Monday, March 10, 2008

The Dragon Box

As I recall it, I sent away for my first secret decoder ring when I was about eight or nine years old.

I grew up in the 1940s and 50s. My mother worked as a full-time mom, my brother was in the service, and my stern, officious, lapsed-Quaker father was a Philadelphia stockbroker who took the same train into town every weekday at exactly the same time, and said exactly the same thing to the same old conductor every morning for exactly twenty-five years.

As I recall it, I sent away for my first secret decoder ring when I was about eight or nine years old. This was probably in 1945 or 1946. For those of you who don’t know what a secret decoder ring is, first of all, I genuinely feel sorry for you. By this simple error of bad timing you have unfortunately missed out on one of life’s greatest pleasures — the exhilarating thrill of being able to understand something that no one else in the whole world can understand. Secondly, I’d suggest that you go out and rent that wonderful little holiday movie “A Christmas Story”, and let little Ralphie explain it all to you.

Just as with little Ralphie, it seemed to take forever for my decoder ring to arrive in the mail; but when it finally came, those first few days were absolutely thrilling. Every evening, I’d scrunch down by our big Philco, next to the fireplace, and tune in to my favorite program and eagerly receive and decode my secret messages — which I was firmly convinced were meant for me alone. Unfortunately, given the infamous attention span of nine year olds, I started to lose interest in my decoder ring after about three or four weeks.

Now, I had a favorite uncle named Uncle Bill. I bet you all had your own favorite Uncle Bill. He was flamboyant and optimistic and funny and profane and I loved him. Uncle Bill sold Lincolns, and he’d show up in a dazzling canary yellow Continental about a half a block long, with a jazzy metal tire casing on the trunk, and honk his specially-made musical horn. He called me Spanky, as everyone did in those days; and every time he came to visit he’d bring me a present. One time, he brought me a beautiful Chinese brass box with dragons carved on the lid.

I, like so many kids that age, was obsessed with death and burials. Unknown to most adults, kids have their own private rituals, one of which involves the mysterious and solemn act of burying things. And nothing is more gratifying and meaningful than burying a secret treasure. A short time after I received my Chinese Dragon Box from Uncle Bill, I got out my poor abused decoder ring and gathered together some of my other small and broken but meaningful mementos and took them out to the backyard. I dug a hole in the soil about a foot deep and buried the brass box with its secret contents and soon forgot all about them.

A couple of summers ago I made the long trip back to that small suburban town and visited the house where I had grown up. It had been fifty years since I had been back there and the tree in front of our house had become huge and thick-waisted. But the house looked pretty much the same.

Graciously, the new owners allowed me to come in and tour my old home — the living room with the big granite fireplace, the dining room, the kitchen, and of course, best of all, my own little room upstairs, which was now, appropriately, their little nine year old girl’s room. Before I left they took me out back and showed me their new patio. They had constructed one of the most beautiful and impressive patios I had ever seen, on a large concrete foundation. It was then that I remembered my long-buried Dragon Box. For a moment I was tempted to tell them about it, but for some reason I didn’t.

Later that afternoon I visited our local movie theater, grandly named the Egyptian, which we kids referred to as the Eggpit. The lady manager kindly let me in to see how it had changed. It had been divided into two separate cinemas, each with their own screen; but the walls and the ceilings still had their elaborate and fanciful bas-reliefs and that suave and elegant 1930s Art Deco decor. The manager left me alone for awhile; and as I stood there in the semi-darkened theater, I tried to remember what it was like in this magical temple of make-believe way back then, when whole families would get all dressed up to come here and sit through two feature films, three cartoons, a comedy serial, a travelogue, two or three previews and a newsreel.

Yet, through all this, The War was never far away and certainly not forgotten. Before the show started we all stood to attention with unabashed patriotism while they played the “Star-Spangled Banner” to stirring scenes of our proud flag unfurling in the breeze and endless squadrons of khaki-clad GIs marching in parade. After the movie, we’d sign up for War Bonds and give our precious coins to those hard-working Red Cross ladies.

That evening, before I started the long trip back home, I went back to my old neighborhood and walked up that quiet street once again that I hadn’t walked up in fifty years, that street that I knew so well. It was a warm, balmy night and it had just gotten dark, and I tried to remember what it had sounded like to hear all of those radios playing, coming from all of those open windows, everyone listening to the same programs.

I tried to remember the unity of it all. The sureness and the clarity.

I thought about my secret decoder ring, buried in my beautiful brass Dragon Box, under a stranger’s patio, patiently waiting in the dark for a half of a century for a new message to decode.

What, I wondered, would that new message be?

Originally published by Political Grind - September 17, 2007

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