Monday, May 12, 2008

Lares and Penates:

Casting a weather eye about my desk and bookshelves lately, I came to recognize a connection I have with archaeologists

For the dedicated archaeologist, artifacts may be difficult to come by, particularly if they are made of something less durable than stone or fired ceramic. Wood, unless petrified, has a finite and risky shelf life; basketry and blankets often reach the stage where they must be kept in nitrogen- or oxygen-filled enclosures.

What I was noticing on my desk and shelves, with an edgy mixture of enjoyment and apprehension, were artifacts of the archaeology of my youth. These artifacts include Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books, Whitman Big-Little Books, (including a pretty fair copy of a Terry and the Pirates) first-generation massmarket paperbacks (including some of the old Dell mysteries with maps of the crime area on the back cover), a copy or two of what have been variously referred to as sleaze fiction, pulp fiction, and exploitation fiction, the old Kozy Books (from which, under a variety of pseudonyms, I paid many a rent tab), some cigarette package trading cards (including litographs of rugs, airplanes, and fish) a few cereal box toys, a tin container that will still hold--if I allowed it--fifty cigarettes (emblazoned with the pre-War Lucky Strike green logo, as in "Lucky Strike green nas gone to war!" There are a few die-cast metal miniature cars , a Pogo doll, several bottle caps, an authentic glass Coca-Cola bottle,and a squirt gun.

The paper in all these artifacts is on its way to the dustier climes, and in recent times I have begun protecting the more fragile with cellophane wrap. The wooden artifacts are still holding up, and the die-cast metal or glass objects are showing few traces of their real age.

Every age has a special fondness for its own artifacts. Moving about as my family did when I was between the ages of five and thirteen, I was limited to things that could be kept in cigar boxes, not the classy cedar ones in which I keep my fountain pens but the sturdy cardboard ones which not only reflected my father's taste in cigars--Creamo, Roi-Tan, Garcia Vega, Phillies, Marsh Wheeler--but my own fondness for the florid art on the inner cover. These became storehouses for marbles, bottle caps, bubblegum cards, playing cards, toy soldiers, and mini-model airplanes. In my generation, if you were a male, you were beneath contempt if you did not have a shelf of Big-Little Books, a Little Orphan Annie Shake-up Mug, a Captain Midnight Decoder Ring, and a Jack Armstrong Magic Answer Box. You were also well down on the social ladder if you did not have a Ralston/Tom Mix Morse Code sender, a Gene Autry cap gun, stacks of Batman Comics, a Buck Roger Space Rocket, and a Lone Ranger Code Matrix. Never mind that the code messages given forth by the Lone Ranger were such vital communiques as Clean your fingernails, or Volunteer to do the dishes once a week, they were in code, which is more than you got from your mother.

Moving frequently meant saying good-bye with aching frequency to collections of Wheaties cereal boxes, the exotic labels of tin cans purchased in ethnic groceries, empty tins of coffee (Chock Full 'o Nuts),aircraft propelled by rubberband power, and gliders.

The smaller the artifact, the more possible to carry it in one's pocket, where it mixed with other artifacts and gave one a sense of having a tool kit that could support survival in adult-dominated situations.

While these are the Lares and Penates of childhood, there is yet a comfort in them; it is the comfort of the retro art, the orotund borders, lithograph-level colors. A return to childhood would be an excruciatingly frustrating return, retro-fitting the hard-won independence or illusions of same we exacted against what seemed an unforgiving reality.

Equally true, these are artifacts only in the most egregious stretch; a real artifact is a burin or a Clovis point or a fluted spear blade or a shard of a Toltec doll. A real artifact is a place outside Sikyatki, on the eastern side of First Mesa, where a Hopi elder who had befriended me once warned me not to walk down a particular road until it dead-ended, thereupon to look for foot holes with which to scramble up eight or ten feet, and having not arrived there, I was to be careful not to pick up any of the pottery shards I might see there because people who did so were interfering with the return to earth of elements that had come from earth in the first place and I didn't want to be thought an interferer did I?

In yet another sense, however, collecting the artifacts of my generation preserves a sense of connection with the tribal elders who have variously taught me, inspired me, lied to me, deceived me, loaned me lunch money, books, and the lore of the history from which I arose in order to be here, attempting to find artifacts of another sort in the sediment of the Internet.

Archaeologists are historical junk dealers, Brian Fagan has opined. It takes a man who has worked with Leaky to know. Not having worked with Leaky but, in fact, having scouted for the Lone Ranger and Red Ryder, and Prince Valliant, I am on the alert for a prime dig site.


R.L. Bourges said...

aircraft propelled by rubber bands. bubble gum comics on waxed paper. chipped marbles. broken (but still good!) pick-up sticks. cork from the inner lining of coke bottle caps. a tiny vial of mercury from a broken thermometer.

the mental equivalent of confort food, yes? For me, yes.

Enjoy, Shelly.

Anonymous said...

toy submarine,rescued from the dry, dusty interior of a cereal box; propelled by baking soda tamped into its tiny conning tower.