Mailboxes Unlimited

I heard a commercial for a business with a name similar to that name a few days ago and it struck me as a good title for this piece, which is about mailboxes. Mailboxes aren't only memories for me; they're still a very important part of my life. I went to school part of the time by mailbox, making them not only part of my memories but of my present and future.

When I think of the past I can definitely remember mailboxes as very important places. There I ordered "neat" things through the mail. Once in a while, I wouldn't get something I ordered; like the time I ordered a gorilla mask, and never got it.

Sometimes the mailbox would prove a let-down, like the time I ordered 250 civil war soldiers for $1.99 from American Heritage Toys at "zone" something in N.Y., N.Y. That time, the 250 toy soldiers were not even 3d characters, just thin plastic. They were distinguishable from each other only due to fact that one half of the set of soldiers being blue, the other gray--civil war colors. The years have gone by and both my mother's parents--at whose home the soldier set arrived one hot summer afternoon--have long since passed away. However, I noted not too long ago that the small metal trellis still stands on their tiny porch in their house of some years ago in Batesville. And, given the dramatic emotional charge of that mail arrival, my memory still allows me to see one of those tiny soldiers with sudden clarity in my mind's eye at this moment. Holding it up to the light, I could see light shining through. It was so thin, I could hardly make out any details of his features. But with concentration, I saw tiny crevasses that represented the break between face neck, between billed cap and hair.

Other things were more exciting, like my subscriptions to Monster World or Famous Monsters of Filmland. From those publications, I got all kinds of ideas about making myself up to look like a monster, or ordering gags and tricks with which to terrify my sisters, mother, cousins and aunts. I was always dropping a rubber spider in their laps, or rigging up a false spider web, or tossing a rubber bat (as in mammal), out of the corner; complete with false fur, that was a winner. Then there were Giant Hands and Feet, with directions on (1) wearing over shoes or (2) scaring daylights out of family members by placing them in closet floor by shoes.

I did this very well on one occasion that I can recall. I called each of my three sisters individually into their rooms. I followed them in, asking them, "Did I just see someone go into your room?" I made sure to flick the light on and to open the door just right into the closet, so that they saw them, there in the floor. The gasp that followed let me know I had succeeded.

Then there was my interest in the night sky, which came along a little later. Since the night sky is a very big place, fitting it into a mailbox might seem a bit impossible. But the way I went about this was to order materials about the night sky from Edmund Scientific Company to teach me the way around the sky at night: star maps, books about objects or planets to observe in the night sky, and eventually a telescope.

I was influenced to think more deeply about the night sky by Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke. From reading Clarke's book, I soon realized that our next major step in development as a civilization, as a species, even, was going to probably involve Contact

with an extraterrestrial civilization) and watching the night sky could give us a clue as to where that Contact might originate. When you think of it that way, it's hard not to stare and stare. Getting up at 2 am on a freezing cold winter night was worth it. Saturn stands out in my mind's eye. In the telescope, it's like a beautiful little gold pin against a black satin background. Sometimes you also make out Titan, Saturn's largest moon, slightly smaller than the smallest planets, long the subject of speculation as to whether it might harbor life.

But Clarke also inspired me to look out, to scan the entire sky, to take in the Milky Way, all the stars. And he taught me to realize that, out there, we may be looking at the home of Someone Else who may have their own version of the Hubble Telescope, with us now a squiggle on their screen. It's really quite an exciting concept.

To a preteen-to-teen boy, it was especially so. When Mariner IV flew past Mars, in that summer, I slept not at all that night, waiting to hear what the photographs it took from orbit would reveal. Of course, Mars isn't much to look at in a small telescope. It was more the conceptualization that went along with Mars that made it so interesting. Looking for a few minutes at Sirius or Aldebaran, and realizing that may be in proximity to such an extraterrestrial civilization seemed neat and promising indeed. Could such a Contact not throw our whole conceptual framework built on religious anthropomorphism into chaos? Maybe, but I looked on. It was hard not to stare and stare.

My willingness to welcome major change in my younger days should not disguise the fact that I've recently been engaged in a major internal debate about change. Change may not always be positive or good in life, but it is always beyond our controlling.

The real question of change, which sweeps over our lives in wave after wave--we surf on waves of change--is whether we can or should question it. But at times it does seem as if we want to. Change seems to exist in itself, a separate thing, an entity in its own right. How do we begin to measure how much control we actually have over change? How can we begin to describe how change feels? Where do we begin to draw the line between what we would keep from happening if we could, and what we would keep the same? And if one thing stayed the same, how could at least one other thing not keep from staying the same?

Likewise, if even one thing changes surely at least one other thing has to change to cope with that change? And so change either must come, with other change, or it must not come at all. And it can't be stopped.

In connection with mailboxes, are they not still there, in some capacity, after all the waves of change? We can't control events or alter or prevent change by resisting it, only by accepting it. Events roll over us, a great tide; but mailboxes stand there, like buoys in the harbor. They're sometimes about all that's left. I suppose the question this raises in my mind is a pseudo-philosophical one about mailboxes: how do they do it? How do they accept change, and survive it? Could it be that change lives in the mailbox? Is that the answer? Could it be that mailboxes are the face of change?

Along with my star maps and telescopic equipment from Edmund Scientific Company, there was also the Little Black Box, battery-powered. The small motor inside powered a tiny blue hand which jumped out of the box and turned itself off. There were a vast number of these around the country at one time, which ranged from the simple on-off variety to the more complicated ones which helped you save money by grabbing a coin when you sat it atop the box, pulling it rapidly inside; or the ones that supposedly helped you stop smoking by grabbing your cigarette (when you sat it atop the box) and throwing it into a small dish beneath the ashtray it was attached to. (I never saw this latter box, only heard it described secondhand by my uncle.)

I wasn't alone in this one: dad wanted one those things, too. So we ordered from a "House" place. (There were always some small catalogs coming in the mail, invariably from someplace with "House" in the title. They were full of gags, gimmicks and gadgets. I don't know how we got on their mailing list, but it certainly wasn't my mother's idea. I sure got my money's worth out of them, though!)

I liked to use ordering for other people as a pretext for ordering for myself. Like the time I ordered some H.G. Wells books because my mother indicated to me (in a kind of setup question) that she thought he was a famous writer. So I ordered the books "for" her. (She was "all for" me ordering The Outline of History, a dry but informative history text by Wells. It would be a bit much, however, to say she was interested in The Invisible Man or War of the Worlds--that was strictly me, talking, there.)

I loved getting books like that in the mail, however. Numerous orders to Ballantine and Ace paperbacks, and Carnaveral Press, brought several boxes of books in the mail over several years' time--sometimes a subject of debate between dad and me. It was a happy ritual for me. As the books arrived, I held them closely as I carried them into the house, getting a feel for the weight and even the temperature of the boxes. Before opening, I ran my hands over the cardboard, feeling the texture of the box, as well.

Then I'd open the end of the box, smelling the fragrant packing odors, a characteristic and--after a time--memorable and pleasant smell. I often wondered about its source: was it glue, cardboard, the ink of the book pages and illustrations; or was it an odor carrying all the way to me from way up in NY, NY--maybe from some warehouse, some storage place--or maybe even (a more exciting image to me) directly--hot--off the presses!

Then I'd carefully pull out my brand new books, one by one, slowly taking in every inch of the front cover, with a close perusal of any attendant illustrations. I'd then repeat that process, a little faster, with the back cover. Then I'd look at the inner border, the title page, the spine (and its text, including the font) and then the jacket sleeve (if there was one). Following that, I'd smell the book, taking in everything about it on every sensory level possible. Only then did I move on to the next book!

And, even after that, the reading universe opened for me with each text, as I took in the images and ideas they brought my way. Finally, having taken in data, I was ready to act on it, process it, and give my own interpretation to it. It was truly a growth process. (Years later, I was to study this process of reading and learning in graduate school. But back then, it was just a heartbeat-increasing, exciting, mouth-watering, hope-building and fun experience.)

I suppose that mailboxes have survived a lot of change, just since the days I've been describing here. This was a time, part of it spent in California and part in Arkansas when, for me, change definitely did come, a lot of the time anyway, in the mailbox. People gave up the forty-hour week ("full time"), hour for lunch ("lunch hour"), and the real world raise (rather than the gimmick one). They--we--gave up a lot of good things, it seems, at times, to become awash in another sea, one of economic uncertainty. But mailboxes brought us at least a good part of those changes, too, didn't they?

Is change looking me in the face, then, as I write about mailboxes? Are they both good and bad, not just a good old thing from seemingly better economic days? In any case, I find it hard not to associate them with positive things, happy memories, rather than attach some of the blame they may deserve. They still seem to me like buoys, telling us where we are and which direction we are floating in a sea of change.

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