Drag races and thermoses.

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!

Seriously.

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.

Ring, ring…

Ring, ring…

“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.

Good boy.

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.

Whoa.

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.

Ooooooh right.

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.

Solo Dad and the Grand Adventure

Well, calling my day out with the kids this Sunday a “Grand Adventure” might be laying it on a bit thick. The three of us (Lulu Belle, Short Stack and I) decided that rather than knocking around the home stead on such a beautiful July day, that we’d strike out and have an adventure. Action Girl was working a full day today so it was just dad (me) and the kids. For those of you who might not me keeping track, Short Stack is two and a half now and thus, chatty, inquisitive, funny and hard to keep track of. Lulu is only three months and is by far the easiest to deal with as far as kid-maintenance goes. Two caveats… Short Stack, though chatty, inquisitive, etc, etc, is also of the age where he wants to do stuff that is not necessarily on the agenda. This can be problematic. Lulu, though a cooing little ball of pink who fits nicely in a car seat, can go from smile to full on air raid siren in .3 seconds with no rhyme or reason and there is no talking her out of it.

I try very hard not to let these things effect my decisions. I flat out refuse to be held hostage to what MIGHT happen. Life’s too short to worry about all the stuff that could go wrong. I get in a lot of trouble for following that line of thinking sometimes. It’s usually worth it though.

So, the original idea was to zip up the Maine coast to surprise and visit Action Girl. She works as a sea captain and I thought I knew the harbor she was going to be in at noon. Luckily, at the last minute, I called. Nope, she wasn’t taking that route today. I would have missed her and far worst of all, I would have gotten Short Stack all revved up to see Mom and then not have delivered the goods. To put things mildly, that could have been a very bad scene.

So, my choices were to head back home or throw caution to the wind and simply call it a road trip day. I decided on the road trip.

With no particular plan in hand, I picked “North” as our direction. Not only north, but north via pretty secondary roads. This worked for about three minutes. “Where’s Momma? Daddy, where’s Momma? Where’s Momma? Daddy? Wh…”

Ok… have to think fast… “Hey Short Stack, maybe we’ll see a water tower.” Silence from the back seat. Short Stack has a few very important areas of interest in his life. Trucks rate at the highest but there are others that can completely derail his current train of thought as well. Water towers, for what ever reason, are a particularly effective distraction. “Where’s da water tower? I can’t seeeee it.”

The next few minutes were comprised of me trying to explain to my back seat occupant that he couldn’t see the water tower yet because we weren’t near one. I also was stepping on it in an effort to get off Old Route 1 and to the highway. The next water tower was at least ten miles away, and I didn’t know how long I could keep his interest and my sanity. Lulu Belle seemed unimpressed with the entire situation.

After about a thousand iterations of why we couldn’t see the much vaunted water tower yet, it’s bulky green mass finally loomed into view. All was right with the world and Short Stack was grinning from ear to ear. “Dare it iiiiiiiiis!”

As I continued on past it, I was quickly given directions from the back. “Daddy will back up, please. Want to see it again. Daddy… Want to see it again!”

Think, think, think…. COWS!

“Hey Short Stack, let’s see cows!” I was greeted with more blessed silence as this information was digested. We bumped along and the roads got smaller and rougher. I knew that there was a farm down this way and I thought that I remembered that they welcomed the public. Actually, I preyed that they welcomed the public. This is the danger of winging it. “Where’d da cooooooows go?”

Come ooooooon, COWS!

The fates smiled and they had a wonderful little set up for visitors. Diapers were changed, children were fed and shoulders were burped on. Then, we were off to see the cows in the barn. As it turns out, there were far more than just cows. Goats, sheep, and pigs rummaged around in neat, clean stalls and chickens wandered all over. Short Stack desperately wanted to touch a chicken but the combination of his and their skittish behavior made this highly predictable. He never made it closer than a meter. Lulu Belle watched the whole show from over her pacifier, Maggie Simpson style. “Nook, nook, nook.” What a good baby!

We spent perhaps an hour there looking at the animals and riding the thoughtfully provided toy tractor around the barn. After knocking the majority of the poo out of his and my footwear, we hopped back in the car and headed off back down the road. It was lunch time and we needed hot dogs. We discussed hot dogs at length as I scanned the various road side stands. He has a book called “The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog” and we quoted it back and forth as I tried to locate at lunch stand.

Lulu had nodded off and missed the Hot Dog vendor I stopped at as well as our witty banter involving birds and processed meats. The seating arrangements at the stand were fine but rudimentary and I was not going to risk waking her. We continued on with me handing french fries, one by one over my seat into the waiting pudgy hands behind me. After a few false starts, we finally found not only shade to sit in and eat our hot dogs, but a play ground to boot.

More diaper changes, a hundred tips up and down the slide by Short Stack, punctuated by his dad calling him in for bites of lunch and another happy hour passed. I noticed various approving looks from other moms at the playground and I’d be a liar if I said that it didn’t make me feel proud. I was a dad out by my self with my two little kids and we were having fun.

Action Girl happened to be back in port by the time we were ready to head home and we stopped in for a visit. We managed to find her a hot dog of her own at a street vendor and presented it to her with pride. She got lunch and a cuddle from her kiddos and a kiss from me before we headed out for home. Short Stack was pooped and was out cold as we pulled into the drive way. I put the windows down, brought in Lulu Belle and let him sleep.

As I sat down with my daughter, I realized something about the day’s adventure. It had been a success and a good time but the realization hit me that I would be the only one to remember it. Short Stack is still too young for the memory to stick and Lulu Belle… well. This would be my memory, alone. Rather an odd thought, really.

It was a little tricky to pull off, naturally, but it’s a day I’ll always remember as being special. It was my first day out adventuring with the kids on my own and they had both behaved wonderfully. I can’t wait to do it again.

I wouldn’t have minded a little help, though. Next time, I think I’ll check Action Girl’s sailing schedule a bit closer and be in the right port at the right time.

My Best Parking Ticket, Ever.

boot.jpg
So I had just sat down to lunch at a window seat at a down town eatery. The city I live in has a great old section that is well preserved and view from my second story perch was of a cobblestone street running like an orderly riverbed around granite foundations and street lamps. One of the difficulties of old cobble stone streets and 200+ year old buildings is the “picturesque” to “usable” ratio. In short, these street’s don’t accommodate modern vehicles well. Especially if you drive a soccer-mom mobile. As I munched away on my sandwich I spotted one of our many, MANY meter readers, doing his thing up and down the side of the road. In a city with such limited parking, they have to really be on top of the parking meters and believe me, they are. One vehicle he stopped at stood out. It was exactly the kind of vehicle that makes fourteen year old boys go “Oooh, MAN! Cool!” but should make any adult roll their eyes. The meter reader stopped, walked around, ran the plate number, wrote something down in his book and then waled briskly away. A minute or two later, he was back with his little truck… and a boot. This must not have been his first ticket because he immediately got out all the tools and started to clamp on the boot. It’s funny. If it was a small sedan or something I probably would have felt bad for the owner, but because it was a too-big-for-the-city, pimped-out mobile with tinted windows and fat tires, I confess it made me giggle inside. Buddha would not have been proud of me.

I watched the cool-mobile get the boot and then watched over my plate of french fries as the owner came out to find his now immovable vehicle. He didn’t look like the type I expected. Nothing too outrageous in his dress or manner but he did have one notable… eh… accessory. His car wore it’s boot on the left front tire. His left leg sported a full air cast. Both of them it seemed, had been booted. He took it in good stride, took the ticket off the windshield and pulled out his cell phone to call the city.

My fries were done and the check was paid and I made my way to my car. As I rounded the corner back to my parking spot, there on the sidewalk was the same meter reader, just finishing the ticket on my car. No boot, just a ticket. I let out a “Aw, drat” as I walked up. I try really hard to keep my profanity “G” rated now that I have a miniature human with an ear for repetition in the house. I plucked the ticket off the wind screen and glanced back at the guy and I saw him cringe a little bit. I can only imagine how much vitriol he’s had directed at him over the years. Talk about a thankless job. I kind of smirked and shrugged with a bit of a pained expression. He brightened almost immediately at my lack of expletives and said “Is that your first ticket since January?” I said that it was and he explained that I didn’t have to pay that one provided I didn’t get another until June. Actually, he called it “complimentary”. I laughed at the idea of a complimentary ticket and he quickly stated that I could put it in a scrap book and leave it for the kids. I laughed again and thanked him for the tip. Unexpectedly, he came back with something I never thought I’d hear a meter reader say. “Hey, if you want, just put the ticket back on your car and I’ll give you another two free hours.” That stopped me. I thanked him again but said that I really did need to get back to work. I unlocked my car and he added, “Don’t be hatin’ “. I tuned back and replied, “Hey, we all gotta work.” and waved good bye to him with my ticket.

We do all gotta’ work, and we could all use some slack for just doing what we’re supposed to do. It’s important to remember that sometimes. Here’s hoping I have enough change to feed the meters for the next three months so I don’t have to chat with him again, though.

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