Thursday, April 4, 2024

Flashback 1984: "Traveling where monsters dwell"

    A photocopy of this column has been floating around my office — on the desk, the floor — for a while now, having slipped out of some file at some point. It ran in the Wheaton Daily Journal in 1984. Reading it now, I'm struck by how consistent my voice is — I sound the same at 24 as I do at 63. That's good, I think. I like this writer's short, punchy sentences — I grew verbose over time — and am saddened by how nostalgic and backward-looking I was, even as a young man. But if I've learned one thing in the ensuing decades, it's that you have to be who you are. For good and ill.

     It was cold. I stood in the garage sifting through musty cardboard boxes, wishing the house had burned down. That great natural catastrophes had swept it away in a wall of mud and water and thunder. Anything to prevent me from having to go through this.
     My parents needed room to live. Finally, after much procrastination, they got down to ferreting my possessions out of the attic, down from high shelves, under beds, and the bottoms of closets — from all the places I had squirreled them away over the years. Go through them and take what you want, they said, we'll throw away the rest. I was home visiting for Thanksgiving, and put off the task until the night before I left to return to Chicago. I didn't know what was in store.
    I had saved everything. Why I don't know. Years and years of notes and letters and clippings and toys, packed into boxes, shoved into bags. I sifted through the papers, forlorn. I knew I should just pitch everything. boldy forge ahead. There are those who face the future, and those who face the past, and everybody knows which group is best.
     But I couldn't. It was as if a gang of former selves came trudging out of the frozen, lost past to confront me. It would be cowardly not to face them.
     Some 10 year old had filled a box with comic books. Captain America. Iron Man. The Avengers. Their vivid stories  had somehow slept, untouched, in my brain. I did not have to open up the cover to know how the X-Men defeated the Juggernaut. It was all there. I examined a comic called "Where Monsters Dwell." a huge thing, seemingly made of rock, chased a group of wild-eyed bystanders. "It's Rommbu! I'm trapped! There's no place to hide!!!" someone screamed. I knew the feeling.
     I had to take off my gloves to sort the stuff and my fingers quickly became numb. I dragged a box inside the house and opened it— class notes form the seventh grade. In another, I found baseball cards I hadn't looked at in a decade. Some 12 year old had catalogued the cards like a librarian, bundling them by year, by series, by team. Some were in numerical order, each card carefully checked off a list on top of the stack. as if they were the most vital thing in the world.
     I flipped through the cards, the rubber bands crumbling apart in my hands. A glimmer of former awe returned to me. A 1962 Maury Wills, the year he broke Ty Cobb's record. A 1959 Jimmy Piersall. A Gil Hodges from 1955, the year Topps made their cards to resemble that amazing device, television.
     I put the box aside to take with me, along with the comics. It was easy to save things with monetary value. Not so with those of different value. Some pimply teenager had been in love with a girl. Not only did he save letters and photographs, but notes passed in class. The pine needles from a Christmas tree. Napkins from a prom. One box was filled with hundreds of letters.
     I pulled out a letter at random and read it. It was like reading a poster for a long forgotten cause, the Wobblies or Free Silver. She signed it, "I love you forever & ever."
    What are you supposed to do with stuff like that? I honestly didn't know.
     I opened a clothbound book and became absorbed in a journal entry from 1973. I looked up, startled to be back in 1984. It was as if someone had tapped me on the shoulder, but when I looked up, nobody was there.
     The hard part of relics is they force juxtaposition. You look at the strong emotions that tore you apart as a youth: the burning love, the arching fear, the shimmering wonder. Everything was a Big Deal. Then contrast them with the beige and meager sentiments used to get through the day. The mild excitement that occasionally wells up in work. The measured, almost economic understandings negotiated between adults. It isn't necessarily an improvement.
     I packed the trunk of my car with boxes of memorability, feeling the shame of those who overindulge emotional whims. I didn't know what else to do. To throw it all away would have seemed to deny the past — looking everything over, sifting through the objects provoked so many thoughts and memories that otherwise would have remained dormant. Disposing of them would be like getting a partial lobotomy. It would all be lost.
     But keeping them felt like wallowing, abandoning the uncertain present for the hazy mist of past times. What kind of man keeps his baseball card collection in his closet? Who has huge bundles of letters from his first girlfriend? How many stuffed toys should a person have? It borders on the psychotic.
     The only compromise seemed to keep it, but out of sight. I drove home with the boxes, and moved them from my car to the basement. They'd be safe there, like a cardboard auxiliary memory. I don't know what kind of purpose they could possibly serve, except to be hauled from one home to another, being pruned down before each move. Growing at other times as more of life's flotsam and jetsum are deemed valuable enough to keep, but unnecessary to have close at hand.
     As I loaded them away, I felt like the last adherent to a forgotten religion, dutifully performing ancient rites. The High Priest of Dead Times and Eternal Regret, chanting garbled canticles of the past.


  1. The baseball cards and comic books were probably worth something. The rest to be discarded, memories tucked safely in your brain. I should take my own counsel ... 50 years worth of stuff in boxes. Time running out to sort and discard.
    (Picky note: please proofread your article.)

  2. Sorry about the profusion of typos — typed it in but neglected to read it afterward. Should be all fixed now.

  3. My wife was and is the family scribe and photographer. Late last year we finally decided that something had to be done with the dozens of albums and boxes of stuff we had accumulated in 50+ years. Stuff was sorted and donated or sold(if you happen to be looking for that special Beanie Baby look on E Bay as my wife probably has it listed). Adult children were given the opportunity to sort their stuff before disposal. Two out of three have so far. The big thing though was picture albums. Dozens of picture albums. None of the offspring wanted to lug them anywhere. Unknown to me at the time but there are companies that will scan and put your family history on the Cloud. We spent a couple of weeks pulling pictures out of albums to ship to Arizona. After a few weeks and a few thousand dollars our history was in a computer cloud easily accessible with mouse clicks. They even shipped back the old photos. Now we can get rid of them I announced. Like Hell my wife answered. So back in the basement they went. To be to be disposed of after I die my wife said. But the online photos? I looked at them a few times. $50 a year storage fee is cheap for peace.

  4. Many of my friends are going through a long-delayed winnowing process such as you've described here. Except some of the stuff is 60 years old, rather than the evidence of the more recent past you were confronting in 1984. They'll send me photos they've just taken of some memento of a shared experience. Which are great, in their way.

    Such a project is one that I've put off and then put off again, and then put off again. My friends' efforts kinda shame me, essentially. I've accumulated way too much random stuff and definitely need to get rid of a lot, if not basically all of it.

    The problem is, when I dip my toe into the ocean of flotsam and jetsam, I seldom think "Why did I keep this fricking thing?". I think "This is wonderful; I love seeing it again. Why would I get rid of it?" So the process rapidly bogs down. The reason it needs to be dealt with, needless to say, is that the next person to look at whatever it is will not share that opinion, but think "Holy moly, there's a lot of crap here -- how big of a dumpster do we need, and why did he do this to US?" Not that I haven't had the opportunity in cleaning out the detritus... er, treasures... of previous generations to think the same thing.

    Which is why I occasionally find myself wistfully imagining the easy way out, referred to in the first paragraph of this piece, "wishing the house had burned down. That great natural catastrophes had swept it away in a wall of mud and water and thunder." ; )

    1. Fortunately for me or rather for my "successors and/or assigns," I have moved dozens of times since I was 17 years old. And you know what they say, "2 (or is it 3?) moves equals 1 fire. Plus I had many musings stored on a Windows 95 computer, which almost literally bit the dust a couple years ago, sparing my heirs a tear or 2 over my proud but easily relinquished political, economic and philosophical pronouncements, most of which would be about as useful as a Captain America comic book.



    2. Well, 2 or 3 moves may equal a fire, but in our case it was a small fire, alas...

      Your Windows 95 musings may have bitten the dust, but your decade's worth of pronouncements here at EGD live on, John!

  5. An intellectual hoarder. Who would have thunk it!


    1. John (and Neil),

      In case you didn't read it, I found a reference to Anthony Trollope's brief visit to Chicago which you discussed on Tuesday, and last night I posted a comment and this link on Tuesday's thread. A little bit more than halfway through Chapter 11 on this link there are 4 pretty interesting paragraphs detailing his time in the city.

  6. have to confess, oddly, the thing that struck me was the baseball cards. my sense of you (having been a reader of many years), is that you pay little to no attention to sports. clearly you did at one point- i wonder when it changed. i'm still stuck on baseball after 60 years, assiduously hate watching my pathetic white sox while hoping it's loathsome would just go away and leave us alone.

    1. Well, remember I grew up near Cleveland, so was an Indians fan, as my mother had been. My father had been a Giants fan, but other than lauding Johnny "The Big Cat" Mize, he had little add. We never went to a baseball game together. I think that had a drag on my fandom — I had him drop my off at a double header against the Red Sox in 1973, which I consider the high water mark of my fandom. I did cry when the Indians won the pennant in 1995.

  7. Ouch. This one really hit home, Mr. S. We live in a two-bedroom bungalow, with a basement. The spare bedroom, and the basement, are unuseable---filled with the same kind of useless and nostalgic boxes of junk that your parents' garage was, Mr. S.

    The basement space will probably take me all spring to clean out, if not much of the summer. For years, I've promised to do it. But I haven't...and now, in our late 70s, the clock is ticking. A cousin's death last year. Another cousin's wife...and an old high school friend...also dead Half a dozen friends and close relatives in bad shape. No more weddings...just funerals. It would be both painful and inexcusable for my wife to have to deal with, in addition to widowhood. So I have to dig in...and dig out. Now. Which I am doing. Right now.

    The worst, and the highest priority, is the guest bedroom. It's a repository for books and boxes of files...folders stuffed with newspaper and magazine clippings that I cut out and squirreled away for decades...starting in junior high. The E-clipse, as some Ohioans call it, is bringing us guests from out of town. The double bed is piled high with boxes of stuff...stuff that has lain untouched for twenty years, and it's just like an archaeological dig.

    I'm uncovering...and tossing... layer upon layer of newspapers and magazines...with their stories from as far back as 2003 and 2004. And the problems they describe have neither changed nor been solved. Gun violence. Political discord. Bush instead of Trump. The same people, suffering and dying, killing and being killed, in the same places. Nothing at all has changed. It's only gotten worse, and I'm merely twenty years older, and that much closer to death.

    But to be honest, it feels so damn good to throw out all that crap. Why the hell did I pile it up, and why did I wait so long to trash it? I'm doing my cleaning at 76, Mr. S, not at 24. So there's three times as much dreck to deal with. It's all there. All the minutiae of a geezer's past...right down to those painful junior-high and high school journals, and even the kiss-off note from the pudgy redhead who turned down my dance invitation. In 1961. Hoarding is a left to the shrinks. I'll say no more.

  8. It is such an irony that you pulled this 1984 flashback from the same piles you wrote about. I lie awake almost every night trying to figure out a plan to rescue my condo from the piles of nostalgic collections I've carted around for decades. But, alas, I have never found a solution to the problem.
    As an artist in my late 70s, it has been my good fortune to know many fabulous painters and sculptors whose works not only graces every inch of wall space -- some of it is hidden under beds, in closets, even kitchen cabinets. In addition to that, 60 years of my own work is stashed in flatfile drawers or rolled up on tubes that are taller than I am. I've tried giving some of it away, which always feels good. But no one wants the nudes. Worse, most of the aging artists I know are having the same problem.
    Every time I've moved, I've culled through the behemoth that haunts me only to find myself years later recalling the works I've destroyed. What to do? Stop worrying about it. I've resigned myself to the fact that some day in the future my children will have a grand bon fire. By then I won't care. But while I'm still breathing, I can't imagine living without the memories that every object entertains me with EVERY GODDAMN DAY.
    Meanwhile, let me know if you want any artwork. It's yours for the asking.

  9. Let me add a late comment on one topic mentioned here, about old family photos. I hate nothing more than looking at a storage tub full of old, color-shifted drugstore prints in their paper pouches, each complete with a little side pocket holding the original strips of print film. I could never in good conscience toss any of them. Those will definitely be left to my descendants, no matter how much time I have left on this earth to do sorting.

    My father took a more thoughtful approach to family photos: instead of prints, he shot nothing but color slides, starting in the late 1950s and continuing through the early days of digital in the 2000s. Outside of the occasional family slide show, what eventually totaled about 5400 slides of sharp and stable ASA 64 film rested in Kodak carousel trays in cool basement storage for decades.

    Finally my sister-in-law had the bright idea of having them digitized, with the results copied to thumb drives and distributed to all the relatives, and the results are nothing short of stunning. There is zero discoloration, fuzziness, color shifting, none of that. Photos from 60 or 70 years ago look like they were taken yesterday. In these images, things that I remember from my childhood are not faded or unclear; they're right there on-screen: new, shiny, clean, bright, young... just the way I wish they still were.

  10. I can totally relate. I am now visiting my mother's house while she is in assisted living, going through the very same items that you mentioned. Add to those:y HO train stuff and her genealogy studies. I'm just trying to winnow them down to the essential. 🙁


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