Sunday, October 23, 2016
It's nearly November, the Month of the Dead in some calendars, and therefore it seems a good time to ponder the meaning of life and everything.
When I was a very young child, I was a cowboy. I wore cowboy boots, and carried a six gun. It was a cap pistol six gun, of course. The best one I ever had I was given for my fourth birthday, because it came with chaps and a vest. Indeed, my fourth birthday may have been the best ever. We lived next door to Mrs. Dodson, the world's greatest cake maker, and she made me a birthday cake with a cowboy whose lariat spelled out happy birthday before circling my name.
That cap pistol was probably the most effective I ever had, as well as being my favorite. Just like I had seen Gene Autrey or Roy Rogers do on my grandparent' TV, I jumped out of a tree and hit another cowboy, one of the Barkley boys, whose grandmother lived across the street, on the head, knocking him out cold. Cool. Of course, none of the mothers agreed.
Alas, the cap gun of the four-year-old me, despite being my favorite, was not entirely satisfactory. As often as possible I compared the cap guns and archery sets--I liked being an Indian, too; young boys often have multiple personalities--at the dime stores. We were blessed with both a Woolworth's and a McCrory's. My first allowance was 25 cents, and that introduced me to the difficult first world problem of choosing how to dispose one's disposable income. Twenty-five cents would buy both a movie ticket and popcorn or Jujubes, or it could be saved to buy some truly wonderful new kit for the wild west at one of the dime stores.
The ultimate cap gun technology, which required quite a lot of savings, even when my allowance was increased to 75 cents a week, was the Mattel Fanner Fifty. At first, it was just a legend, advertised on television. Then one of the boys who occasionally met up at the Donut Shop on Flint Street actually had one. I don't remember now who it was, but he let us touch it. I had to have one. The Fanner Fifty was much more realistic than the run-of-the-mill pistols that used roll caps, because it had a revolving magazine with six shots, just like real revolvers. Then you had to reload. Now every shot had to count.
The limits of my imaginary west came each day when, alas, my mother would call me in for the night. She frowned on cap guns being fired in the house.
Over the years, my favourite imaginary personhood would evolve. The young cowboy was replaced by the young scientist. One of the big advantages of that persona was that after a day of making field trips to Christian Creek or neighbors' gardens, I could then do experiments until that terrible time when my mother made me turn out the lights.
Over the years I have been a historian, an amateur mechanic, a potter, a priest, a kayaker, a hiker, a monk a physicist, all of whom have collected the ephemera of their trades. Untold trips to the stores that replaced Woolworth's and McCrory's have again and again forced me to make hard choices. Even though the amount of money I have allowed myself to spend on new toys has varied from time to time from $10 a week to $100 a week or $1000 a week, there have always been new wonders to peak my interests. Often I have had to decide whether I would prefer a new toy and making coffee at home, or waiting a week or a month and having coffee at the cafe.
Although I have had many collections over the years, I have never considered myself a very serious collector. When my interests have moved on, I have found it easy to disperse one collection to make room for another, usually selling things cheaply or giving them away rather than taking the trouble to realize a profit or even minimize my losses. It's never been the cap gun or the microscope or the snow shoes that I have valued, but the experiences they have allowed me to enjoy.
Now that I am old, the world I enjoy exploring is rather different from the muddy banks of Christian Creek, and some would argue is less real. I don't think it's any less real at all. The Christian Creek of my imagination was much more important to me than the red clay and sewage of reality. The world of the internet lets me explore much more widely than I ever was allowed to do as a child. In junior high, the boys in the two houses to the east of ours and I tried to dig to China. We failed. Now I have friends in China who send me photographs of their adventures there every day.
Still, I like the toys that allow me those adventures. BestBuy and Amazon have replaced Woolworth's and McCrory's, but the fun of exploring, of trying to decide how to spend my 25 cents, has not diminished. I still have to choose from the bounty that seems renewed every week. But in my seventy-first year, it seems November comes around more quickly than ever before, and I am aware that all one's childhoods do end. My mother will not call me in, or tell me to turn out the light, but death will. I do not think it is the one who dies with the most toys who wins, but the one who enjoys his toys the most.