Scheherazade – VII — Forgotten Green Soldiers
A day in the attic blue tarps: petrified candy, Wacky Packages, teacher comments that still smart, an Advent calendar, and the sad, erotic flight of a Firebird.
To get to the photos and letters I have to pull back the blue tarp and mine my claim, opening boxes, unstacking them, restacking them, picking through their contents, and sliding everything back and forth to make room for the next box. I fill up the available floor space around me so that I find myself literally boxed into corners, and I hop and I stumble about trying to find my footing when I need to get downstairs for food or a long-delayed bathroom break.
I started out in this pile with the smug, just-give-me-that confidence of somebody attacking a Rubik’s cube for the first time – a clear breadcrumb vision to restoring everything as I found it – but four or five hours pass, and I’ve got piles everywhere and no real idea where anything started out or which things are married to which boxes. But I’ve surrendered to the chaos, and now it’s a regular Christmas morning up here.
Sadly, there’s no one to share my nostalgic discoveries with, but I let out enough internal mental leash to hear myself ooh-ing and aah-ing out loud into the attic on happy finds. I’m also kept company by a particular Interior Narrator, a distinct mental voice and attitude, a happy mental genie who floats around my thoughts from time to time, wryly and good-naturedly commenting on things and whose occasional fortuitous company I have welcomed from childhood.
I have never been able to will his voice or presence into making an appearance – and frankly I can’t even recall him properly when he’s not there – but when he drops by I remember him pitch perfect and welcome my inner genie like an old friend. He only visits when I’m in the solitude of some deep mental exercise and he’s here with me this morning helping me make a happy mess of things.
The photo and letters search is slow going, but gradually a stack of boxes is culled and moved to the side. Every box has the concentrated memories of a home or a grade or the season of an adolescent love affair. There are elementary school Valentine’s Day cards with petrified candy taped to them, Little League team photos, local newspapers with homeroom assignments, Webelos merit badges, a spherical rock decades old that may turn out to be an actual geode when I get around to smashing it someday, an old NSV Bible underlined with my red felt-tip pen, MAD magazines and baseball cards that “could be worth something.”
There are Wacky Package stickers, ElectroniKits, 19th century school primers, school papers with teacher comments that still hurt my feelings, sickly, suppurating “D” batteries, N-scale model railroad engines and built-out railroad dioramas on salvaged plywood. Glued into the fake grass powder are the round bases of green plastic soldiers who still lie in wait thirty years on, hunkered down faithfully behind miniature moss trees like Japanese WWII soldiers that have no idea childhood is over.
I’ve turned into a wild-eyed miner, day one on his virgin claim. I’m knee-deep in my river of memorabilia, panning for gold, stumbling and splashing and slipping about, throwing sand and river pebbles over my shoulder and onto my own back, yelling “yee-haw” and “Eureka”, creating a ruckus and scaring the wild-life.
I imagine an eagle soaring high above me, wings barely twitching, watching the white commotion far below. From time to time, I pull myself out of my feverish, sentimental stream and look up and around me. The room falls eerily silent, my splashing is swallowed up, and the slow, still river of time can be felt moving through the attic, past the White Rock girl, past the bare light bulb, before my narrator genie who has fallen momentarily silent and past the middle-aged miner, far, far below, who can no longer be seen by the eagle because, for a moment now, he has stopped moving.
I find a box that looks like the hastily emptied out contents of my father’s desk. There is a book-shaped thingamajig executive desk toy with a window looking onto an acrobat. The acrobat spins around a little wire in front of a painted circus crowd, powered by some hidden hourglass engine on a backstage waterfall of sand.
You have to spin the box clockwise to get the sands into position (my dad left a humorous indicator on top with the direction for rotation) and the acrobat strains and struggles and pulls himself up and flops around his trapeze for a few minutes as the last sands discharge. This diligent acrobat lived on my dad’s desk and on occasion a bump in the room or a raised voice would break up some internal sand clump and the acrobat would make an unexpected, agonizing encore, straining himself over the bar.
The “everything must go” desk box also has Xerox copies of articles or ideas that had caught his fancy and a small micro-cassette in a miniature plastic case used to record business notes and dictation. I carefully put the cassette in my shirt pocket because it holds the prospect of my father’s lost voice – but it also holds the uneasy possibility of some ugly family drama captured there, ghosts that might be better left unspirited.
Wrapped up more carefully is a build-it-yourself Heathkit stereo tuner and amplifier that my dad assembled from a step-by-step instruction manual, its directions as thick as the Manhattan Yellow Pages. I unpack the tuner from its protective bubble wrap, find a Phillips head in a children’s beach bucket and open the back. I turn the large tuning dial and see the backstage rubber loops and pulleys guide the tuner’s tapered red needle across the AM/FM dial. There is a satisfying weight and resistance to the tuning knob that controls this movement. This “hi-fi” kit was “solid state” – back when the instruments to make and reproduce music were thought to be a little more attractive on the plump and heavy side.
I look at the green lawn of circuit board my dad assembled, potting and planting, day by day, resistor by resistor, until the evening he plugged in that lush electronic garden, and in front of the audience of his family set the needle on the LP of his choice. From that little garden exploded the wild discord of Stravinsky and the sad, erotic flight of a Firebird. It was one of those fatherly feats that to a young child has the hint of the magical and fills that child forever with an irreversible respect and awe.
I find Christmas ornaments, the hand-made Advent calendars with their plastic gum ball machine surprises, and a silver cardboard box that holds the nativity players. Annually we assembled that cast of twenty-five into their bookshelf crèche. My mother would gather us at her side, and we’d be allowed to light the candles that spun the bell-tinkling brass angels. In a solemn, occasionally tearful voice, she would introduce that particular day’s cast member. She would read each night’s entry with a deep reverence, be it an angel or an ass, and her voice would fill the room with a spiritual promise that had the electric, ozone buzz of air before a lightning storm.
My brother and I would take turns picking a single cut-out paper king or a guiding star or a shepherd boy and adding it to the expanding vignette. The ritual would continue in nightly increments until Christmas Eve when – in alternate Decembers – it would be my turn to place Jesus’ swaddled frame into his crooked-legged paper crib, unsticking him from the tack of my sweaty fingers, ever so careful not to bump the other characters, navigating him into his Mother’s care.
Verily, verily, I say unto you that on some of those nights God the Father Himself was in the house. Our little troupe may not have been able to see Him from the bookshelf stage, but we could feel the front-row presence of the First, Last and Eternal Patron of the Dramatic Arts.
But now the cast is thrown together in an unholy boxed jumble, serrated Scotch tape squares peeling off their backs, their corporal bodies flattening to dimensionless cut-outs. I delicately pick through the box and pluck out the simple paper tube that made up Jesus’ swaddled body and note the sharp, haloed circle that was his head. I’m still touched years later – as I was as a small child – by His simple, delicate figure, the simplest of the figures in the crèche, the only one fashioned from holy paper.
Truly, I loved Jesus best when he was This Jesus and I was That Believer. That was our pure and uncoerced Intersection. There was a simple and innocent communion in those early years, me, blue-eyed, peering fondly over his crèche crib and tucking him under his paper straw, offering a speedy child’s kiss into the air over his paper head.
Now all these patient saints wait for their silver cardboard tomb to reopen and their paper stone to roll away. Like the forgotten green soldiers, they comfort each other in the dark and pray for their show to reopen, wait for another run, for a second coming, teased by the flickering light of the small, prodigal boy come home.
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Feel something. Twice a week.