The box looked like it had been constructed in a hurry, even to my twelve year old eyes, It was rough and unpolished and made of cheap plywood, six panels forming a twenty-four inch cube. Little care had gone into the construction; the sides had been roughly screwed together and there were no hinges or latches to indicate an opening. Nothing was written on it and there was no way to glimpse inside without tearing it apart.
When I was growing up, the box collected dust in our garage. Its only official purpose was to serve as a pedestal for the short and stout Christmas trees that my parents preferred. In December the wooden box was lugged from the garage, brushed off and gussied up with a white sheet; only then could our tree be positioned on it. Over the years, the plywood cube came to smell like Christmas.
The box had unofficial functions; sometimes it served as a pedestal for neighborhood kids to stand on when we played “statue.” Or it would end up as the cornerstone for the forts we built from stacking stuff in our garage. Whenever I asked my parents what was inside it, the answer was inevitably the same: “Nothing important.”
I was a persistent pest. “C’mon, Dad, tell me; where did the box come from?”
Dad finally ‘fessed up. He ran a hand through his creosote hair. “I made it”
“What’s inside, Dad? C’mon, tell me…”
At first I didn’t think he was going to answer, but he said, “Inside are papers and photographs.”
“Anything from the war?”
“A few things.”
When I asked about “the war,” I meant World War II. The Korean War should have been fresher in everyone’s minds, but the Koreans and Chinese never captured my imagination like the Nazis. Defamed in film and vilified on many a TV program, they were deliciously evil, and as a small kid I relished being terrified by them. David, my grumpy older brother, liked to taunt me with the fact that they never actually caught Hitler. He swore the Nazi leader escaped to somewhere in South America, then fled to California where he was hiding out as a school janitor. Because of my brother, I always kept a wary eye on mustachioed Mr. Mestemacher as he shuffled along our school’s corridors with his push broom in hand.
“What kind of war stuff, Dad?” I knew he’d served in the Pacific, had joined the Navy at eighteen and had been shipped off to Guam. “Is there a Japanese flag in there? A chunk of airplane from a kamikaze?”
“Nothing like that.”
His reluctance to talk about the box only stoked my imagination. With pretend X-ray vision I conjured weapons of war, pirate’s booty and, on more than one occasion, fragments of a radioactive element from the home planet I shared with Superman—Kryptonite. The mysterious box was the depository where I stored my fantasies and heart’s desires.
One day I was hanging out in our garage with my best friend Ricky Delgado. His attention settled on the dusty box. We’d talked about it before. “I think it’s time to see what’s inside,” he said.
“Dad says it’s full of papers and old pictures.”
“And you believed him?”
“Of course.” I’d never known Dad to lie.
Ricky let out a long, “Hmmmmm…”
“Hmmm, what?” I replied.
“It’s just that he went to a lot of trouble building a wooden box just to store crummy papers and pictures in. He could have stored those in a shoe or cigar box.”
That was certainly true.
“Why don’t we grab a screwdriver and peek inside?”
I shook my head. “I’ll catch hell if we get caught.”
“Why? Did your parents tell you not to open it?”
“No, but I really don’t think we should—”
“You got a screwdriver around here?” Ricky asked, his eyes darting over to Dad’s workbench.
I picked up a screwdriver, and wavered before opening the box. I couldn’t count all the times I’d gotten into trouble because of Ricky Delgado, but after so much imagining I was suddenly busting to peek inside.
The screws didn’t come out easily and my shirt was damp and sticking to me by the time I removed one of the plywood panels and caught a glimpse of what was really inside. A seismic event was about to take place, a discovery that would shake my world nearly as much as when I learned the truth about Santa Claus.
(To be Continued…)