Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Dragon Box

Published by Political Grind - September 17, 2007
"...a beautiful reminder of how things used to be."
-- FreedomZone Blog Aggregator

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 burial. 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 disrespectfully 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 American 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 and receive that little white pin for our lapel.

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. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny and Rochester...

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?

Comments cross posted from Political Grind:
Right Truth
Very interesting. I went back to the city and neighborhood where I grew up as a kid. I didn't recognize it. The big house that I remembered, seemed so small. The neighborhood had gone down from a beautiful middle class area where kids played safely in the streets, to ... well. I wouldn't let any kids I know play there now. I'm sorry I went back. Unlike you, where the good memories were reinforced, mine seemed to be shattered a little.
Great Piece Roger!!!!----Spree
"What, I wondered, would that new message be?", asked Mr. Gardner.

Anyone who spends his life trying to formulate a novel answer (the new message buried in one's beautiful dragon box) to the question of what is possible and important fears the extinction of that message. Philip Larkin's poem helps us to decode the message. Here is the last part of it:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what

You command is as clear as a lading-list

Anything else must not, for you, be thought

To exist.

And what's the profit? Only that, in time

We half-identify the blind impress

All our behavings bear, may trace it home.

But to confess,

On that green evening when our death begins,

Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,

Since it applied only to one man once,

And that man dying.

("Continuing to Live," Larkin 1988)

What Larkin fears is the extinction of "his idiosyncratic lading-list, his individual sense of what was possible and important.
Stix Blog
I still live in the same area that I grew up in as a child. My dad's friend owns the house that I have many memories in. We lived out in the middle of the country, and had fields of corn all around us. But Our house was in the room of big oak trees, we lived on an old club house. The White Oaks Club. It had a BBQ pit that could hold a few whole cows, and outside bar with a cooler for half barrels. In the inside there was a full bar with a half barrel of Shlitz at all times. But we added on to the little clubhouse (bar) and had a 2 story home built along side it and the bar became our living room, with TV, stereo, reel to reel player, and a dart board. Outside we had 10 acres to run around and destroy things, with a acre and a hlf lake filled with bass, bluegill and catfish. We would go camping on the other side of the lake and catch our own food and clean the fish ourselves. I miss those care-free days, where the only thing that we worried about was are the fish biting, or how deep the ice is so we could play some hockey. Not it is all hectic and we have no time to just relax and enjoy what we got. Yesterday me, my mom and my uncle went cruising on the Illinois and Mississippi river, I gorgot how peaceful and enjoyable being on the water is.

I don't visit it often, but the deck that was on the back of the house has grown and now has a hottub. It is basically the same house, but my room non longer has the football wallpaper that I put up as a kid and no longer is my bunk beds there also

Great peace Rodger
Faultline USA
Roger that was a very interesting story. I imagine those of us who have gone back might also share your wonder – remembering a simpler time and “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.” Funny but I remember the smells of supper cooking coming from every open window on our street, and most parents didn’t have to call their children home for dinner!
Roger - thanks for letting us walk with you through memories you hold. Though I'm younger than you I remember my childhood in much the same way - full of mystery and danger, carefree and often monotonous. Every time I watch the movie "Stand By Me" I see myself there, and the camaraderie of friends who thought we held life by the tail.

I learned many great lessons then, but the one I repeat the most now is when I hear my family and friends around me lament the challenges they're going through, or the petty problems that dog us - and they complain that they wished things were simpler, like in times past. I remind them "These are the good old days." And they are, kids...
Damnit Roger, you made me cry!

I just KNEW you really had that decoder ring, I just knew it!
What memories you have triggered. I, too was a decoder kid. My Dad was in the old Army Air Corps and in 1938- 9 we lived on Wheeler Field, Oahu. I listened faithfully to Little Orphan Annie on the radio, had my Mom buy me some ovaltine and sent for the decoder. In those days most mail moved by ship so my decoder didn't come for several months. By then I was a wreck. Then came the moment when I decoded my first message which was something like "drink ovaltine" . Ralphie caught it well.
Roger Gardner
Hello Possum! Thank you for that great response. You were right at the center of the action! Were you there on Dec 7, 1941? I eagerly await your reply.
Chris C
I wonder what someone will say when they dig that up 2,000 years from now.

Great article :)

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