Deep in the back of my fuzzy, aging memory, I can still conjure up the surroundings of the school bus line as we waited semi-patiently in front of Saint Joseph’s primary school. The line up spot was at the side of the building in the nearly totally neglected basketball court, with a massive wing of the red brick school reaching out and around us like an arm, keeping us corralled. When I picture myself there, two things jump out in my mind. The first is the utterly massive maple tree that stood over us at the edge of the sidewalk with its muscular branches holding out uncountable, wide leaves that blotted out the afternoon sun and, in the spring, showering us with tons of seed gladdened propellers. I have no idea how many times we scooped them into piles and threw double fistfuls of them back into the air for the simple joy of watching them spin back to earth and, if lucky, getting stuck in the hair and down the collars of fellow classmates. Good times.
The other piece of that halcyon memory comes with color, texture and sound. The brightly illustrated and rattling metal lunchboxes that were clung to, sat on, banged around and generally abused, but loved dearly. They were a statement of whom we all individually were and we guarded them as a miniature outpost of our personal territory. That, and we didn’t want another kid stuffing them full of maple seeds when we weren’t looking.
The beginning of a new school year always began with the long dreaded afternoon dedicated to acquiring the new year’s supplies. An empty, cold, melamine desk and chair was calling us back and it was time to buy all the binders, pencils, erasers and crayons with which to cram them full. There was not a lot of room for individuality in these choices. Pencils were all pretty much yellow. Pens were blue. Those little essay booklets that looked as if they were made from itty bitty Holstein cow hides were all identical too, at least until you started coloring in the white bits, which obviously, you were bound to do. Leaving them white was just un-kiddish. Even the backpacks of the 70’s were mostly devoid of any kind of cool print or deviation of design, it was going to be simply be a matter of picking a color and writing your name on the inside cover. That was about it.
The lunchbox though… that was a different story all together.
Picking a lunchbox took time. There were a lot of angles that needed careful consideration and above all, and to the exclusion of any other concerns, it had to be picked by you. Never, EVER by your parents. The crushing shame that could result in that going wrong could prove fatal. You can be embarrassed to death, you know. All children know that.
It wasn’t the parent’s fault, naturally. Well, I mean it would be. It’s just that they couldn’t understand. They are grownups, after all.
Lunchboxes, as I think back, were really the first inroad of commercialism in the schools. It was the only place we could flout our allegiance to a favorite TV show, type of sport, movie, hobby or interest. I suppose that printed t-shits were another viable front for this sort of commercial intrusion into the world of academia, but back then, t-shirts were still mostly blank or sported simple designs like a rainbow across the chest or a star or something. Not much in the way of advertising. That, and in my case, due to the strict dress code at my little Catholic school, wearing a t-shirt to school was simply never an option for us. You might as well have tried to show up just in your underpants and tube socks. The reception you would have gotten from the Sisters and lay-faculty would have been much the same.
For us, it was all about the lunchboxes.
At the time we were making these earth shattering, deliberative, lunchbox-ly decisions our choices were seriously limited, and it made for some interesting choices. Lunchboxes back then were metal. All of them were metal. There wasn’t a plastic box to be seen anywhere. They were rugged, didn’t crack and if need be, could be used offensively as well as defensively in the blink of an eye. They were always at hand, ready for use and up to the punishment they took. An unusual and amusing aspect of these painted and embossed lunch carriers was that often, the images that adorned them were just so… random. You never knew what they were going to plaster on those things. It was one of the great side effects of adults having absolutely no clue what kids actually like. They tried everything. Naturally, there were the predictable choices with images of television shows plastered all over their metal sides. The Star Trek boxes, The 6 Million Dollar Man and Space: 1999 all come to mind as well as many movies of the era.
Still, there was a danger here in picking out the obvious cool ones when making your fall selection. Everybody liked Star Wars, or at least, anyone who mattered. Picking the box with the giant X-Wing fighter on it felt good, but could easily make you just one of the five other kids in the classroom with the exact same one, and that would never ever do. It showed poor planning and invited mockery, especially if you all ate at the same table at lunch. That’s where the random, genre based designs came in.
Back before they made it law that any thing that could at some point come in contact with child’s line of sight be covered with Disney and Pixar characters, there were the wild groping’s of lunchbox designers everywhere trying to figure out what might possibly appeal to children and were copyright free. Airplanes! Kids like airplanes, right? Let’s put a bunch of F-4 Phantoms on a Lunchbox. Hmmmm. Oh! How about Horses? Girls love horses. We could give it a vague Little House on the Prairie look, but with more horses!
In my case, it was the drag racers that got me in second grade. I likely spotted it at the five and dime and that was it: I wanted drag racers. I’m betting that this had to have confused my mother a bit. I have no idea what compelled me in this choice. My dad wasn’t a motor head, I had never been to a drag race, let alone any other kind of car based event in my life and I knew exactly none of the famous drivers. It just looked… cool, I guess.
Believe it or not, back in the day, toys didn’t have to have movie advertisements plastered all over them to look cool.
So, the trusty Drag Racer lunchbox joined in the miniature conga line of used, loved and abused food carrying devices that saw me nourished all those years at my little elementary school. They did their duty and then, with each new selection made in the following fall, the veteran would disappear into the basement or, if badly scrunched, into the waste bin, to be forgotten. As an adult, I knew that there were still a few of these kicking around at my folk’s house, hiding behind layers of cobwebs on high shelves in the darker corners of the cellar, but honestly, gave them little thought, until…
“I’ve had it with these things!” This was my remark to my wife one cool, September morning. In my hand was the leaking, sweating, heavily dented and chipped drink container that was supposed to go into my son’s backpack. Its thin, stainless steel walls were already sweating profusely due to the cold milk I had poured in a few minutes ago and, though I was sure I had put the cap on tightly, it had already leaked in the soft sided lunch (I can’t even call it a box. It’s a bag with a zipper) container, its crevices eagerly syphoning off the spilled liquid into every crack and corner to curdle and stink.
She looked up with that, “What now?” gaze I seem to get an awful lot of these days.
“You know what I want to get for the kids? A real lunch box with a real thermos. Remember those? Ours didn’t do this! They didn’t sweat because they were insulated. They kept the drink actually cold until lunch. They didn’t spill everywhere.” I put on my best look of high confidence and resolution. “I’m going to fix this today.”
Guess what they don’t make any more? Can you guess? Not lunchboxes. The novelty lunchbox market has actually seen a bit of a resurgence, believe it or not. What they don’t have… are THERMOSES!
When you bought a lunchbox, it came with a matching thermos. Always! It was a given. But now, your only thermos option seems to be buying a leaky, sweaty, non-dishwasher safe number like my kids have OR to cruse Amazon for a bullet proof, top of the line model that costs as much as a new smart phone. Anyone who has seen how fast children can loose even the most glaringly obvious items, (kids can misplace their pants in a snow storm if you let them) will know better than to hand over a $32.00 milk container and hope to ever see it again. There had to be a better solution.
Time to call Mom.
Mom always knows.
“Hi, Mom. Do you think you might still have any of my old lunchboxes in the basement? You do! Could you do me a favor? Can you see if any of them still have a thermos in them? Thanks, Mom!”
Moms are the best!
As it turned out, there were three still living quietly unused lives down there, just waiting for a chance to see a peanut butter and honey sandwich and some carrot sticks again. With one, we hit the jackpot. On the outside, were the still crisply painted details of the drag strip, tires smoking as they spun at the green light. On the inside, its matching thermos! I was almost as gleeful at seeing this as my son, who looked on with a sort of awe. He knows nothing of drag racing, but he knows cool when he sees it.
The lunchbox its self was in rather tough shape and since we each had doubts whether it could survive another tour or duty, he elected to use is old, soft sided bag to transport his lunch in stead. The thermos though, fit nicely. After a good wash, I filled it with milk for the first time in well over thirty years, screwed on the lids and sent it off to school. The dragsters looked awesome. My boy looked proud and he informed me that he would point out to his teacher that this was his DAD’S and he had had it when he was a KID! Now that I think of it, that thermos is most probably older than his teacher.
As things turned out, my perfect solution turned out to be much like most of my “perfect solutions.” Short Stack came home with a report that, guess what, the thermos leaked. Milk had oozed into the cracks of his lunchbox yet again and I needed to do some scrubbing and cleaning before it could be put back into service. I think he could see that I was disappointed with the report.
“Rats. I was really hoping that would take care of it. Well, I guess that its just gotten too old to hold a tight seal anymore. We can use your old one, I guess.”
“No, Dad. I think I’d like to use your old one still.” He looked thoughtful and I realized that he was trying to formulate a good reason why he should continue to court sour smelling disaster on a daily basis. “After all, my other one leaks and the milk is always warm by lunch. This way, what doesn’t leak will at least taste good and cold!”
So, that’s our solution. This school morning, I filled up my old drag racer thermos, capping it and then, stuck it in a plastic bag as an added precaution. I slip it in the lunch bag and point out to my son which way it’s pointing and remind him to keep it upright. Then… it hit me. A flash of an image of milk smearing the inside of a metal lunchbox. MY lunchbox. The more I thought about it, the more solid the memory became.
These things leaked.
Later, as I watched my boy happily walk through the school door with the rest of his lined up class, I hoped he’d remember to keep it tilted upright and prevent another dairy swamp from forming in his bag. He might. Or he might not.
After all, he’s a kid and mostly I’ll be happy if he remembers to come home with his shoes on. Remembering the thermos is asking for a heck of a lot. At least it will look neat and, what ever’s left in that race car decorated cylinder will be cold to drink.
That’s at least half a solution, I suppose.
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