didn't convince him. In any case, it was good to have this helmet back. You never know when it might come in handy.
I knew that somewhere in that pile of kid junk there must be the Buck Rogers Spaceship that I had gotten from the Buck Rogers radio program. It was made of lead and attached to a long string which you were supposed to tie to a chandelier; given the proper shove, the spaceship would then twirl around till room, making a high, whistling sound Which it did, until one night when my old man got it in the eye in the dark and ripped it down, tearing half the chandelier off the ceiling.
Reverently, I removed my helmet am goggles, laid aside my zap gun am reached once again into the grab hag After fumbling around for a moment or two, I felt a round metallic object, which I at first thought was my beloved Mickey Mouse watch, a beautiful timepiece whose dapper yellow gloves occasionally pointed to more or less the correct time But it wasn't. Corroded, its gilt finisl peeling, it was the size of a watch, but beneath its glass top I could see the number 227.1. I scraped oft some of tin grime and read the embossed inscription
—OFFICIAL JACK ARMSTRONG WHEATIES PEDOMETER.
From out of the wind tunnel of my mind, a commanding voice dramatically intoned: "Fellas and gals, with the Official Jack Armstrong Pedometer, yot can tell just how far you walk every day how far it is to school, how many it is to the store or the scout meeting You'll never he lost if you wear your Jack Armstrong Pedometer at all times For just one Wheaties boxtop and twenty-five cents mailed to Jack Arm- strong in care of this station. . . ." This was an important find. I examined the pedometer closely, ticking the comae: lever with my thumb. It still worked It still made that telltale click at earl revolution. I remembered great herds o kids wearing corduroy knickers drifting schoolward through the boondocks, click- ing as they went. The whole neighborhood sounded like an enormous flock of crickets, day and night, as kids measured how far it was to everywhere. I could still see the funny look on Miss Shields face as, one day in fourth grade, I got up, on direct orders, to go to the black. board to demonstrate my grasp of tic multiplication table.
"What's that clicking?" asked Miss Shields.
"I'm measuring how far it is from my seat to the board," I said.
"Give me that," is all she said as she stuck the eighth pedometer of the day in her bottom drawer.
Pulling up my, pajamas, I strapped the pedometer to my right knee, got up and carefully paced the distance to my bar, returned to my seat and took a reading. Hasty calculations revealed that six martinis would result in traveling one twelfth of a mile. Happy as a clam, dug back into the box and unsuspecting¬ly unearthed a shadowy horror out of my past that caused me to rock back in my chair in a wave of terror. My God! The evidence still exists! The crime had lain dormant in the back of my mind lot years, gnawing at my conscience like some dry rot in the foundations of haunted house.
Furtively, I examined my find, shielding it in my hand so that if by any re¬mote chance there were onlookers, they would not see die incriminating cello¬phane envelope that I held. That old sick nausea of fear of discovery, of the unmasking of my calumny, the exposure of my rottenness, hit me again. I am not proud of what I had done, But I was young and unformed. Youth is always ¬immoral, but if I had it to do over again, I know I would do the right thing. I held it up to the light, and there they were within the envelope—yellow and green, light blue, triangular-shaped, the collection of "Rate exotic hard-to-find Foreign stamps," which, in a headstrong moment of criminality, I had once sent away for on approval. On approval meant you sent them your clinic after you got the stamps. I do not have to tell you that I not only never sent in the dime, I never intended to. I remember the letter that came from Kansas City a month later, threatening my father with jail and me with a criminal record that would last throughout my life if I didn't, ante up. I almost passed out when 1 read that; and after carefully burning it in the furnace, I decided I'd better pay. But I never did. I never heard from them again, although for years I had fleeting impressions of men in dark coats and Homburgs shadowing me wherever I went.
I tucked the stamp collection well back under the middle sofa cushion and moodily sipped my drink. Maybe that was the first misstep, I thought. Maybe if I had paid for those stamps, I could have marched through life clear-eyed, clean, honest, straight to the White House. I'll bet Lyndon Johnson paid for his stamps! On second thought, however. . .
It was with an effort that I returned to my investigation, fishing up next a col¬lection of thin sheets of paper bound to¬gether with a crusty old rubber band that broke in my hand immediately, spilling the crinkly, slips out over the floor. Cockamamies! I had unearthed some unused gems from the precious col¬lection that I had bought over the years at Old Man Pulaski's. He really hated the times when vee would come in to buy these tissue-paper tattoos that dis¬solved in water.
"All right, you kids, I ain't got no time for foolin' around. Either ya want pictures or ya don't."
Schwartz, Flick, Kissel and I, peering in through his glass case, would finally, after great soul-searching, decide on which magnificent artistic views of Old Faithful we wanted. I picked up from the floor a cockamamie showing a Ma¬rine in a green helmet sticking a bayonet into the thorax of a bright-yellow Jap soldier. A great fountain of crimson blood squirted out over the M-1. The Jap's eyes were slanted evilly, his mouth contorted as he hurled an Oriental ob¬scenity at the square-jawed Marine. The caption read: "GUNG HO!" It was a beauti¬ful picture, and I remember the day, I bought it, my mother wouldn't let me put it on.
Here was my chance. I licked the ancient decal, tasting the old familiar glue flavor that I knew would not leave my mouth for a month, and meticulously smoothed the soggy cockamamie onto the back of my left hand, blowing on it expertly, as I had done so often in the past, to dry it off. Now for the delicate part. With the skill of a surgeon, I slowly peeled oft the moist backing. There, in four beautiful colors on my left hand, was as magnificent a representation as I have ever seen of a Jap corporal going to his just rewards. I wondered what the gang at the office would say to me note? I knew that I would be the envy of all eyes and that it would especially impress the typing pool. I held my hand out ad¬miringly, knowing that if I didn't wash my hands, I could keep it intact for at least a month.
By now, I must admit, I had been sucked bodily into this sobering and edifying dissection of my yeasty formative years. Old excitements and cravings, fugitive passions and desires crowded in upon me. With gusto, I drained off what remained of my bloody charlie and prepared to push on through the undergrowth of my childhood, little realizing the pitfalls and traps, the traumas that lay ahead.
My, cockamamie had hardly dried when I found myself holding in my hand as sinister an object as I had ever owned, an object with a history, of the sort that is rarely whispered in mixed company and that could and did make strong men weep. It was a penknife, but a penknife with a difference. Shaped like a lady's leg, no less - a lady's leg wearing a chromium-plated high-heeled shoe. The mother-of-pearl call bulged enticingly and tapered oil just above the knee. It carried two blades: one for ordinary cutting, the other for snipping off the butt ends of long black cigars. As I inspected it, the vision of an early but decisive humiliation sprang out from the knife directly into my consciousness.
My knees cracking warningly as I arose, I carried the grizzled weapon to the window. Holding it at the proper angle as I had done in the past, I looked for the silver shield embedded in the mother-of-pearl calf. All, yes, it was still there. I raised the knife to eye level, peering deep into the tiny hole in the shield, upward at the watery sun. There she was. My old paramour, who had contributed to many a sweaty evening and feverish dream, her grass skirt pro¬vocatively parted at mid-thigh, her roguish gypsy eyes glowing as brightly as ever, her ample and bare bazooms still in full, magnificent, flesh-colored bloom. She was the lady who had caused my disgrace and eventual court-martial from the Moose Patrol, Troop 41, Boy Scouts of America.
For months I had whined and cajoled, trying to pry out of my parents the price of an official Boy Scout knife. No one in our troop had a complete uniform. Some wore only khaki knickers; others sported only the broad-brimmed campaign hat: one or two had just a canteen; 1 owned only my purple neckerchief with the gold letters B. S. A. I wanted a knife to hang from my belt, like Flick had. My Uncle Carl, who spent the entire Depres-sion playing his banjo and going in and out of poolrooms, hearing of my burning desire, one day fulfilled my wish. I dis¬tinctly recall the conversation. He wasn't wearing his false teeth that day, but he did have on his straw hat.
"I hear ya want a knife."
"How would ya like this knife?" He fished out of his pocket the lady's leg in question.
"Wait'll they see that at the Scout troop. That's better than any old Boy Scout knife," said Uncle Carl.
I held it in my hand for the first time. He hero over amid whispered into my ear, his beery breath enveloping me in warmth and suds. "Look into that hole on the side. And don't tell your mother." That was the beginning. The next week, she was an instant smash hit at Troop 41's meeting. And two weeks later, I was drummed out in disgrace when Mr. Gor¬don got wind of what the Moose Patrol
was cackling about.
I put my trusty knife into the pocket of my dressing gown and returned to the fray. An angry gust of December wind rattled my window as I wallowed among Christmases past, days of Ovaltine and morning-glories. I found myself holding a singular object that at first I did not recognize. In fact, it was so grotesque that it was hard to believe that the human mind could conceive of such a surrealistic objet d'art - gently curved, warted, plastic, winged golden pickle, imprinted with the cabalistic symbol "57," The number led a curiously fa¬miliar ring: 57 what: Operative 57? No, that didn't sound right. And why the pickle? Then it hit me. Heinz' 57 Varie¬ties! Sponsored by the pickle company, Colonel Roscoe Turner and his famous Flying Corps, of which I was a fully licensed and qualified member, had ap¬peared in a comic strip that ran under Tillie the Toiler back in the days when Jiggs was hitting the corned beef and cabbage hard and Maggie was hitting Jiggs even harder. Turner's creased, in¬trepid face with the dashing Errol Flynn mustache had been the very embodi¬ment of flying. his only passenger was a lion cub named Gilmore. I pinned the wings over my left breast and decided to have an extra shot of catsup with my hamburger that night, for old time's sake. There was a time when 1 devoutly believed that when 1 grew up, I would not only be a pilot but would own several pairs of beautifully tailored, whipcord pilot-type riding breeches. With puttees. Here I am, grown up as much as I'll ever be, and all e got are a couple of pairs of baggy Bermuda shorts, and I don't even know where I could lay my hands on as much as a single puttee if I had to. They don't even name guys Roscoe anymore.He did more for the canned-soup and piccalilli industries than Billy Graham has done for evangelism.
The next 15 minutes I spent happily working the plunger on my Captain Midnight Ovaltine Shake-Up Mug, which 1 immediately saw would be handy in whipping up a batch of gibsons. I next blew several high, piercing blasts from my Captain :Midnight Three-Way Mystic Dog Whistle, causing 17 mutts in apart¬ments as far as two blocks away to howl and bark frantically as I communicated to them in Captain Midnight's secret code, the same code that I had used to send secret messages across the back yards and alleys to Flick and Kissel.
Unexpectedly, I then ran across a veri¬table fortune in unrealized assets. Here, for years, I had been moderately wealthy and did not know it. I dis¬covered seven—that's right, seven—unre¬deemed Good Humor Lucky Sticks, each good for one free Good Humor bar any time 1 cared to cash them in. I could not figure how I had let them go by the boards when I was a kid; but then it slowly came back to me—the summer I had hoarded them for my old age. I had read a story in a comic hook about an old man who didn't save when he was a kid and now was reduced to begging on street coolers. "The moral was to Save For A Rainy Day. It scared me so much that I began to lay away uncashed pop bottles, Lucky Sticks and slugs for free games on the pinball machine. Vestiges of chocolate syrup remained on the valuable premiums. I wondered briefly whether I could cash the whole lot in with Emile, the bartender at the Existen¬tialiste du Morte, for an Irish coffee.
With moist eyes, I riffled through my prized collection of Fleer's bubble-gum cards, illustrating great moments in American history. There was good old Washington still crossing the Delaware, Paul Revere galloping over the country¬side on a green horse, Abraham Lincoln making a speech. Dog-eared, thumbed, well worn and faithful, my collection—one of the world's most valuable of its kind—was completely intact. As I glanced at them, my jaw hinges ached dully from countless pounds of obscenely pink bubble gum that 1 had pulverized to get these cards. One card, in particu¬lar, told a story. It showed Robert Ful¬ton waving a flag from the deck of his steamship. That card had cost me four fillings in one chomp of the gum; the sickening crunch of a mouthful of silver as the bubble gum did its deadly work is a feeling not soon to be forgotten.
The next item plunged me into such a funk as 10 necessitate an immediate trip to the sideboard for two fingers of the straight stuff. At first glance, it was a supremely innocent artifact. But to me, who lived through it, who suffered with it and was irrevocably scarred for life because of it, it was far more than a ten-cent package of nasturtium seeds. I looked at the brilliantly colored pic¬ture of gigantic prize-winning blossoms shown On the slender envelope of rat¬tling seeds. It all came back - that grim week long- ago that began with such high hopes and that ended in a black despair that had forever made me quail at the word "salesmanship."
Miss Shields that spring had enlisted us to sell seeds in the neighborhood in order to buy a set of World Books for the Warren G. Harding School. Her stir¬ring, impassioned speech - exhorting us to get out and sell the seeds to "all your friends and neighbors who are waiting for you to deliver them" - had stirred me to sign up for a whole box of 12 enve¬lopes. I ran all the way home, eager to hit the trail. My first jaunty knock was on tile door of the gray house by the cor¬ner. A haggard, sleepy lady peered out of the darkness at me.
"What d'ya want?"
"Uh - d'ya want to buy any seeds?" "Any what?"
"Seeds. I hate marigolds, pansies, hollyhocks. . . "
"Seeds!“ The lady's red eyes glared out at rile.
". . Nasturtiums. morning-glories."
The door slammed shut. Miss Shields had not mentioned this possibility. At the next house, a large brown dog, closely related to the jaguar, chased me around the garage four times before I made it over the fence. Next door, a lady holding four babies and surrounded by a moiling thicket of wailing urchins peered dimly out at me, shaking her head silently.
House after house it went like this, until finally, at the end of four miles of humiliating defeat, I emerged a bent, stooped, tiny, wizened, nine-year-old Willy Loman - footsore and weary, with¬out so much as a single seed sold. Finally, weeks later, various aunts paid for my stock, but I was left with this last unsold package of nasturtiums.
As that old sensation of self-pity overwhelmed me, my knuckles ached once again from knocking on unyielding doors as I stared through misty eyes at those brilliant nasturtiums. For some reason, 1 found myself wondering whether the seeds would actually grow and what they would produce if they did. I have heard that ancient grains of wheat taken from the tombs of Pharaohs have been made to sprout and prosper. Tenderly, I placed my remaining stock of seeds next to Wimpy. For a moment, I thought per¬haps I might go out this afternoon, knock on a few apartment doors on my floor and maybe make a sale. But then the old fear took over and I knew I couldn't do it.
Right on the heels of the nasturtiums, as if by evil design, I eame across a mint-condition flat-white can of White Cloverine Brand Salve, another relie of my ill-fated career as a boy salesman. The ad in the comie book had read: "Kids! you may be the one to win this beautiful SHETLAND PONY! He will be awarded, along with thousands of other prizes, to winners in our big Sales Sweepstakes. Just help distribute to your friends and neighbors that old family stand-by White Cloverine Brand Salve." It pictured a smiling, freckle-faced, redheaded kid holding the reins of a brown-and-white Shetland. I clipped the coupon. God only knows what horrors would have de¬scended on the household if I had won a pony.
Shortly thereafter, an enormous case full of White Cloverine Brand Salve arrived, and another trial by fire began. Once again, I was tested and found want-Mg. Alter 17 giant suppertime fights, and after I had sold only three cans of salve—one to my mother, one to Mrs. Kissel and one to me—my father wrapped the whole thing up and sent it back to the Cloverine people, hollering: ''LET THE BASTARDS SUE! THEY CAN'T GET BLOOD OUT OF A ROCK! IF YOU EVER SEND ANOTHER DAMN COUPON IN, YOU WON'T SIT DOWN FOR A MONTH!" That ended that, technically, but nothing had ever sealed the ugly gash in my soul.
Next came my battered, rainbow-timed Official Tournament Model Duncan Yo-Yo, its paint worn smoothly away along the groove front endless hours of Walking the Dog, its string knotted and blackened, trailing off into the mass of memorabilia. I pulled and tugged at it. Something was attached to it. Out of the depths it came like a struggling fresh¬water catfish, glinting dully in the faint gray light of my apartment. I held it up, suspended from the yo-yo string, to ex¬amine it. Slowly spinning before my eyes was one of the true treasures of my youth, my Melvin Purvis G-Man Badge. I searched quickly and discovered, still intact and ready for action, its matching set of Melvin Purvis G-Man Escape-Proof Handcuffs, just like the ones John Dillinger had slipped out of so many times. I knew that somewhere down in the tangle must be my Melvin Purvis G-Man Book of Instructions on how to STOP CRIME. It was. I glanced at the first page, entitled "HOW TO TELL A CROOK": "G-Men have found that crooks cannot look an honest man in the eye. Always look at the eyes of suspects for the telltale evidence." I remember the clay I tried it on Grover Dill. "What are you lookin' at?" was all he said before he hit me in the mouth. I guess Melvin Purvis never had to deal with anybody like Grover Dill.
As you have no doubt deduced, there was a period in my life when I was an implacable foe of crime. Every week I listened intently as Warden Lawes of Sing Sing intoned on the radio: "Attention! All citizens be on the lookout for Harry Rottenstone, known as Harry the Fink, wanted for armed robbery in Oklahoma. He is five feet, eight and one half inches tall, usually of mean disposition, a diagonal scar running from left ear to jaw, steel-blue eyes, tattoo on right forearm of red heart: MOTHER. This man is armed and presumed dangerous. Notify the police. Do not attempt to take him singlehandedly. Notify your local law enforcement office. This is Warden Lawes saying 'Good night.' "
Every day after that, I coolly surveyed all passing strangers for telltale scars. Eventually it had to happen, and it did. I spotted a thickset steelworker getting on a bus and ten minutes later reported Inm to the big- cop who helped kids across the street in front of Warren G. Harding School. The feeling of stark righteousness and bravery that I experienced at that moment, coupled with my natural fear of cops, is still fresh in my memory.
"Officer! I just saw Harry the Fink! He got on the Inland Steel bus!"
"Harry the Fink! I heard about him on the radio. He robbed Oklahoma!"
"Oh, for God sake! You're the ninth kid today that's seen Harry the Fink! Last week it was Iron-Lip Louie. They oughta make listening to that damn Sing Sing program against the law. I'll Harry-the-Fink you! Get in school. You're late."
Between Warden Lawes and Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons, the cops must have had their hands full night and day. Mr. Keene was always announcing about how somebody had wandered away from his vtile and seven kids in Minneapolis and was last seen wearing a blue suit and driving a black Plymouth with the name "Bubbles" written on the trunk. A population with its eye peeled for runaway husbands and escaped embezzlers did not make things easy down at the old precinct house.
I knew that somewhere under this pile of junk must be my FBI in Peace and War Official Fingerprint Kit, for which I had sent in two Lava soap wrappers. You needed Lav-a soap to get that crummy, sticky black ink off your fingers after you got the kit. I remember run¬ning the rubber roller, loaded with ink, right up the back of my kid brother's neck, a dismal incident that could well have been one of the contributing fac¬tors that led directly to World War Two.
A flash of red caught my eye and another trophy of another long-lost after¬noon confronted me, a battered, bright-red plastic fireman's hat bearing the motto: ED WYNN TEXACO FIRE CHIEF. For one brief, feverish season, this Fire Chief hat was an absolute must for every right-thinking kid. Ed Wynn came on the radio with that big old siren, with the fire bells banging, wearing a hat exactly like this beauty. They gave them away at the Texaco station to anybody who could afford gas, and also at the World's Fair.
Gingerly, I placed it atop my head to see if it still gave me that old feeling- of pizzazz. I arose, walked to the window and, for reasons that are obscure to me, raised the glass and stuck my head out, high over the roaring canyon of the Manhattan street. The sun bore down weakly as I said to myself:
"You are absolutely the only guy in all of New York that is wearing an Ed Wynn Fire Chief hat at this minute. You are unique. Hurray!"
At that instant, a gust of frigid wind struck me smartly on the left side of my cranium. I felt the Fire Chief hat lift slightly, and in an instant it was gone. I stared as it turned over and over, drift¬ing down toward the traffic jam, a tiny, red, uproarious Ed Wynn horselaugh volplaning down to the sidewalk.
In a panic, I rushed into the kitchen and pressed the button on the phone that connected me with the doorman far below. His voice filtered up through the hum.
"MY FIRE CHIEF HAT JUST FELL OUT OF THE WINDOW!"
"My, uh " I suddenly realized what I was saying.
"My, uh - my Fire Chief hat."
"Fire Chief hat - out the window."
"It's red! It says Ed Wynn on it."
"WYNN! ED WYNN!" I was shouting.
"Don't he live on the third floor? In 3-C?"
"NO! ED WYNN, THE FIRE CHIEF!"
"You got a fire? You want me to call -"
"LOOK, GODDAMN IT! THERE'S
A RED FIRE CHIEF HAT ON THE SIDEWALK IN FRONT OF THIS BUILDING. GET IT AND BRING IT UP TO ME!"
There was a long pause, until finally: "OK. If you say so... ." He hung up. I rushed back to the window to peer down. Sure enough, I could see the midget figure of the doorman far below, looking up and down the street. My God! A tiny kid had my hat on his head! Without thinking, I shouted clown 16 floors:
"GIMME BACK MY HAT, KID!"
Instantly, dozens of passers-by peered up. hoping to see another suicide. I saw the doorman tangle with the struggling kid far below. A few shadowy faces ap¬peared at apartment windows across the avenue. Stealthily. I pulled down the Window and hid behind my madras drapes. What am I doing? Skulking back to the sofa—my Jack Armstrong Pedome¬ter clicking, the cockamamie on my left hand glowing brightly —I sat down and tried to get a grip on myself. I know what I'll do. I'll wrap all this junk up, throw it in the back of the closet, get dressed and go down to P.J.'s. The hell with this. I'm a grown-up man. What do I want with an Ed Wynn Fire Chief hat?
It was no use. I couldn't kid myself. I wanted my hat back. For years I had never once thought of my hat and didn't even know I still had it, and now I wanted it more than anything in the world. Even my cutout cardboard Grumpy mask, which I got from Pepper Young's Family, didn't seem to help. I stuck my nose through the cutout hole in the mask and snapped the two cracked rubber bands over my ears, my eyes staring bleakly out through the slits in Grumpy's map.
I sat for a moment, wanting to go back to the window to see how the door¬man was doing but afraid they'd spot me across the way. Suppressing the thought, I returned to the box and resumed my excavations. Rummaging about, I next rediscovered my old blue-steel bicycle clip for my pants. I snapped it on the left leg of my pajamas to see if my ankles had gotten fatter. It was then that I noticed my old canvas delivery bag from the time I had a magazine route: COLLIER'S, LIBERTY MAGAZtNE was emblazoned in red letters on the side. Tucked in the bag- was an old Nabisco Shredded Wheat Color Card. I could sec where 1 had badly colored Niagara Falls with Crayolas. I pulled the shoulder strap down over my neck and was amazed to find that the bag came up under my armpit. It used to hang down around my knees. It must have shrunk. I was at-tempting to adjust it when my doorbell rang.
He's got it! I leaped to the door, fling¬ing it open. Al, the Ukrainian doorman, stood in the hallway, holding my Ed Wynn Fire Chief hat.
"You got it! GREAT!"
"That kid sure put up a fight." extended his paw, holding the battered plastic helmet.
"He can get his own hat!" I hissed. I noticed that Al had au odd look on his face.
"How come you're wearin' that mask. mister?"
I had forgotten completely about my false face, which I was still wearing. I figured I'd better play it cool:
"Oh. that's Grumpy. I'm doing a little work here this morning."
"Oh, I see," he said, baeking off a bit as he noticed my bicycle clip and my Collier's delivery bag.
I reached out for the Fire Chief hat and knew immediately that I had made another mistake. The screaming yellow Jap on my hand, his blood gushing forth, lit up the entire hallway. Al started slightly and said:
"I never knew you was in the Marines. I was in the Navy. You oughta see the tattoo I got on my backside! Gung Ho!"
"Oh, that. I was just doing a little painting around here."
As I took the precious Fire Chief hat from his grubby claw, he noticed the Jack Armstrong Pedometer that hung from my right knee.
Retreating hastily - clicking with each step - I mumbled my thanks and slammed the door. There was no doubt about it. I knew I would have to move. When the doorman told this story around, I would be cooked.
Pouring myself a neat brandy, I began to straighten up the joint, ruffling through the still-untapped drift of efflu¬via that remained] in the box. What fur¬ther horrors lay here entombed? What as-yet-unrealized embarrassments? 'There was my Joe Palooka Big Little Book, my Junior Birdmen of America Senior Pilot's License, even the four-color Magic Slide Rule Patented Piano Lesson that had guaranteed to teach me to play in just seven minutes. There was my Mystic Ventril-O, with which I had unsuccess¬fully attempted to mystify my friends by throwing my voice into trunks, holler¬ing in a comb-and-tissue-paper voice: "HELP! Let me out!" There was my Charles Atlas Dynamic-Tension Muscle-Building and Chest Expanding Course, my periscope, my match-cover collec¬tion, the magnifying glass with which I had set Helen Weathers on fire. It was all there.
Gingerly I tilted the huge box over onto its side. A tinkling, squeaking, mus¬ty avalanche spilled out over the floor—and my benighted youth lay shimmering before me like some surrealistic collage of adolescent dreams: my Tom Mix Whistling Ring, which never whistled; my Captain Midnight Photomatic Code ¬O-Graph badge and Secret Squadron Bomber Wings, which lost their pin the very first instant I tried to attach them to my pullover and caused a fit of hysterics that has become legendary in my family, a fit that resulted in my mother ban¬ning Captain Midnight listening in our house for almost a month. Rolled in a sad little ball were the tattered remains of my Jack Armstrong pennant from Hudson High, a school that, by an odd coincidence, flew the same colors as the orange-and-white Wheaties box. I thought for a moment how well it would look over my desk at the office, and then sadly dismissed the thought. Lovingly, I fingered my Huskies Club pin, an athletic organization sponsored by the people who manufactured Grape-Nuts, a cereal that I remembered chiefly for its ability to crack false teeth, For a moment stared off into the middle distance, seeing with stark clarity that dramatic instant when my grandmother's dentures shattered with a loud report on a mighty spoonful of that nutlike cereal, known for its gentle laxative action. Grandma was never quite the same after that. Lou Gehrig, who was the president of the Huskies Club, maintained in many a comic-strip advertisement that it was be¬cause of Grape-Nuts that he was able to follow Babe Ruth in the Yankee batting order.
A tiny, shriveled square of cloth next caught my eye. Great balls of fire! My Sky Blazers Arm Patch, which proved conclusively that I ate two slices of Wonder Bread every day. Tom Mix Straight Shooter premiums, long forgot¬ten but never forgiven, emerged; and a Tom Mix Special Sun 'Watch, to be used when lost in the jungles of Yucatan, a place I have always half suspected I would end up in, anyway. If you're lost in the head-hunter-ridden jungles, you'd better know what time it is. My pulse quickened as I extracted from the grisly array a device that could come in even handier: my Tom Mix Periscope Ring. I dusted it off and slipped it On my pinkie. Holding it up to my eye, I could see in hazy outline the bathroom door—behind me! The uses for such a device are obvious, especially around an office filled with ambitious, bushy-tailed young executives on the make.
Did mine eyes deceive me? No. Be¬neath a pair of Tom Mix spurs lurked my most occult treasure, a genuine Mystic Voodoo Skull Ring, with genuine simu¬lated emerald eyes—a ring designed to put curses on your enemies. There is no doubt that such a ring could still have its uses. I slipped it carefully into my pocket, already formulating plans. Next came au objet of such poignant personal meaning that instinctively I turned my eyes away front it. Its very presence brought back an afternoon that even to¬day rankles in my soul as one of those really terrible things that happen to all of us. My Uncle Ned had given me a dollar bill for my ninth birthday. Crisp, clean, of a beautiful green color, I held it for an all-too-brief time. Minutes later, I stood in front of a diabolical machine at the candy store, a machine filled with such tremendous bonanzas as Brownie cameras, wrist watches and cigarette lighters embossed with naked ladies; flashlights made in the form of tiny re¬volvers, all floating in a sea of multi¬colored candy BBs. All you had to do to get one of these treasures was to skillful¬ly operate two chromium handles, which in turn maneuvered the claw of a tiny steam shovel inside the case. Nickel after nickel I poured into this monster, grow¬ing more nervous and sweaty as each time the claw didn't quite grab the Brownie. Finally, after 85 cents had gone down the drain, it threw me a con-temptible lead watch fob bearing the likeness of Myrna Loy.
I sucked moodily on my long-lost Dr. Christian Bubble Pipe. An angry wind laden with sooty ice crystals banged briefly at the windows of my apartment. It was getting colder. Sadly I returned it to the dusty magic mountain of illusion —lost and gone, grieved by only the wind. I had had enough. Back into the box I stuffed Brownie, Wimpy, Grumpy, Ed Wynn, Roscoe Turner, Jack Arm¬strong, Melvin Purvis, Buck Rogers - the whole teeming throng of them from out of the past. Over this communal crypt I laid the Dead Sea Scrolls—carefully smoothed newspaper fragments bearing the faded face of Harold Teen, and Perry Winkle's round sailor hat, and the yellowed headline "DAYLIGHT RAID ON NORMANDY PORTS. B-17s BOMB COAST."
Replacing the cover, I twisted the wires back together, binding the whole thing in place. For a fleeting moment, I considered shoving the whole sorry mess out onto the garbage landing. But I chickened out. Staggering under the load, I dragged my childhood to the hall closet. With an enormous effort, I got it up to the top shelf. Mysterious rattles and tinkles and squeakings continued for a few seconds. Then, silence - except for the muffled, jaunty quackings of my old rubber cluck. I read the lettering on the box again: LIFE - THE COMPLETE CEREAL. I wondered whether my mother had picked that box purposely. You never know about mothers.
Outside, the long December afternoon was darkening into night. It wouldn't be long before the crowds of Christmas shoppers and Rockefeller Center holiday rubes would give way to the big-time, out-on-the-town crowd. Across the ave¬nue, Christmas trees glowed through Venetian blinds. From the apartment next door drifted the nasal tones of a 12-year-old protest caroler singing Jesus Don't Love Mc Anymore, but I Got You, Babe, the current spiritual smash, to the accompaniment of his electric tambourine.
I sat for a long moment in the gather¬ing gloom and then suddenly noticed the huddled form of my little green alumi¬num Japanese Christmas tree, On im¬pulse, I fished around in the rubble on my coffee table and came up with a thin, dime-sized copper disk with the faded inscription POPEYE SPINACH EATERS' LUCKY PIECE. Cradling it in my sweaty palm, I picked up the Christmas tree and gingerly unscrewed the fuse that I had twisted to death. With my forefinger, I carefully inserted my old badge of spinach addiction and Popeye fandom. Magically, the thin but unmistakable notes of "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" filled the room and the tiny tree began to pirouette, its hidden mecha¬nisms working flawlessly, its miniature red and green, blue and yellow candles sending out a dazzling rainbow of soft Christmas cheer. Lovingly, I placed it on the window sill for the world to see Popeye had saved the world again.